Dwyane Wade has probably been in the arena the Miami Heat call home thousands of times, so he certainly still remembered how to get there on Thursday. Knowing where he was supposed to be, that was an issue.
“Opposite side of the building,” Wade said. “I really did not know where to go.”
Once he got inside, everything – the sense of direction, the emotions, even the competitive juices – all came back to him. Wade played in Miami as an opponent for the first time, he and the Chicago Bulls making their lone appearance of the season in the arena where he was revered for years and before a crowd that let him know time and time again how much he’s still appreciated.
“Little different,” Wade said. “I won’t use the word ‘weird.’ I’ll use the word ‘different.”’
Different feeling, his usual result: Wade left Miami a winner. He scored 13 points, and the Bulls beat the Heat 98-95.
“Weird game, man. It’s one of the weirdest games I’ve ever played in,” Wade said. “I’m glad it’s over. I’m glad we got a win.”
It was a night he simultaneously awaited and dreaded, for plenty of reasons. Wade left the Heat as a free agent last summer, signed with his hometown Bulls and when the schedule came out the first thing to check was when he would be back in Miami. The trip wasn’t even going to last 24 hours, barely long enough to go see the house he still owns and spend a tiny bit of time in the city he still adores
“I don’t get emotional about anything,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, “except for these kind of things.”
Wade was welcomed with applause and hugs when he walked into the arena, more cheers when he ran out for warm-ups, then got a big ovation when he was introduced – last, just like when he played in Miami. And then came the signature moment, the sold-out crowd rising to its feet as a video montage of some of his best Miami moments played.
Everyone in the building, even the referees, had eyes on the video screens during that tribute. When it ended, Wade stepped back onto the floor and blew appreciative kisses to the crowd.
And when he made two late free throws to help secure the win, yes, he got booed. But after the final buzzer, it was all love.
Wade hugged plenty of his former teammates, made special trips over to greet the wife of Heat managing general partner Micky Arison and general manager Andy Elisburg, then saluted the fans who stayed to watch him leave the floor – long after every other player departed.
Heat President Pat Riley and Wade still haven’t spoken since the summer, but that will come. Riley revealed weeks ago that he was working on a long email to Wade, but it wasn’t sent until the last couple of days. Wade said he has the email, but hasn’t had time to read Riley’s words yet.
“There’s nothing to squash in my eyes,” Wade said. “I’ve spoken through you guys and he’s heard me very loud and clear. I’m just appreciative of Pat and what we created together here in Miami.”
Wade soaked in everything he could on this trip.
First, he slept in the house he still owns – the first whiff of the air freshener early Thursday made him happy, and wife Gabrielle Union (who wasn’t on the trip because of work) wanted to know how good their bed felt. He had some Bulls teammates over before the game, then got stuck in some traffic getting to the arena.
As he ran out of the visiting-team tunnel for the first time for warmups, he tried desperately to keep a stoic expression on his face as he stepped onto the court.
It didn’t even last a minute. The first ovation of the night took care of that.
“Well deserved,” Spoelstra said.
During the national anthem, Wade’s eyes were going in all directions. He peeked at the crowd, many of whom wore jerseys and shirts bearing his name. He nodded toward some of the familiar faces on the Miami side of the floor. And then he stared at the eight championship banners – five for Eastern Conference titles, three more for NBA crowns.
“Pretty cool,” Wade said.
And yes, they even cheered him when he scored for the first time on Thursday night. One fan even went a little overboard in the fourth quarter, running on the court with a shirt asking Wade to come back to Miami.
The Bulls are his present. The Heat are his past. His future, who knows what that will bring?
“I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Wade said. “I couldn’t have asked when I was a kid, I couldn’t get on my knees and ask God for a better pro career and the start and finish of it.”