Even in sunny florida, anyone in the vicinity of the geo-structure known as Shaquille O'Neal is usually shrouded in shadow, which makes the light that's increasingly shining on O'Neal's Miami Heat teammate, Dwyane Wade, all the more extraordinary. On the court the 22-year-old guard (not shooting guard, not point guard, just guard) has the demeanor of a seminarian. Off it he is just as dynamic: His exciting life in this tropical paradise includes chilling with his wife and their two-year-old son and watching teammates play video games. "I'm no good at them," Wade says, "so why play them?" Let's see: No chest-pounding theatrics, no PlayStation2 jones--and nary a tattoo, either. This is the guy siphoning attention from the Diesel?
Believe it. The emergence of Wade, more than the arrival of O'Neal, has been the catalyst for the vastly improved Heat, who had won 16 of 18 games through Sunday to claim the best record in the Eastern Conference (27--9). Much was written about the degree to which Shaq, who draws double teams the way South Beach draws supermodels, would help his teammates. But it is Wade's combination of abundant skill and precocious will that has carried Miami. It has also enabled Shaq, who missed much of the preseason with a calf injury, to come to life slowly, like a bear awakening from hibernation. At week's end Wade was averaging 23.8 points (to Shaq's 22.1), 5.3 rebounds, 7.6 assists and 1.68 steals while playing 4.4 more minutes per game than the franchise player for whom the Heat gave up three starters over the summer.
It took only a few weeks for the Superman-obsessed O'Neal to give Wade a comic-book handle: Flash. Trail Blazers swingman Ruben Patterson, meanwhile, calls the twosome Batman and Robin, a label he applied last Friday night after Robin-Wade scored 25 points and had 12 assists and Batman- Shaq went for 28 and 10 rebounds in Miami's 103--92 victory at Portland. But the 6'4", 212-pound Wade has no plans to burn alightning bolt or an R into his skin to match the Superman logo on O'Neal's bulging left biceps.
For the NBA, Wade may play another costarring role: worthy rival to Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James. That part had been prematurely assigned to Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony, who, like Wade, arrived with James in the 2003 draft. Anthony might emerge a better young man if he learns from the recent self-inflicted wounds to his image--a feud with U.S. Olympic team coach Larry Brown, a fight in a New York City club, a marijuana possession charge that was later dismissed and a cameo appearance in a DVD that features alleged drug dealers in his hometown of Baltimore. But Wade would have to undergo a radical personality transformation to be anything but what he is right now: an unassuming type with unbelievable talent. "He's not just one of the guys basketball needs," says Heat coach Stan Van Gundy. "He's one of the guys all of pro sports needs. He acts the way you're supposed to act."
Immediately after the blockbuster trade that brought him from Los Angeles to Miami, O'Neal set the tone for a lovefest. He declared Wade a superstar before they had even met. Shaq did this partly because, as a jokester with a calculating side, he was determined to set up Wade as a foil to Kobe Bryant. But it's not as if the Big Valentine is alone on the Heat in his love for Wade. Just ask Wade's backcourtmate, Damon Jones, who's made more stops than a long-distance trucker. "Well, I've been a lot of places, as you might know," says Jones, who is suiting up for his ninth team in seven seasons, "and this is a special, special kid. The main thing overlooked about him is his knowledge of the game. With all his talent, he's always playing it the right way. Guys love to play with people like that."
O'Neal has already paid so many compliments to Wade that he'll have to come up with a fresh batch if the Heat makes it deep into the playoffs. "I got known worldwide in a short period of time just because Shaq said so many nice things about me," says Wade, almost in awe. "I'll never forget him for that."
Last week Shaq tried out a new tribute. "I knew Flash was good," he said with a big smile. "He's just gooder than I thought."
Gooder than almost everyone thought. "He's a special talent," says Memphis Grizzlies coach Mike Fratello. "Not only is he gifted, he's very mature and unselfish." Wade is bling but not bling-bling, a young man of quiet constancy. Since his first paycheck he has tithed 10% of his pretax salary--that'll be about $280,000 this season--to the Blood, Water and the Spirit Ministry in Chicago. He met his wife, Siohvaughn, 12 years ago when they were playing near his father's house in Oak Lawn, Ill., outside Chicago. "I didn't like her then," says Wade, "and she didn't care much for me." But they gradually grew close, and, after he broke up with a girlfriend during his freshman year at Richards High, he and Siohvaughn began dating. They got married in 2002. "It makes it special when you were friends first because you learn how to talk to each other," says Wade. "And she's smarter than me too."
Wade's game is without obvious flaw, though he has yet to become a three-point threat. Van Gundy (being a Van Gundy) finds fault with Wade's defense--"Like most scorers, because so many demands are put on him, he can lose his defensive focus at times," the coach says--but he acknowledges that Wade becomes a superior defender late in games and that he'll only get more consistent. Any weaknesses besides that? "I can't think of any major ones," says Van Gundy.
Seven months after leading overlooked Marquette on a magical run to the Final Four as a shooting guard, Wade was asked to guide the Heat from the point as a rookie. No problem. Nineteen games into this season, Van Gundy moved him to shooting guard, mostly to get Jones into the lineup. No problem. Frequently Wade has to shuttle between the two positions. No problem. He posts up, he penetrates, he splits double teams off the dribble, he stops and shoots, he turns the corner hard coming off picks ("When he sets his mind to get to the basket," says Charlotte Bobcats guard Keith Bogans, "he gets to the basket"), and he invariably does something productive when he steams into the lane.