Dwyane Wade might play. LeBron James probably won’t. Regardless, the two veteran NBA stars will spend a good chunk of Friday’s game (8 ET, NBA TV) at United Center between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls sitting and watching.
Same as they will 10 years from now, either awaiting or soon after the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s call.
Same as they will 25 years from now, carrying a few more lines around the eyes, a few more pounds perhaps, maybe a few less follicles.
They’re both in their respective hometowns now, Wade pulling off in free agency this summer what James did two years ago. On the brink of their first meeting in the long-running Chicago-Cleveland series of NBA skirmishes, Wade was in an expansive mood Thursday in talking about his dear friend and spirited rival.
Wade and James have been great together. They’ve been great apart. Like it or not, their friendship surpasses their competitive natures, fiery as those are. It’s been that way for a while now, it figures to stay that way well into the future.
And to think, it sparked from the most modest of circumstances back in 2003, in spite of some glaring differences in age (35 months) and experience (James fresh from high school, Wade with three years of college behind him). The kid from Akron apparently jumped the training-room line at the Moody Bible Institute here in Chicago, site of the NBA’s pre-Draft camp, and it was some form of like at first sight from there.
“I think it was a lot from our childhood. Just similar upbringings,” Wade said after Chicago’s practice Thursday at the Advocate Center. “The struggle of our moms and the way that we had to grow up. We’re very similar in a lot of ways. So you just hit it off with somebody.”
Friendship forms in Chicago
As for that pre-Draft introduction?
“I was in there waiting on the doctors to come in to see me for about an hour,” Wade said. “He walked right in and they seen him. We kind of kicked it off from there. It’s just something that happened – there’s no way to really explain it.”
Given his smooth personality, Wade might seem the type to hit it off with darn near everybody. Yet he claims that isn’t the case and says his style is along the lines of keeping friends close, best friends closer.
“I don’t try to hit it off with so many people,” said Wade, whose professional, business-minded life is different from his basketball life, with his personal life separate still. “I like my friends to be a very small group. There’s not a lot of guys I’ve disliked – I don’t get to know people that way. Obviously my teammates, I get to know them in that sense. But I don’t want too many best friends. I’m in a couple group chats but not that many. I don’t like my phone being blown up like that.”
James is in a subset altogether, a crew that includes Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, former Heat teammate Udonis Haslem, Chicago peer Quentin Richardson, maybe a couple more. Frankly, though, the Cavaliers superstar is said to rank closer to 1A and 1B with Wade’s wife Gabrielle Union. She’s the one, after all, who famously said in an ESPN interview last spring that her husband would score higher playing “The Newlywed Game” with LeBron than with her.
The one thing I’ve never had to do, I’ve never had to play him in a playoff series before and he’s never had to play me. So we haven’t had to really get too deep into ‘Oh, what are the guy’s weaknesses? — Dwyane Wade on his competition with LeBron James
It’s a friendship for the ages, borne out of their shared rookie experiences, fortified by their Draft positions four spots apart, tested as opponents for 10 seasons, bonded forever by four years as Miami Heat teammates.
Those Miami days
Wade took a deep trip down memory lane Thursday, talking about the time they spent together with the Heat, how their “Super Friends” project kinda-sorta might have happened in Chicago (not really) and the high regard he has for his bigger, brawnier, unofficial younger brother.
“The one thing I’ve never had to do, I’ve never had to play him in a playoff series before and he’s never had to play me,” Wade said. “So we haven’t had to really get too deep into ‘Oh, what are the guy’s weaknesses?’ When you’ve got great players, even when you think you know their weaknesses, they surprise you and they come up with something incredible.
“With me, LeBron as an opponent, it’s tough to beat him. He has a great ability to get his teammates in the game and still end up with a triple-double. Even when you think you’ve got him contained. He’s just one of those players where, this game was made for him.”
Wade laughed off the “crazy notion” that he, James and Chris Bosh had conspired for years to gang up on the rest of the NBA. Actually, the three of them look back on that summer of 2010 and what they achieved – four trips to The Finals, two Larry O’Brien trophies – with pride. As instrumental as Miami president Pat Riley and his staff were in clearing cap space and closing the deals, Wade, James and Bosh can claim most of the credit as “three African-American kids” who didn’t need a GM to craft a winner and set the league’s hair on fire for a while. Whether people liked their “not one, not two…” brashness or not.
“We took the heat,” said Wade, who adjusted his alpha-dog role to accommodate James. “No one else is going to take the hit on that. It’s like Allen Iverson took the hit for tattoos and braids and headbands. Everyone does it now. So we understood what we was embarking on. It became huge.”
Some version of the grief they weathered has descended on Golden State now, with one-time Kevin Durant jumping aboard the Warriors’ 73-victory bandwagon. And that’s a bad thing … why exactly, Wade wondered?
“Whether you disliked the Heat or you loved the Heat, you was tuning in to watch the Heat,” he said. “Same thing with Golden State – whether you dislike what happened with Kevin Durant or whatever the case may be, you’re gonna tune in to watch. Whether you want to see ’em succeed or fail.
“Our game is growing. Eyes are on our game. … For me as a player, I just love the fact that players have the ability to control their own destiny. That’s what we fight for, when it comes to lockouts. … So to have the power to be able to do what we did in 2010, that felt great!”
Wade laughed even harder at the suggestion he would have signed with Cleveland this offseason for a $3.5 million salary (the Bulls wooed him with a two-year, $47 million contract). “Listen, I’m not ring-chasing,” he said (he and James each has three).
LeBron ‘as great as it gets’
Then Wade clarified a comment he made last week that his good buddy never could surpass Michael Jordan as an all-time great, at least in Wade’s mind.
“My comment was, to me, as an individual person, Michael Jordan is my favorite basketball player of all time. No one is going to be my favorite like Michael Jordan,” Wade explained. “LeBron, when it’s all said and done and his career is over, yes, he’s arguably a Top 3 player of all time. And depending on what era you grew up in, you can decide who’s one, who’s two, who’s three.
“All the numbers are not going to match up. Some players probably don’t think Michael Jordan’s the greatest. You go back to Bill Russell. You go back to Kareem. There’s so many players that could be there. I just felt that, for me, how much higher can you go? LeBron James could win 10 more championships – that doesn’t make you a better player. He’s as great as it gets. So now y’all decide the rankings. But for me, Michael Jordan is my No. 1 favorite player of all time.”
One big difference, from Wade’s perspective, is that he doesn’t now and never really has known Jordan. That keeps him on a certain pedestal, a “superhero” at a distance in spite of Wade’s time as a hand-picked member of Nike’s Jordan Brand.
Wade ‘thankful’ for teammate LeBron
James? He’s all the things close friends are. Mostly good (romping, teasing, sharing, advising each other as players, businessmen, fathers). And a little bad – James did leave Wade and the Heat behind two years ago, taking team success with him from south Florida to northeast Ohio.
“It was a jolt to the organization,” Wade conceded. “Our organization was built on us three. Obviously you take one out of it. … But no one ever knows. Last year I thought we would see ‘Bron in the Eastern Conference finals.”
It didn’t happen. Bosh went down for the second time, suffering blood clots on his lungs that have ended his Miami playing career.
“Things happened for us in a negative way, when it comes to injuries and stuff. Things when great for him there,” Wade said. “But any team he’s on is going to have the ability to go to The Finals – he’s that great of a player. For me, I was just excited.
“He’s a friend. I never thought we would have four years together. I’m just thankful for those four years, as I know he was. And all of us will be able to live a long life very good because of those four years.
“Outside of that, he wanted to go back home. I supported him, I’m proud of him, happy he won a championship last year. I was there [in Oakland for Game 7] rooting him on. Now we move on.”
They have different goals for 2016-17. Their hometown teams differ dramatically in ambitions. But Wade and James as friends are in sync, more than ever, conspiring now simply to keep it that way.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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