MIAMI — Before Dwyane Wade could even hit the court Thursday night, there were cheers. Wade, walking through the underbelly of the Heat’s downtown Miami arena for the first time as a visiting player, was greeted by raucous applause hours before facing his former team. The Heat’s senior citizen dance team—the Golden Oldies—took a break from their pregame rehearsal to warmly welcome Wade, who was also applauded by arena staff and team personnel upon his arrival.
The scene in the tunnel set the stage for Wade’s return to Miami, a 98–95 Bulls win that was more family reunion than contentious basketball game.
Prior to tip, Erik Spoelstra described the night as the kind of moment he tells his players to cherish. In the morning, Hassan Whiteside recalled how he and a friend used to imitate Wade and Shaquille O’Neal when the $98-million center was in high school. And in a chat with The Crossover, Udonis Haslem described in detail the bond he forged with Wade over 13 years in Miami.
“We’re as close as you can be, we’re pretty much family” Haslem, the Heat’s captain, said. “I’m closer to him than I am some of my blood family.”
On the court, Haslem and Wade are the only players in Heat history to have played for all three of the organization’s championship teams. Once a formidable pick-and-roll duo, the two grew into seasoned leaders for the franchise, coming to embody what Pat Riley sells as Heat culture. Haslem, with a hint of pride, mentioned how he used to give Wade advice on his game—“Not everybody can tell D-Wade how to play basketball”—which is still a two-way street of strategy that continues to this day.
Off the court, the bond ran deeper.
“The good times, the ups and downs, picking each other up off the floor, off the mud, we’ve been right there with each other step by step,” Haslem tells The Crossover. “We have so many things in common. Both of our mothers struggled with drug addiction. Both of us were fathers at a really young age.
“We can call each other whenever for whatever. When we get together, it’s like big brother-little brother. Sometimes the roles are reversed. The conversations we have are on another level.”
These types of familial relationships are the remaining vestiges of a departure that still makes no sense. In the letter announcing his return to Cleveland, LeBron James compared his years in Miami to what it would have been like to play in college. Thursday night was not unlike a student’s first trip home after leaving for school, as Wade was treated more like a missed son than anything else.
Wade was introduced last for the Bulls, with Heat PA announcer Mike Biamonte affecting the same booming voice with which he introduced Wade for more than a decade. During the game’s first timeout, a nearly two-minute montage highlighted Wade’s incredible list of accomplishments, and the Bulls guard acknowledged the video by blowing kisses to the crowd. After the game, Spoelstra seemed genuinely upset when he regretfully didn’t play Haslem against his former co-captain.
Everyone admitted Wade’s return meant more than past Heat homecomings, such as LeBron’s or Shaq’s.
James, who is the Heat’s only MVP and delivered Miami two titles, was given a rushed introduction his first game back in Miami. During James’s unannounced video tribute, Pat Riley refused to stand up and applaud, instead sitting stonefaced. O’Neal bashed the Heat on his way out the door, and was only recently welcomed back into the franchise’s good graces.
Wade, by contrast, earned the crowd’s loudest cheers of the night, and had hugs for everyone before and after the game.
The familial vibes even extended, somewhat, to Riley. The infamously competitive Heat president told reporters he finally hit send on a long-awaited email to Wade. The two hadn’t spoken since the summer, with Riley not taking a role in Wade’s free-agent negotiations. Haslem, for what it’s worth, insisted there was no awkwardness being theoretically caught in the middle of Riley and Wade.
“I know they still love each other. I know their hearts are in the right place. When they’re ready they’ll speak to each other,” Haslem said.
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The actual game—a showdown between one middling team and one less-than-middling team—did have some flashes of excitement. Wade taking on a refusing-to-give-an-inch Justise Winslow. Hassan Whiteside putting up a 20-20. Rajon Rondo playing like “TNT Rondo.”
Wade, who refused to use the word earlier in the day, finally admitted after the game it was “weird” playing against the Heat.
“I’m just glad it’s over,” the future Hall of Famer said.
At least for one night, it seemed the Heat and their fans felt the exact opposite.
Walking out of the arena, a parking attendant asked me the question that’s been lingering on everyone’s mind.
“Why did the Heat let Wade go in the first place?”