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Sportsman of the Year: DWYANE WADE
December 11, 2006
Is there an athlete with more positive energy than the 24-year-old guard? He pulled the Heat out of a deep playoff hole, helped put the shine back on a tarnished league and lifted his mom out of her own personal hell
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December 11, 2006

Sportsman Of The Year: Dwyane Wade

Is there an athlete with more positive energy than the 24-year-old guard? He pulled the Heat out of a deep playoff hole, helped put the shine back on a tarnished league and lifted his mom out of her own personal hell

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He hurled the ball high into the air, and it spun up and away and forgotten, the object that just moments before had been the most important thing in the building. Dwyane Wade began screaming. The clock ticked to zero, the horn sounded: But he knew already. He had known before anyone else in the arena that it was over, that his Miami Heat had come back yet again and won the 2006 NBA championship, that on this June night in Dallas he had, at 24, risen above his preordained peers to clutch the only prize that matters. The rest, though? He knew almost none of that.

Above Wade, above the American Airlines Center floor where the Mavericks and their shocked fans were edging toward the doors, the ball reached its peak, hovered an instant, started its fall. Already, the hierarchy of the basketball universe had been reshuffled, Wade's place in the game elevated and informed by long ago names and games. Time and again during these playoffs he pulled off heroics that echoed one basketball legend after another. Make room at the table, John Havlicek and Larry Bird: Wade stole New Jersey's final inbounds pass with nine tenths of a second left in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals to send the Nets packing. Move over, Willis Reed: Wade did you one better, marching dramatically onto the court in the second half of a vital opening-round Game 5 against Chicago after suffering a hip contusion, then, four weeks later, checking out of a hospital after a night of vomiting caused by a sinus infection to carry the Heat in the series-sealing Game 6 of the conference finals against Detroit.

Yet, the most resounding echo of all, naturally, came at the end. It was Wade who led Miami, down 0--2 in the Finals and about to be buried, out of a 13-point hole with 6:15 to play in Game 3. It was Wade who wound up with 15 points in the fourth quarter, 42 overall, Wade who stole Dirk Nowitzki's inbounds pass with three tenths of a second left to put a boot to the Mavericks' throat. In the Heat sweep to follow, the Chicago-born, Jordan-worshipping Wade made it safe, for perhaps the first time since number 23 retired, to compare a guard with Michael and not risk embarrassment. At every pivotal point in Miami's oddly flawed playoff run, Wade had lifted his play to a personal high. But in those final four games--with every Dallas player, coach and fan keying on him--he punctuated a rise unlike any the league has seen, averaging 39.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.5 steals. No other player, in his first three NBA seasons, has scored more postseason points. No other player has come close.

"He just went off the charts," says former Heat coach Stan Van Gundy, now a consultant with the team. "Dwyane literally for six weeks played the game at a level that almost no one's ever played at. I don't know that Jordan ever played a better Finals. He's the best in the league right now, and the winning is what sets him apart from the other perimeter guys. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony are great and may eventually lead teams to championships. But the difference between Dwyane and Kobe is that when the Lakers won [three championships], Kobe had a huge part of it--but Shaq was the lead guy. Last season Dwyane was the lead guy. He led them to a championship."

But it's not Wade's way to admit such a thing or concern himself--even as he and his teammates hugged and danced after the Game 6 clincher--with what any of it meant. For so long basketball had been his way to escape a legacy, not build one. "Thirteen points down with six minutes to go? That's not life or death," Wade says. "I've been through more than anybody knows. To me this is joy. This is when I can let it all out. This is my time."

So, yes, even as the ball plunged to the arena floor, sportswriters hit the keyboards, message boards hummed, talking heads babbled: The atmosphere of Sportsland was suddenly charged with a sense of revival. Wade had done it all again on this night--36 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, four steals--and would be named Finals MVP, but he'd also made winning a title as much about a franchise, a city, as himself. Who does that anymore? "I have my favorite players," says Denver Nuggets coach George Karl. "For a long time they were John Stockton, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan. Now my favorite player to watch on film is Dwyane Wade. He plays the game the right way.... His spirit, his presence is fun to watch. He doesn't cheat the game with emotion or negative energy. He's always visibly focused, disciplined and team."

Wade had spoken all season about winning a title for old-timers Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton, and now they had their rings. Coach Pat Riley, a onetime burnout case who hadn't won a championship in 18 years and had been vilified for replacing Van Gundy six weeks into the season, now stood vindicated. And a league that, in comparison with its glorious past, had been found wanting at last had the real deal: a throwback star with crossover cachet and 21st-century moves. For all that, not to mention the emotional vein tapped in South Florida's notoriously fractured populace, some 250,000 of whom would gather three days later for the team's victory rally in a resurging downtown Miami, Wade has been named SI's 2006 Sportsman of the Year.

Such praise is pleasant, of course. Wade likes it. If a coach, a league, even a city, can feel renewed through his actions, wonderful. But on that night in Dallas a woman stood wide-eyed as her son became a champion, and hers was the rebirth that mattered most. Jolinda Wade, recovering drug addict and onetime fugitive from the law, saw Wade scream and the ball come down and felt it very hard to breathe. How did I get here? she thought. How in God's name did we get here?

"No, you can't come with me," his older sister would say. This was 1988, on Chicago's South Side, and six-year-old Dwyane kept begging to come along. "Don't follow me, now," Tragil would say. "Stay home!" Then she would bang out the door of their first-floor apartment into the Englewood neighborhood's rough vibe, an 11-year-old girl wanting a little time on her own. Off she'd walk, sometimes down 59th, sometimes down Prairie, one block, two blocks....

"Hey, someone's following you," people would shout, smirking, and she'd whirl around and look: nothing. But she knew Dwyane was there. He was always there. Tragil had no say in that, not for a while; it was she who taught Dwyane to read and fight, she who wiped snot from his nose, she who often as not mixed the pork and beans with whatever was handy to make dinner--if there were any pork or beans to be had. A welfare life they lived, surviving on food stamps and government-issued cheese. Every so often she'd try to leave him with their barely awake mother or the two older sisters who came and went, but little Dwyane would have none of that. He had to be with her. He had to be just like her. Soon after Tragil went out the door, he'd race outside, zip across the street, hide behind trash cans or parked cars whenever she checked over her shoulder--until, too far from home to be sent back, he'd finally pop out behind her, all cocky. She had to take him with her.

"It became a joke; every time she'd leave she'd think I was following her--even when I wasn't," Dwyane says. "That was my favorite: just the whole chasin', knowing that she loved me and knowing she was willing to have me around. She wanted to have fun with her friends, but I didn't have friends. I wanted to run with her."

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