Zeljko Obradovic isn’t one to beat around the bush with his Fenerbahce players.
Eyes drooped. Vision glazed. Head nodding. “Why the hell did I stay up to watch this game again?” I thought to myself.
I had been expecting the usual Golden State cheese. This one night however, it wasn’t to be.
When I think of the past NBA season, there is one moment seared into my mind.
The 2018-19 NBA season is well over now, with the Toronto Raptors crowned champs for the first time in franchise history. For me though, all that mattered was Dwyane Wade’s ‘One last dance’, and nothing summed up his career more perfectly than a mid-February game against the reigning champs, the Golden State Warriors.
That night ended up being the perfect example of why Wade has left an indelible impact on me as an NBA fan, and why he’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Living in Scotland at the time, my reality as a Heat fan consisted of waking up in the early hours to watch my struggling, playoff-fringe team.
It’s easy to take for granted that home in Australia, NBA games are on during the day – perfect lunchtime fodder for an unfulfilling job or ignored studying. For me, the pull of watching one of the greatest shooting guards of all-time overrode any aspirations of a normal sleep-pattern.
I came to love Wade and basketball back in 2012, as the Heat had once again dispatched the Pacers in the early rounds of the playoffs. Wade had at least 30 in this game, and I barely remember much at all except lying on the couch, utterly miserable with a bad cold.
Yet that day, and ever since, I’ve been enraptured by Father Prime. I wasn’t old enough or interested in the NBA early enough to remember Wade’s electrifying athleticism, his mad slashing to the rim, those devastating weak side blocks accompanied by a mean stank face.
No, the memories I have, watching afar from Melbourne, are his endless pump fakes, post spins, and pull-up mid-range jumpers, with those patented ever-so-slightly kicked out legs. You think it’s going in every time.
Yes, it was that perennial old-man game that truly made me love watching him play. And even from halfway across the world, I could feel every single moment this season just how revered and loved he is – not just by the extended Miami Heat fan-base, but every other team’s fans, and his fellow players in the league.
It’s why we all felt a jolt of sympathy for Emmanuel Mudiay when he asked Dwyane for his jersey after an unconvincing Heat victory in the Garden, only to be told he was already giving it away.
In that moment, Mudiay was just like the rest of us. He wasn’t an ultra-talented athlete, plying his trade in one of the most lucrative and popular sporting leagues in the world. No, in that moment, Emmanuel Mudiay was just a fan, in awe of a sporting idol.
My love for Wade is precisely the reason I found myself, utterly bereft of any will to stay awake, watching the Heat tackle the Warriors in the fourth quarter after 2am.
This past season, we’d all been craving and anticipating those moments of magic from Wade, the highlights that for most players are career defining, but for him are just a cherry on top of a sensational career.
Like that steal and three to beat Chicago over a decade ago. Like that devastating detonation on top of Anderson Varejao. Like the ‘Purple Shirt Man’ game in Charlotte. Like that awkward, one-legged chuck to beat the buzzer against the reigning champs back in February.
That shot against Golden State was everything.
When that awkward, unconvincing heave inconceivably went in, I was speechless. Then a surge of pure, undulated energy and awe consumed me. If it wasn’t for my restraint, I would have undoubtedly woken my entire building.
Crazed fist pumps and shouted whispers were followed by frantic scrolling of my Twitter feed to join my fellow Heat fans in mutual awe and wonder at this man from Chicago, taken fifth in the 2003 draft from Marquette.
It’s rare that a single athlete can represent and capture a city as iconically as Wade does. With the age of free-agency and increased player movement too, it’s conceivable that no one will ever reach the pedestal of Wade in Miami.
When Wade left for Chicago in 2016, I was in denial. Those 18 months without him were hard for the Heat. There was also the elevated play of now Blazer Hassan Whiteside, who led the league in rebounding and had his career high in scoring the season Wade left, but numbers couldn’t cover all his flaws. There was also the hope that Justise Winslow would take the ‘leap’, but that too was soon disappointing as he experienced a season-ending injury.
It was dark times for us Heat Lifers.
Yet, that magic eventually returned. I still remember Wade’s first game back in Miami after his short and forgettable stint as a sixth man in Cleveland (yeah that happened).
It was against the Bucks, and Wade was pretty terrible – he looked like a man that also couldn’t quite believe he was back where it all started. He seemed nervous. Yet, in Wade fashion, he had a game-saving block – a microcosm of how in a single moment, he could still transcend any player in the league, even if only for a few seconds.
If it wasn’t for Wade’s farewell tour and the improvement of Miami’s young players, I doubt I would have found myself awake at 3am most nights, watching the Heat lose another fourth-quarter lead, drop another game to a team that’s supposed to be tanking.
All taken into account, last season was barely a pass for the Heat. Down the line there remains hope, but it’s still relatively unknown who will be the next icon, the next player to truly lead the team.
At times it looked like it could be either Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo or the now-departed Josh Richardson. Other times it looked like Goran Dragic was still our best player, despite having slowed down considerably in his injury-addled season and being a neutral defender at best.
Even though the Heat’s season finished shorter than I’d have hoped, missing the playoffs in a wide-open year for a LeBron James-less Eastern Conference, it in many ways ended ideally.
Rather than a first-round playoff sweep, we got to see Wade go out with a triple-double. It couldn’t have happened in a more perfect way either, with his tenth assist coming from a Udonis Haslem jumpshot, Wade’s longtime teammate, friend and another Miami icon.
Now however, Wade is gone in a flash, and enjoying retirement. There will never be another player like him, and he will always be the reason I fell in love with this sport and this league.