Imagine for a moment that you had a close friend who was also a business partner. The two of you had been very successful working together. You had made a lot of money. You supported each other in dark times, you celebrated good times. You went on vacation together.
You knew, though, that your friend and partner had gotten a little unhappy. It wasn’t your fault, it was out of your control. But you weren’t sure exactly how he felt because he wouldn’t tell you. Then one morning, he calls and tells you the partnership is over. Immediately, as in that hour. Your successful business is wrecked in an instant. Because of how he handled this choice, and because the timing left you with few options, you’re out maybe $10 million. And later you find out he had told other people, people he didn’t even know as well as you, about his decision before he told you.
What would happen to this relationship? Would it end? Would it hold but be damaged forever? What are the chances the bond would actually grow stronger and tighter?
This is why the lasting friendship between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade is so rare and remarkable. Granted, it’s hard to frame the experiences and situations NBA superstars face and compare them to anything else. Yet even when looked at through the lens of the NBA experience, what Wade and James have gone through together is unique.
Monday night in Los Angeles, James and Wade will play against each other a final time. It caps a winding, complicated and wonderful 16 years together that saw them team up and break up twice, win titles twice, bitterly lose a gold medal and gloriously win a gold medal.
But perhaps the greatest accomplishment is that, after those 16 years, Wade’s retirement tour — deemed “one last dance” — can include another happy spin around the dance floor with his most famous dancing partner.
The Wade-James relationship easily could’ve been badly damaged in 2014, when James elected to leave the Miami Heat and undid the partnership the two formed four years earlier. Wade, without knowing what James was going to do, opted out of his contract with some belief that his partnership with James would continue and they would both sign rich, long-term deals in Miami.
Instead, James left, the Heat pivoted and Wade wound up having to take a pay cut to help the team remain competitive — a sequence of events that ultimately led to Wade’s own departure from Miami two years later, in a move both sides would almost instantly regret. Had James done things differently, Wade could’ve just stayed in his deal or gotten an extension that could’ve benefited him significantly.
Only James privately knows how much, if at all, Wade’s injury history factored into his choice to return to Cleveland to join a younger and healthier team. James has said several times the choice wasn’t about personnel on either team but about a desire to return home.
Of course, there’s way more to the story. Wade helped recruit James and Chris Bosh to Miami in 2010 and then took less money than the other two to help the Heat afford to add role players.
In 2011, Wade had a brilliant NBA Finals. He averaged 26.5 points, 7 rebounds, 5.2 assists. 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks. But James played the worst playoff series of his career, dragging Wade down and perhaps costing the Heat the title. James’ eight-point Game 4 stands as maybe the worst night of his career. In a stat that is forgotten but telling, James actually ranked third on his own team in scoring during that Finals.
Despite that major letdown, Wade’s response wasn’t frustration or resentment, but instead humility. The next season, he encouraged James to step forward and become the Heat’s leader and to control the team, something Wade by all rights as a former champion could’ve commanded himself.
James was the better player — it was the right decision — but it was anything but easy. The changes led to James winning back-to-back MVPs and the Heat winning back-to-back titles. When Wade started suffering knee issues, James returned some of the favor by carrying the Heat to a fourth straight Finals in his last year in Miami.
But even after being left behind by James, and dealing with the fallout both personally and professionally as a result of his decision, Wade showed nothing but support for his friend. In the months after James’ return to Cleveland, Wade called on Heat fans to honor James and not boo him when James came back to play in Miami. Wade also opened his doors to James when, frustrated with his new team and injured, he flew to Miami while rehabbing to help clear his mind.
James has an interesting history with teammates. He has always craved having close relationships with teammates, dating back to his high school days. It has become routine for him to throw elaborate parties at his homes and arrange social events on road trips during seasons. He’s always taking teammates to sporting events, handing out gifts and offering encouragement. Not to mention he has gotten many of them paid and either rings or trips to the Finals.
But many of these bonds don’t seem to last. James’ inner circle has been tight since he entered the league. His closest friend in the NBA, Chris Paul, never played with him. Those who know James well will tell you James can be a great friend and a great teammate but also won’t let a relationship get in the way of something he wants. He’s not afraid to switch from friendship to business if and when he deems it necessary.
Wade has experienced all of these facets of James — not only with Miami, but also last season in Cleveland. James lobbied Wade to come help him shoulder a leadership load and wasn’t afraid to anger his teammates in doing so. When Wade was signed midway through training camp in 2017, it negatively shifted the roles of some teammates, including JR Smith, another friend of James. James sided with Wade. It was business.
When Wade’s attempts to lead alongside James in Cleveland didn’t take — Wade found himself at the center of an unfortunate team meeting that questioned Kevin Love after he had suffered a series of panic attacks — James didn’t stand in the way when the coach and front office wanted to ship Wade out at the trade deadline. It was business. The team did right by Wade, sending him back to Miami, but it was not a pleasant breakup.
But here they are, still together. Perhaps it’s because of Wade’s nature. Those who know him well will tell you he takes after his grandmother, who helped raise him and was extremely giving, accepting and forgiving.
To be James’ friend for any length of time, maybe it requires a person whom James respects, but also someone who is willing to deal with the challenges James’ personality brings with it. Wade is one of the greatest players in NBA history; James certainly respects that. And Wade has been willing to roll with James’ changing moods and desires over the years. If Wade has ever held any grudge, it has never been apparent.
In that way, James and Wade might be the perfect superstar friends. There might never be a pair like them again.
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