But Wade didn't have that instinct when he first moved in with his dad, McDaniel and her three sons, Demetris, Darnell and Kodhmus. Until then little Dwyane had been surrounded by females, doting on him when they could. He didn't like basketball; he wanted to jump rope. "He was soft; he was a baby," says Demetris, two years Dwyane's senior. "With me and my brothers he was around men. Crying wasn't even in the ball game."
In the backyard at the house in Robbins, the court was cramped, the competition endless and fierce: games of 21 to start, then two-on-two with Dwyane Sr. until long after night fell. No one called fouls. Everyone hacked. Everyone learned to attack, attack, attack the basket; layups were gold and jump shots surrender. Dwyane Sr. was his son's first coach, shuttling him between AAU and rec leagues—Blue Island, Robbins, Midlothian, Chicago's Hayes Park. The father might have partied in the '70s, but a three-year stint in the U.S. Army late in that decade showed him the value of discipline. There were nights when the former sergeant made the boy shoot baskets only with his left hand, in tears, and the clock going on midnight. Toughen up, his dad commanded. If you can shoot in the dark, you can shoot anywhere.
Dwyane did love going from park to park with his stepbrothers, taking on all comers and winning. But a part of him recoiled from the testosterone overload; as a sophomore in high school he began dating a girl, Siohvaughn Funches, who lived two blocks away, and Dwyane spoke of wanting a family by the time he was 20.
He had always had the survivor's knack for fitting in, and when his father and stepmother's arguing became too much, Wade made another change in households. As a senior he scored 90 points in one day of a two-games-a-day Christmas tournament, and colleges took greater interest in him. But he couldn't work to raise his test scores with all the turmoil at home. So with Siohvaughn off to her freshman year at Eastern Illinois, he found refuge around the corner, moving in with her mother, Darlene, during his senior year. They helped each other: Dwyane became family to Darlene, whose daughter Erica had died in a car crash just before Dwyane and Siohvaughn started dating; Darlene made Dwyane study, helped him pick Marquette as his college, provided an outlet from the constant push to win.
"One thing my dad will never do? He will never tell me how good I am—still," Wade said not long after the Heat won the 2006 NBA Finals, at which Dwyane Jr. was named MVP. "He's been doing that since I was a kid: I'd get a triple double in a game, and he would say, 'That's nothing.' I was, like, Why is he so hard on us? But I understand it now. That's his way of letting us know: We can always do better. He'll always do that."
A BIT BEFORE NOON ON MARCH 8, 2003, WADE walked onto the court at Milwaukee's Bradley Center for warmups, the din of a sellout crowd beginning to rise. He had never been more nervous. He had never felt such a need to play perfectly. This wasn't because Wade, a Marquette junior about to skip his senior year for the NBA draft, knew it would be his final collegiate home game. It wasn't because he had the chance to lead the school to its first Conference USA title with a victory over perennial champion Cincinnati. Just three days earlier Wade's mother had been released from a maximum-security prison in Dwight, Ill. Jolinda had attended only two of Dwyane's games, early in high school. This would be his first chance to show her what he had become.
Dwyane wasn't the only one with a stomach aflutter. Jolinda was flat-out scared. Do I look right? Is anybody going to say anything to me? Are newspeople going to come? Is anyone going to know that I'm his mom? She feared embarrassing him.
Dwyane, who hadn't seen his mom in nearly 16 months, kept stealing looks into the stands. Jolinda had come up with Tragil that morning from Chicago, after getting permission from her parole officer to leave the state. Dwyane hadn't dared talk to her before the game, afraid an emotional overload would leave him sapped.
Everything in his life had pointed to this moment. When Dwyane was born, his mother had heard a word, blessing, in her head, and she had wanted that to be his name: Blessing Wade. He was glad it wasn't but tried to live up to it. Throughout high school and three years at Marquette, Wade drove himself to exhaustion because he believed he was her only hope. If he could only break out big, be that kid who rose from welfare—if only she could see him do something special—he could save her. Almost daily over the last year they had written to each other. "If anybody's going to give you inspiration," Dwyane wrote, "it's going to be me. I'm going to show you that you can overcome too."