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A Legend Lost: The Improbable Rise of Dwyane Wade

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It seems impossible to overstate Dwyane Wade’s impact on the 2006 Finals, because it was just that exceptional. In the final four games, Wade averaged an unbelievable 39 points (50.5 FG%), 8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.5 steals and 1 block a game - in a series that never eclipsed 100 points in regulation. What’s even more amazing is that I’m not sure numbers even do his performance justice. He dominated every phase of the game-- whether it be making the right pass, altering shots on defense, attacking the glass, sinking some of the most difficult shots I’ve ever seen, snagging a key steal, or even mustering up a clutch block or two.

Wade had made the leap from just another one of the league’s stars to a galaxy-devouring monster. Shaq was his Robin, and his Miami Heat team seemed poised to compete in the years to come. Sadly that never came to pass. Wade became the victim of one grave injury after another, slowly corroding his health until he was a shell of his former self.

Wade is another casualty of injury, filing under a long but unfortunate list of players deterred by long-lasting impairment. Maurice Stokes, Bill Walton, “Penny” Hardaway, Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady, Derrick Rose… Wade is different, though. Were some of those players great, possibly transcendent? I suppose. Were they NBA champions in just their third year (Walton being the exception)? No. Wade had led his team to the promise land in just his third year, making the impossible possible at every stage of their run. Outperforming Vince Carter in the conference semi-finals, eviscerating the league-best Detroit Pistons (64 wins) and their stout defense in the conference finals with a cool 27 points on 61.7% from the field, and then staging the most impressive comeback in finals history (at the time) against the Dallas Mavericks.

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His ascension was unprecedented, because it was so shocking. Wade wasn’t a highly coveted prospect coming out of Marquette like his peers LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, or his idols Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan. He was questioned because of his short frame and lack of a reliable jumper. Yet the turnaround jumper is arguably his greatest weapon, and he’s (in my opinion) the greatest shot blocking guard of all time. Wade wasn’t even in the top 5 of the MVP award ladder in 2006 and yet at the end of the season, he seemed more impressive than the likes of the league’s MVP winner Steve Nash. Let alone players like LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, or Kobe Bryant.

Despite being just ten years removed from Wade’s epic performance, imagine that in today’s world. News outlets and social media alike have become obsessed with Stephen Curry, who failed to deliver another championship to the Bay area thanks to his lackluster performance in the finals. Yes, he is a fantastic shooter, but his fingerprints aren’t as visible on every phase of the game as Wade’s. So imagine his performance in a world where social media is so integral to the sports experience. A player in just his third season responded to a 2-0 deficit with possibly the greatest finals performance of all time. Dare I say Jordanesque, and that may be selling him short because I’m not sure Jordan ever performed that well in a similar setting. Wade would be lauded, captivating the collective mind of the basketball world at every step of the way.

How high was Wade’s ceiling? Did he even have a ceiling? At the ripe age of 24 he had already won a championship through a series of exhibitions as otherworldly as any of Michael Jordan’s. At 24, Jordan was getting bounced out in the semi-finals by the “Bad Boy’ Pistons.

So would Wade stand atop the pantheon of basketball greats just ten years after winning his first Larry O’Brien trophy? I would boldly say yes. Sadly that claim can never be proven, only debated amongst basketball aficionados in the years to come. Maybe, Wade, is the greatest Shakespearean tragedy basketball has ever seen. I just wish we could have seen what the Basketball Gods ultimately envisioned Wade as. A Batman and not a hobbled Robin. A goliath, instead of just another “what-if?”