Dwyane Wade played in 13 NBA All-Star games in his 16-season career. But this past Tuesday, in New York, he was fresh off his first ever All-Star game as a former NBA player. He retired last season, but returned to Chicago this past weekend as a TNT analyst and a judge for Saturday night’s slam dunk contest. Which begs the question: after a weekend of watching the best players in the NBA do the job he left last year, does he still think he could hang?
“Absolutely not,” he says. “I’m not in basketball shape no more.”
Okay, but obviously he still plays… right?
“I don’t,” he says. “I thought I would. I was like, ‘I'll still hoop, I'll still play.’ I don't really have time.”
Though his playing days are already behind him, this weekend represents something of a final farewell for D-Wade, after what has been a rather long retirement tour for the revered Miami Heat vet. The Heat are planning a multi-night celebration that will include retiring the #3 jersey of its all-time leading scorer (not to mention all-time Heat hero, having delivered an NBA title in 2006, and then Chris Bosh and LeBron James in 2010, and then two more championships in 2012 and 2013). On Sunday, there will be a screening of “D.Wade Life Unexpected,” a documentary chronicling Wade’s life and career—from a disruptive upbringing in Chicago, through his unexpected rise to NBA superstardom, his contentious divorce and custody battle for his children, his marriage to Gabrielle Union, his support for his daughter Zaya's gender identity, all the way to his final season and year-long sunset with the Miami Heat.
Though he says the basketball tank is empty and he doesn’t have “any look-back in me,” Wade got reflective about his hall-of-fame career and a post-NBA life that’s only just beginning.
I'm curious when you first knew you could play at a level different from everyone around you.
My entire childhood, I always played at a higher level. When I reached high school, I played on the sophomore level my first year. And then my sophomore year, I went up to varsity. But they were very good and I wouldn't get time. I asked my coach, "Can I go back and play with my friends, because I'm on the bench?" When I went down to play with the sophomores, I was like, "Okay, this is easy. This is so easy.” So I always knew I was better than the age group I was in, and even as good as the ones that were older than me.
Did that confidence change how you played your game?
100%. It just helps. Going to college, I realized very early that I was just as good as anybody in the gym. I knew: I’m raw, and I've got a lot to learn, but I'm just as good—I won't say better because I don't want to disrespect the seniors—as anybody in the gym my freshman year. The world didn't know, but I knew it.
There's a moment early in the documentary when you move from your dad’s house to live with your high school girlfriend and her mom. And you say that staying where you were was not going to get you to where you needed to be. At what age did you decide “This is what I want for my life?”
I knew at nine years old, when I watched the Chicago Bulls win their first championship in 1991. I knew what I wanted. That feeling that our family felt, that feeling the city of Chicago felt—that pride and my enjoyment of the game—I knew I wanted to do that. Now how do I get there? I didn't know how to do that. But you know how some people who are a part of an investment group know how to get out at the right time? You're like, "Dang, they just, they got out before it went under.” I've always been able to see that and be like, "Okay, it's time."
When I was in my dad's house at 16, it was just a toxic environment. I knew it was time for me to go because I needed to focus on me, and the home structure wasn't allowing that. I needed to be selfish. My girlfriend’s house allowed me to do that, because it was just her and her mother.
But along that journey, I had to grow up a little too fast, too, so I missed certain things. It wasn't all good. I got out there and put my life in the hands of another family and not my family. So there were times out there where I got taken advantage of, because I didn't know—or no one had my back, necessarily. But I learned from it all.
"I told my wife... I was like, 'Shit about to change.' I let her know that phone call, me, Bron, and Chris decided to play together."
Did you have that same feeling when you chose to retire?
Yeah. It was time for me to go.
Was there a moment?
It wasn't even the basketball part of it. "Oh my God, I can't compete with these guys, I got to go." I could still compete now—and I'm not saying it in a cocky way. I know I could still play if I wanted to. If I kept my body right. But I just woke up one day and I knew that it was time, and things happen in your life to give you that vision.
At the end of my Chicago run, I remember going to see my agent for the last time because he couldn't travel. [Wade played with the Chicago Bulls for the 2016-17 season. His agent, Hank Thomas, was based in Chicago and died of a neuromuscular disease in January 2018.] And the only way I was able to see him was because of my last season. If I didn't go to Chicago, I would have never seen him the last year. At that moment, my outlook started to change. [I realized] the importance of the moments you share with the people you love. Basketball takes you away from all of those moments.
I went to Cleveland [in 2017-18] and I started coming off the bench, and I was like, "This ain't it no more. I'm not really having fun. I'm just doing it because my contract says I needed to do it and because this is what I know." Then I got traded to Miami and I was like, "Okay, I'm back here for a reason.” And then, we got to the playoffs and I just started feeling like this is it: “I don't want to go through the season, I don't want to go through this grind. I don't want to be away from my home for two weeks. I'm tired of the same hotel. I’m tired of the same food. I’m tired of everything. I'm done."
Someone always told me when you feel like you're ready to retire, play another season. And even though I didn't want to, I ended up playing another year and that really let me get it all out. So I really don't have any look-back in me for basketball.
How has that helped the transition, then?
The tank is empty. And even though you say, "Oh, you still could play a little bit," the mental tank was empty a long time ago. The physical tank is the love, the heartbeat of the game. That's still there. But everything else around it is gone. I remember when Kobe wrote that letter to the game of basketball on his way out. He talked about how his heart can take it, but his body couldn't anymore. My body was tired. It's tired, and I have nothing else to prove. I'm not making 20, 30 million no more, on my last year I was on a minimum. So I was like, let me go do something else. Let me go be present. Let me go create something else.
When you say present, you mean present in those family moments?
Yeah, my family moments that I talk about in the doc a little bit. My daughter [Kaavia James Union Wade] was my push. I came into the NBA and [my oldest son] Zaire was roughly the same age that my daughter is now. Zaire's 18 now, right? 17 years ago I came into the NBA. And now my daughter's 15 months—it’s like roughly the same age. I came in with a little one and that was my purpose and that was my why. And I went out with a little one and that was my purpose and that was my why to leave the game.
"No one saw my greatness coming. It just smacked them in the face."
Zaire was born when you were still young and at Marquette, and you played incredibly that year after he was born. Then you went through a contentious custody battle when you were playing some of the best basketball of your career on the Heat. The way the documentary juxtaposes those things suggest the off court happenings are linked to the on-court performance. How much of a link do you think there actually was?
It's always been my sanctuary, and at that moment it became even more of my outlet. Going through a very public divorce, a very public, messy, custody battle, you just want to get it out. You need to get that anger out. So I turned into that beast on the court. I took it out on my opponents. Because I didn't publicly talk about it a lot. The plan of the game was the part that allowed me to yell and scream. I wanted to do it at home. But I did it on the court.
In 2006 when you won the championship, did that feel like the ending of something or the beginning of something?
It felt like the ending of losing. I always got there. I never quite could pull in: AAU, Final Four, high school—never could win one. So I finally got over that hurdle. But it was a brand new beginning of my life—or my new life. After we won a championship, my old life left. And it was a whole different journey after that. And it still is.
It’s like the shedding of a weight, but then you take on a whole host of new problems.
Right! It's like, “Ahhh, okay,” you get to take that deep breath, but then you got to go right back to work. And then the expectations really started. Now you've set a standard for yourself and got to live up to that standard every time you step out on the floor. Now that you are this great player and now that you've won a championship and you’re Finals MVP, and a standard’s set, I need to see that player every night.
What lessons did you learn from Shaq?
The greatest thing he did for me was show me who I was destined to be. I used to be very quiet. He made me think about marketing myself, and he built this Flash character in me. I jumped into this character. When I'm home I'm Dad, I'm Dwyane. But on the court, I'm Flash. So he helped me really find my destiny in the game of basketball and find myself, away from it.
I know Pat Riley likes to write cards to players, little messages on index cards, right?
Yeah. These blue cards.
What's one of the more memorable cards you remember him writing to you?
Every summer he’d write this letter, a couple of months before the season started, I remember getting these letters from him all the time about, "When you come back, I want you at 217 pounds, I need you with a 6% body fat." He always wrote it down and I'd look at it and it was like… [mimes crumpling it up and throwing it over his shoulder]. [laughs] But he is a writer and it's funny because I'm very similar to that. I use my notes [app] on my phone, I'm the same way. I got to write everything down. And that's how he is. He’s a got-to-write-everything-down type of person. So he always carries those index cards.
In the doc, you talk about how you, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh agreed to play on the same team, but that he then went radio silent on you in the days leading up to The Decision. What was your interaction after that? If that was my friend, I’d be like, “What the fuck, man? I know you had a TV special, but text me back!”
After he made the decision, we didn't talk about it no more. This might be the first time anybody ever heard about it when the doc comes out, because we didn't talk about it no more. We were just excited that he came.
No. I understood that his decision was harder than mine and Chris's decision. I just wanted to make sure that we were still going as planned.
That's what I mean! You guys had decided to play together and then he ghosts on you.
I was just like, "Okay, well, me and Chris Bosh are together. That's good.” [laughs] And if LeBron don't come, we still got some money for someone else. I just started playing that in my mind. But I'm glad that I was able to share that in that documentary because there’s this conversation out there that we had this team planned years before, and this gives you real footage of the moment of me being just as anxious and nervous as anybody else probably watching The Decision, hoping he comes to your team. So I'm glad we got that footage.
Because people generally think you hatched this plan at the ‘08 Olympics.
Listen, I appreciate them giving us credit for being that damn smart. I'm thankful for it, and being a visionary like that.
When did it actually happen? The convo you guys had, the three of you agreeing to play together?
I don't remember when the first one happened, but I think the documentary talks about the one on July 4th. I was in South Carolina. My wife was shooting a pilot out there and we were about to do a whole July 4th thing on the beach. I remember getting a text message from Bron about getting on the phone. So I go have this phone call, and this was a moment that we all decided.
I remember coming back and everybody looking at me because they know I just took an important call. You can tell when someone's on an important call. Everyone looking at me like I was going to tell them something, and I just waited. I told my wife, right before the fireworks. I was like, "Shit about to change.” [laughs] let her know that phone call, me, Bron, and Chris decided to play together.
What's something you know now that you wish maybe you'd known sooner in your career?
Absolutely nothing. It’s what made this sweet: I had no idea how this was going to shake out. We can't celebrate the successes and take back the negatives. For me, it's a part of my journey and it might have sucked—the injuries sucked, the things I've dealt with away from the game—but all those things help build your character and helps build the person you become.
My career was unpredictable and unexpected. And it made it fun. And it doesn't mean that LeBron’s is not fun. But he was the chosen one for a long time. He's been great for a long time. And you’ve seen that he is going to be great as long as he stays healthy. No one saw my greatness coming. It just smacked them in the face. So I like my journey. I'll take everything that comes with it because it made the journey sweet.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Originally Appeared on GQ