MIAMI — Mamoudou Barry paid more money than he cared to say for his seats behind the Miami Heat bench Friday night, and over the past several weeks he has visited the NBA.com all-star 2019 virtual voting booth more times than any well-adjusted 24-year-old probably should. But to Barry, Dwyane Wade is worth every penny, every idle moment spent online.
“I grew up watching him. I saw his first [playoff] game when I was just like 10 years old,” Barry said, reflecting on the night a basketball player in South Florida stole the heart of a kid born and raised in the Bronx. “He hit a game-winner and I was there for that . . . I was a fan ever since."
Barry stood in the American Airlines Arena concourse sharing this memory while wearing a special edition black “Vice Nights” No. 3 jersey with matching hat. He carried a plastic bag with a $120 white version of the same jersey. He brought it for a specific reason.
“I’m trying to get his autograph,” said Barry, an army veteran whose vacation to Miami was focused on this sole mission.
There’s a legion of Barrys out there. Die-hard fans who believe the correct spelling of “Dwyane” goes “G.O.A.T.” They are a devoted bunch, the citizens residing in Wade County, Fla., and the reason Wade, the three-time NBA champion who has played in 28 games off the bench in his 16th and final season, ranked second among all Eastern Conference guards in the first returns with 409,156 in all-star fan voting. That’s nearly 90,000 more than Charlotte’s starting point guard Kemba Walker, who holds the 2018-19 season single-game scoring high of 60 points, and more than three times as much as Washington’s back court of John Wall and Bradley Beal combined.
“I just appreciate and am humbled by people taking the time out to want to see my old self in an All-Star Game, so it’s cool,” said Wade, who turns 37 later this month, last week. “I appreciate the fan votes. It always means a lot because they are the ones who make this game as big as it is. I know a lot of people are saying, ‘We need to take the fans votes away,' but they’re the ones who want to see who they want to see."
The 450 best basketball players in the world play in the NBA. From that group, there are stars who dominate the national television schedule and command the biggest salaries. Then there are superstars, the elite group known by their first names and recognized by their appearances in commercials.
Wade exists in a different caste of NBA celebrity. He’s not just a player, but a brand. He’s married to actress Gabrielle Union, and when they wanted to announce the birth of their daughter, they went to Oprah. Last year, the pilot of his house-flipping show aired on HGTV and his Wade Cellars winery launched in Napa Valley. Wade transcends the league, and yet people in Miami have embraced him as the approachable icon next door.
The cultural melting pot that is Miami, a city obsessed with the event and what’s popping now, has remained in love with Wade.
“It’s interesting because he’s from Chicago,” said Tony Fiorentino, the former broadcaster who had provided commentary of Heat games since 1988. “But they’ve adopted him like he’s their own. And I think — and now this is a big statement coming from me because I’m Italian — I think he has passed Dan Marino as the greatest local sports guy in South Florida.”
Marino has his place on the Miami Mount Rushmore. And so does Wade, cementing his legend with victories on the court — after hitting clutch baskets, he would point his index fingers toward the hardwood and proclaim “This is my house!” — and displays of humanity off it.
When Fiorentino was retiring from broadcasting, following his final regular-season game, he noticed a bag on his car. He opened it up and discovered a signed jersey from Wade, a handwritten note from Union and a $500 gift card to the Four Seasons.
Last March, after the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., Wade made a surprise visit to the school on the first full day of classes following the Feb. 14 attack. Wade also met with the family of Joaquin Oliver, one of the 17 casualties. Oliver was laid to rest in a No. 3 Wade jersey.
Wizards forward Jeff Green, who lives in Miami in the offseason, recognizes Wade’s impact on the city.
“The city took him in as a young kid. He grew up as an adult in this city, did beautiful things in this community, on this court for this city. They embraced him for who he is and he embraced the city back. That’s big, man,” said Green, a friend of Wade’s. “And he’s a great human being. He’s a guy who’s well respected here.”
Though Wade had forgettable pit stops with other franchises, he’s as synonymous with Miami as Kobe is in Los Angeles, Duncan in San Antonio and Dirk in Dallas. Though professional athletes chase after guaranteed millions and championships, Green says his peers also desire a place to call a home. Following Friday’s game as Beal penned a sentimental note on his Wizards jersey to give to Wade, he thought about Wade’s longevity with the Heat and hoped to chart a similar career.
“You paved the way for a lot of us in today’s game,” Beal said, revealing his message to Wade, “and to see his hard work and to play as long as he did in one organization — granted, he went to Chicago — still one organization, he meant everything to this city and this team and that’s kind of the legacy I want to leave, too.”
Beal meticulously wrote a message on his jersey, while Barry anxiously waited for Wade to sign his new purchase. After the game, Barry convinced an arena security guard to allow him into a section closest to the Heat players' locker room and pleaded with fans for prime position to catch his hero. Wade, only wearing his undershirt because he gave his game-worn jersey to Beal, stopped and signed the keepsakes hanging from the railing. As Wade inched closer, Barry held his phone in one hand to capture the moment and his jersey in the other. And with an illegible autograph signed with a blue marker, Wade made Barry’s life. The mission accomplished proved too much to handle.
“You the f------ GOAT, boy!” Barry could be heard screaming in his Instagram story. “Let’s go! You the GOAT, man! You the GOAT!”
It’s taken some years, but Wade can understand why he matters so much.
“When I got back last year, I’ve seen it in a different way and a different light,” Wade said. “Maybe it’s me [being] older, looking at it a little different now but yes, they’ve always let me feel it since I’ve been here.
“The love has been there. It’s been great in many different ways, not just from a basketball standpoint. Just the way I’ve been taken care of. The way my family has been taken care of and protected and all these things. I’ve been very appreciative of being able to come to this city. Not born here, not knowing nothing about Miami until I got here and being able to know that this will forever be a place that will be home.”
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