Wade hoped James would bite on a pump fake, and when he didn’t, the Miami guard had to heave up a fadeaway three-pointer that clanked no good off the backboard. The Heat got the rebound and tried another last-ditch shot, but it too was way off and James grabbed the loose ball and hurled it up in the air as time expired. Wade playfully tackled him out of bounds as the two embraced.
“That’s how well we know each other, man,” Wade said afterward (via ESPN). “Just two competitors who enjoy the game of basketball, who love each other and love competing. So I’m glad that in my 16 years that we were on the court together, we was in this game, we’ve made a big impact on and off the court.”
The two exchanged jerseys and Wade signed his before handing it over to James.
“To 6,” he wrote, referring to the number James wore in when they were teammates in Miami and on the Olympic team. “Thanks for pushing me to be greater than I knew I was.”
James during postgame pleasantries confounded some NBA fans when he said he and Wade’s final matchup had to take place “either here or the Garden,” referring to Madison Square Garden in New York. Some fans interpreted the statement to mean James was close to signing with the Knicks during free agency, but he clarified the remark Tuesday morning to say he was only mentioning the arena because of its iconic place in sports history.
Selected four picks apart in the prolific 2003 NBA Draft, James’s Cleveland Cavaliers and Wade’s Miami Heat duked it out for the Eastern Conference title until Boston acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the 2007 offseason to go along with Paul Pierce and begin the “super team” era.
“Obviously we didn’t know that seven years later [after the 2003 draft] that we would become teammates, but for the first seven years, we just pushed each other every single day, watching each other from afar,” James said to ESPN. “When we played against each other you just felt like it was destined for us at some point to team up, possibly. And the first time we teamed up, obviously it was with the USA team [at the 2008 Beijing Olympics] and how amazing that was and how our chemistry was just off the charts for those 37 days that we were together.”
It developed into a friendship that came to define an age of NBA rivalries that flew in the face of league histories. Rivalries on the floor, such as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson or Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, were often accompanied by dislike off the floor.
Wade and James’s close relationship, one that included hugs and handshakes before tip-off, polite in-game trash talk and offseason vacations, at first puzzled league analysts but was later applauded as a show of solidarity during labor struggles with league owners. In 2010, they joined forces with Chris Bosh in Miami and went to four-straight finals, winning twice.
“Some people say you shouldn’t be friends with your competitors because you still can’t compete,” James said. “And I think people have seen that and recognize that even with our friendship, we competed against each other, we pushed each other when we were playing against each other.”
James credited a conversation with Wade and his wife, actress Gabrielle Union, during an offseason vacation in 2011 for lifting his career to new heights. The Heat had just lost to the Spurs in the NBA finals in James’s first season in Miami. James said he played the season with a chip on his shoulder because of negative portrayals in the media.
“They were just like, ‘Listen, you need to get back to who you are. We understand the portrayal of what they want you to become right now. That’s not you,'” James recalled.
“Obviously, without D-Wade in my career, I wouldn’t be sitting here with this résumé that I have,” he said later.
The win gave James 16 wins to Wade’s 15 in the pair’s 31 meetings over a 16-year career, five of which they spent on the same team. After the four-year stretch in Miami, they reunited for most of the 2017-18 season in Cleveland before Wade was sent back to Florida at the trade deadline.
James was said to have had a hand in orchestrating Wade’s return. In his final season, which he’s branded “One Last Dance,” Wade is averaging 14.9 points, 3.9 assists and 3.6 rebounds off the bench.
“I knew at some point after the game it was going to hit me that this would be the last time we was competing against each other, and it hit me right away once the buzzer sound,” Wade said. “And we got an opportunity on the court just to look at each other and be like, ‘Man, this has been fun, this has been one helluva ride,’ and we’ve enjoyed it together.”
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