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The trouble began on the night of May 31, at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Dwyane Wade felt lethargic, out of sorts and hot, so very hot. The arena air pressed down on him, its warm, sticky embrace unwanted. Later that night, after Miami had lost Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Pistons, he complained to his high school coach, Jack Fitzgerald, about the heat. Wade's comments struck Fitzgerald as strange. "He's from Miami, after all," says the coach, who was in Detroit for the game, "so I suspected something was wrong." � Two days later Wade was in a bad way. He spent the dark hours of the morning vomiting and coughing before finally going to a Coral Gables hospital at 7 a.m. Pumped full of fluids and discharged at 3 p.m., he headed home for a change of clothes, then drove to American Airlines Arena for Game 6. After the heartbreak of a year ago, when the Heat lost at home in the climactic game of the Eastern finals to these same Pistons, Wade was determined to play, G.I. tract be damned. Sniffling and sweating as he took the court, he conjured in the assembled, white-garbed masses romantic visions of Michael Jordan and his flu-racked 38-point performance in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals. What Wade could not conjure, however, was a jump shot.
After five games in which he had seemed incapable of missing, Wade began Game 6 shooting 1 of 5 with three turnovers, looking woozy at times. After spending halftime and the first three minutes of the second half tethered to an IV, he returned with the Heat up by 12. As he said later, "It was time for me to take over." First came a leaner, then a jumper, a fadeaway, another fadeaway, then a surreal pump-fake, turnaround. The fans roared: This was the Dwyane Wade who had prompted Lawrence Frank, whose Nets had been dismissed by the Heat one round earlier, to say, "I never want to hear that name again." This was the Wade who'd so embarrassed the Pistons' premier defender Tayshaun Prince, shooting 66% from the field in the first five games, that Detroit had resorted to a zone defense, like some overmatched high school squad. By the end of the quarter Wade had scored 10 points in less than nine minutes, the Heat was up by 19 and the Pistons were finished.
Later that night Wade headed out to dinner with his wife, Siohvaughn; his agent, Henry Thomas; and Alonzo Mourning and his wife, Myka, to celebrate. The congratulatory calls flowed in: from his boys back in Chicago, from good friend LeBron James (his message: "You got one more [series] to go; don't get too overconfident"). When there was finally a quiet moment, Wade turned to Thomas. "Wow, we're going to the NBA Finals," he said. "We're really going to the Finals."
It was not the cool, superstar thing to say, genuine awe carrying little currency in such circles. But then the 24-year-old Wade is not particularly cool (at least in the traditional NBA sense), and if he is a superstar, he seems oblivious to the fact. Rather, he's that unique NBA creature: a dizzyingly athletic guard who grew up idolizing Jordan, yet who's humble, deferential and given to finding the open man, something it took MJ the better part of his career to master. Call him the anti-Kobe, or perhaps LeBron Lite. Regardless, his stature, which rose meteorically during the '05 postseason, has only ascended further during these playoffs. Says one Eastern Conference player personnel director, "[Our front office] did a thing amongst ourselves, the question being, If you could take one guy in the league, [who would it be]? There was LeBron, Kobe, Shaq.... To me, it was Dwyane Wade. He embodies what you want in a professional basketball player, on and off the floor."
Already U.S. sales of Wade's jersey have risen to tops in the league, his number 3 worn by kids in pimped-out rides who are no doubt unaware that Wade chose the number for the very unpimplike reason that it represents the Holy Trinity. (Wade tithes 10% of his $3.03 million salary to the Blood, Water & Spirit Ministry, his Chicago church.) He presents an alluring combination: He attacks the basket with an Iversonian disregard for life and ligament, plays with Kobe's feral intensity and dunks like Vince (at Marquette, Wade once Frederic Weis--ed 6'7" teammate Jon Harris, leaping over him spread-legged to throw it down). Yet he doesn't drink, has no body art and is prone to quaint phrases like "bullcrap" in conversation. In other words, he has a street game without the street personality, a marketing combo so league-perfect it's as if he were a laboratory creation of David Stern in the NBA version of Weird Science.
That's not to say that his path to basketball stardom has been entirely smooth. His story begins on South Claire Street in Robbins, a southern suburb of Chicago, where Wade lived with his father, Dwyane Sr., from age nine. Attached to the garage was a worn-out hoop with a wooden backboard. Starting early in the morning and then again in the afternoon and past sundown, Wade, his father and his two stepbrothers would play two-on-two by the light of a single bulb on the side of the house. The 48-year-old Dwyane Sr. is a proud man, so much so that he has a standing bet with Fitzgerald that he will be able to dunk when he's 50. (Says the son, "My dad is going to lose that bet.") To beat Dwyane Sr., you had to earn it. So Dwyane Jr. would charge to the hole, carom off a shoulder or a hip and throw up leaners and runners--much as he does now. "It was rough, and there were a lot of bruises," says Wade, "but you got to do what you got to do to win."
Wade brought this style to Richards High, in Oak Lawn, where he was so effective off the dribble that Fitzgerald eventually made a rule in practice: Dwyane wasn't allowed to shoot layups. Still, Wade received none of the acclaim accorded phenoms like Bryant and James. He wasn't a McDonald's All-American, wasn't invited to the meat market shoe camps. "People weren't falling all over him," says Thomas. "That can drive a guy."
Seriously recruited by only three schools, the result of low exposure and academic eligibility issues, Wade chose Marquette (over Illinois State and DePaul) after coach Tom Crean successfully lobbied the school to make Wade the first partial qualifier in its history. Crean began grooming Wade right away, even though he couldn't play. He had the freshman sit with the coaches during games, taking notes and charting deflections, always in the same white suit--the only suit Wade owned--with the same cream shoes. At halftime Wade would stand with the coaches and help them address the team. It was a tough position: a freshman critiquing players with whom he had yet to play. "Once, one of our guys wasn't playing well, and I asked Dwyane [in front of the team], on a scale of 1 to 10, how's this guy playing, and he said, 'A 2,'" says Crean. "That's not easy to do, but Dwyane has this real gift of honesty. People don't take it the wrong way."
At the same time Crean forced Wade to expand his game beyond his slash-and-crash style. For two months Crean had Wade initiate the offense in practice to teach him guard skills. In advance of each opponent, Wade would take on the role of the opposing team's best player. One day he had to mimic a point guard, the next a power forward. "It meant I could shoot any shot I wanted, so that was great," Wade says with a grin. "Playing all those positions added dimensions to my game that I use a lot now."
It helps explain how Wade developed into the hybrid he has become, neither a point nor a shooting guard but just a guard, as Jerry West and Earl Monroe once were. The biggest improvement in his game has been his jump shot. Never a pure shooter, he spent this season, and the playoffs in particular, working on his form and balance with assistant coach Erik Spoelstra, who in practice hits him with pads as he prepares to shoot. "Now when I miss, I get mad even if I got fouled," says Wade, "because I think, Man, I should make every one."