This was maybe a month into Wade’s first season and for any teenager with an unhealthy amount of emotion invested in a professional basketball team, asking for more out of life than a promising star on your favorite team felt greedy.
The ‘90s Heat teams were known for bone-grinding, foul-ridden basketball — a style that produced steady wins, but didn’t appeal to many casual fans. Wade offered something different: Star potential both on and off the court. He arrived with a charismatic game full of highlight-ready flourishes. The dunks and crossovers were devoured by a hungry fan base, and his connection to the city was immediate. Sporting goods stores caught on, and after his rookie season, his jerseys naturally began popping up in high school cafeterias.
It’s been 16 years, with Wade occupying an outsized role in memories now spanning more than half of my life. It somehow feels longer.
In the Heat’s final home game of the season on Tuesday night, Wade bid farewell to the city that saw him arrive a March Madness surprise-turned-top draft prospect, who then grew into Shaquille O’Neal’s star sidekick and a Finals MVP in the span of three years. We saw him blossom and struggle as a one-man show, and bounce back from injury after injury. We worried about him leaving in his prime, only for him to instead bring LeBron James to Miami — and along with The King, the eyes of the basketball world.
Throughout Tuesday’s game, the Heat broadcasters revisited some of Wade’s signature moments from early in his career. What jumps out years later is not just the obvious visual contrasts — the youthful features of everyone involved, the noticeable lack of high-definition video — but the memories associated with those moments. Watching those highlights, my brain tempts me with a dangerous game of sentimental trivia, reminding me where I was and who I was with. Perhaps I even had a feeling at the time that the dunk I witnessed bordered on unforgettable, and now, years later, that hunch is looking more and more prescient.
You think about that younger version of yourself, the one who cared deeply, too deeply, about regular season games in January.
I remember the Big Three era coinciding with graduating college and entering a disappointing, sputtering job market. In the moment, I occasionally wished this era would have come along a few years later so I could fully enjoy it. But I also fondly recall the cheap, warm pitchers of beer, and the friends who were willing to get to the bar several hours before playoff games, because that was the only chance we had of finding such camaraderie when tickets were out of reach.
I remember the fleeting solidarity cities experience when unified around a galvanizing team, a feeling compounded by the shoulder chip so many South Floridians wore with sneering pride, resenting their perception as a fairweather fan base.
Fast forward a few years to the final season of the Big Three era, and I remember leaving the city before they did. Watching games from thousands of miles away. Listening to the same local radio voices and reading the same writers from my childhood, all in an attempt, knowingly or not, to reinforce that emotional tether to home before it frays.
I then watched that same star player leave my city begrudgingly, and assumed it was the unfulfilling end to that era. I noticed my interest start to wane and began to wonder if I cared as much, or at all, without that same connection point to my youth. Suddenly I had a decade on most of the roster, and other things in life started to carve out more space.
But then something strange happened. Wade flamed out in Chicago and Cleveland and one unexpected trade deadline transaction later, he was back in Miami. I was not only watching games again, but occasionally startling neighbors with yelps after game-winning shots. Was the internal fan dead or asleep? Does it matter? I watched as many games as I could, relishing the moments when guile and muscle-memory subdues opponents with greater speed or strength. It became evident rather quickly that this final season would be more of a reunion tour than a victory lap. Yet despite tempered expectations and rational internal dialogue, I heard that jersey-thirsty teenage voice somewhere in there, profanely feeling things too strongly.
Now, as we watch him step away from the game, I wonder how I would feel if all of this happened again. If another once-in-a-generation talent committed to my city. Would a player of his caliber even want to spend his career in mostly one city, with one team, in today’s NBA? If he did, would I care as much in adulthood? Could the emotional investment yield anything close to the same return if it started now instead of as a teenager? I doubt it, but I still want to find out.