MIAMI (AP) Dwyane Wade’s former locker in the Miami Heat dressing room is empty. Dozens of photos of him still adorn walls all over the arena, including a giant one that every Heat player passes on their way to the court. And every championship banner that hangs from the rafters is there largely because of his work.
For 13 years, AmericanAirlines Arena was his house.
For a moment or two on Thursday night, it will be again.
Wade is returning to Miami as an opponent for the first time, as the Chicago Bulls – his new team – visit Thursday for the only time this season. The building will be jammed, the game will air on national television and the Heat will pay tribute with a highlight video that’s certain to elicit some long, loud cheering from fans who never wanted to see him leave.
”It’ll probably be emotional for me,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Wednesday. ”And then we’ll get to competition and that’s ultimately what it’s all about.”
Wade’s entire NBA history before July was with Miami, where he was an All-Star 12 times in 13 years. Drafted No. 5 overall in 2003, Wade wound up pairing with Shaquille O’Neal to help deliver Miami’s first title in 2006 and then lured LeBron James and Chris Bosh to the Heat for what became four trips to the NBA Finals – and two more titles – in four seasons.
James left in 2014 shortly before Bosh got a $118 million contract from Miami that was negotiated by Henry Thomas, the agent Wade and Bosh shared. That deal left the Heat somewhat limited in what they could pay Wade, and almost they lost him in 2015 before striking a one-year deal for $20 million.
No such agreement came last summer, and Wade left.
”I’m not wishing nothing bad on that organization,” Wade said Monday in Chicago, his comments reported by ESPN. ”I have nothing but love for everybody in that organization. And I want them to be successful, just as we all say, just not when they play the Bulls. But besides that I want them to be successful.”
The Heat put major work into the tribute videos that air when former star players return to Miami for the first time, and Wade’s will get the same treatment. James was very emotional when he saw his tribute and Mario Chalmers – the starting point guard on Miami’s 2012 and 2013 title teams – said he was moved by what the Heat did to commemorate his return following a trade to Memphis last year.
”It’s going to be very emotional, that I can say,” Chalmers said. ”With me coming back, I had mixed feelings. The fans welcomed me back, everybody at the arena welcomed me back, but I still had a sour taste in my mouth from how the trade went down … and I’m pretty sure D-Wade’s going to feel the same way.”
Wade is Miami’s all-time leader in virtually every major statistical category, so far ahead of everyone else on many of those lists that he’s assured of being all over the team record book for probably decades to come. His 525th game in Miami comes with great anticipation; on the secondary resale market, a seat in the highest row of the arena is selling for $41 – the same seat for a game last week went for $6.
Wade has stayed in touch with many around the Heat, with the exception of team president Pat Riley. Wade wasn’t sure if they will cross paths on this trip.
He has remained extremely close with Udonis Haslem, with whom he shared captaincy in Miami for many years. He’s been in regular contact with Spoelstra, and continues checking in on some of his former teammates as well.
”There’s no bad blood between him and this organization,” Haslem said. ”He’s had a great, great career here. He’s had so much success – we’ve had so much success. For whatever reason, the time came where we separated.”
Wade has said many times since deciding to go play for his hometown Bulls that he will forever be appreciative of his time with the Heat and their fans. He’ll want to win Thursday very badly, and for the first time in 14 years, the 20,000 fans will want to see him lose.
”He’ll handle it fine,” Spoelstra said. ”He’s as good as anybody I’ve ever been around at compartmentalizing and knowing when to keep emotions where they need to be.”