“I remember when the Bulls won their first championship, sitting at home on my floor watching the games. And then Jordan did his shot, the famous shot. I went right in the backyard, turned the lights on and couldn't do it myself,” he recalled. “I had no athletic ability.”
That was the 1991 NBA finals. Wade was 9 years old. It was probably the first time - but hardly the last - he realized the comparison would never be exact. That didn't stop others from anointing the slender kid with serious hops and the uncanny ability to get up off the floor as the latest in a long line of “Air Apparents.”
Which may be why the best thing that ever happened to Wade was playing for a coach who wasn't easily impressed. After the Heat rode Wade's coattails one final time Tuesday night to claim their first championship, someone asked Pat Riley whether he'd ever seen anybody so good so early in his career.
“Yeah,” he replied without hesitation. “I mean, he's good. I love Dwyane and I don't want to disrespect his development. But I watched Michael when he was young. I watched Magic and Larry.”
Riley has had a front-row seat on NBA benches long enough that perspective might be his strongest suit. He's won with the best, and been burned by them more times than he cares to remember. It's why he didn't have to think long to recall an even better playoff debut than Wade's, including the crowning achievement of finals MVP.
Riley was a Lakers assistant when Magic, all of 20, moved from the backcourt into the center-jump circle for Game 6 of the 1980 championship, filling in for the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Forty-two points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals later, Johnson became the first rookie ever to be named MVP. Small wonder Riley wanted to steer the conversation in a different direction.
“Dwyane is who he is,” the coach added. “His signature is all over this league.”
Wade's signature was all over Game 6, too, but like Magic, his numbers - 36 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, four steals and three blocks - only hint at how special a player he's become. More revealing, Riley pointed out, was how the Heat's cadre of veterans kept looking to Wade for leadership.
Shaquille O'Neal, Gary Payton, Antoine Walker, Alonzo Mourning - each was good enough to be The Man at some other time in some other town. Yet there was never any squabbling and even fewer doubts about whose hands they wanted the ball in when the game was on the line.
“Wouldn't you?” Riley said. “All those guys experienced the same thing for years and years. The ball kept coming to them, coming to them, coming to them, coming to them.
“But they had so much respect for him because they trusted him. They trusted that he wasn't for himself, only, they trusted that he was all about winning. And a team of veterans can turn over something to him that's that valuable to them because they know he's going to deliver.”