MIAMI — There was never any question as to where Dwyane Wade would be playing this coming season or, at least, there shouldn't have been.
He adamantly instructed his agent to keep his name out of conversations with other organizations and involved himself in free agency only to reach out to Pau Gasol to see if the veteran had any interest in joining what was then still a Miami Heat "Big Three."
Wade always planned to retain the keys to his house, the one on Biscayne Bay—the one in which, in part due to his efforts, there are three championship banners aloft, up near the attic.
Rather, the doubts were related to the commitment of his recent high-profile cohabitants, and those doubts were building early in the second week of July. That's when Wade went to Las Vegas, though contrary to reports, it wasn't on a recruiting mission but rather a planned trip, to hang out with friend and former teammate Dorell Wright.
It just so happened that, while there, he had dinner with now-former teammate LeBron James.
And then, as everyone knows, they took a flight back together, one that Wade first addressed publicly at his fantasy camp last week.
While many assumed that Wade spent the five hours selling James on staying with Miami, that simply wasn't so, at least not the way Wade tells it.
Wade had the sense that James viewed him as the last person it was necessary to face before doing what James' heart had already determined. So Wade did more listening than talking, simply showing support. And when they finally touched down, hugging on the tarmac in front of television cameras, Wade knew what was up.
"Yeah, I went to sleep knowing," Wade said. "He called me the next day. But I knew then. Obviously he still had to say the final yay or nay, but I knew. I could tell."
And what Wade did next, after getting the final word, is telling—and what most matters to the Heat as they try to regroup and recover from James' decision.
He reached out to his neighbor.
That neighbor, Chris Bosh, was more than 5,000 miles away at that moment, gallivanting through Ghana, feeling fortunate that he and his wife had fled the United States, and trying to stay away from social media (which, as he told Jon Zaslow and Joy Taylor on The Ticket Morning Show this week, "was kind of nuts" since "everybody had a source; everybody was a reporter").
But Bosh had seen enough—or rather, heard so little—that he'd come to his own conclusions about James' future.
"I mean, the longer it dragged along, you know the reports that you hear, and nobody said no," Bosh told The Ticket. "Everybody kept saying 'Cleveland, Cleveland,' and nobody was saying no. That's when I figured, like, OK, this could happen. The longer it dragged out, the more I kind of figured that that's what was going to happen."
So Bosh's representative, Henry Thomas—who also represents Wade—had to protect him, and that meant securing a pretty sweet backup plan: a maximum offer to play next to Dwight Howard and James Harden for an instant contender in Houston.
And yes, Wade was nervous about that, nervous that he'd be left alone, nervous that someone with whom he'd bonded over the past four years would be the next to bolt, even if Heat president Pat Riley and owner Micky Arison were willing to do everything necessary to avoid that. (As Riley said this week, in explaining why they countered with five years for the maximum $118 million, nearly $30 million more than Bosh initially sought, "I'll be damned if I was going to let him walk out the door.")
Bosh promised that he'd let Wade know within the hour; that he wouldn't drag out the decision.
That, he didn't.
And now, here they are.
"We all go our own separate ways," Wade said of previous summers. "Normally, we come back."
The two stars that did come back are now forever linked, torch-bearers as Riley tries to create another champion—and, as the Heat president characterized it Wednesday, repair his "generational" vision for the franchise.
Wade learned early in his career about the harsh nature of NBA business.
As a rookie, he practiced with Sean Lampley one day, and by the afternoon, Lampley was cut. Since then, he and Udonis Haslem have been the only two Heat constants.
Wade has been paired on the Heat's marquee with everyone from Lamar Odom (or Eddie Jones or Caron Butler) as a rookie to Shaquille O'Neal for his first title run. From Shawn Marion and then Jermaine O'Neal and then Michael Beasley in the choppy post-Shaq era to James primarily, even though the Heat were widely labeled a Big Three.
And now, alone with Bosh, someone he didn't know all that well before the latter left Toronto but with whom he's since bonded—the past two postseasons, Wade has visited Bosh at home and at restaurants to try to pick up his spirits when struggling.
They will come at their fresh collaboration with different personalities, with different salaries, and with their own reasons for renewed motivation.
For Bosh, there's a desire to prove that he can still be the primary option, a role in which he has flourished in rare opportunities (at Atlanta, at San Antonio, at Portland) over the past four seasons.
While he never advanced out of the first round as Toronto's lead star, he never had a supporting cast as strong as one including Wade and Luol Deng. And he didn't have some of the facets to his game—range shooting, pick-and-roll defending—that playing with James and Wade has forced him to develop. He also didn't have the knowledge and confidence that has come from being part of two championship teams.
"Moving forward, it's just really cool to kind of be in that situation again, to have more of an offensive and leadership responsibility with the team," Bosh told The Ticket. "You know, just having another crack at it, I feel like I'm a much better player than the last time I was in this position. I've learned a lot, and I can do a lot more things, so it's gonna be time to put that to use."
He also feels an obligation to the Heat, who had long insisted that Bosh was much more valuable than the critics alleged and who have now proved it with a hefty contract.
"They stepped right up to the plate," Bosh said. "They showed confidence in me right off the bat. That makes me feel really special, and it makes me feel wanted, and it makes me feel extremely wanted to try to rise up to the challenge. You know, I'm happy that they have faith in me."
For Wade, the faith flows both ways.
Why would he opt out of two years and $41.8 million, only to return at two years for roughly $10 million less?
That's a question that, as he joked Friday, his fiancee might wonder, too.
He spoke at the podium of his camp of his "responsibility" to "a great organization" in "a great city," of how "it means something" to stay with one team in the modern era, and of how "you just do what you feel is [right]. For me, I'm blessed financially. I understand the position that we're in, with collective bargaining, in order to get what you want, you've got to give a little bit."
Later, though, he made it clear that it's also a bet on himself.
He referred, as the Heat organization has, to the expected increase in the salary cap in the summer of 2016 due to what will likely be a lucrative new television contract for the league.
He is anticipating that the organization will do right by him at that time, provided that his body does right by him in the interim.
To that end, he has heeded Riley's longstanding call for him to drop some pounds.
Earlier this summer, he followed Ray Allen's lead and, along with James, embarked on a version of the paleo diet—cutting out starches and adding vegetables, and he's planning to do so again after his Aug. 30 wedding to actress Gabrielle Union and subsequent honeymoon.
While he wouldn't reveal his weight, he said it's around where it was at the start of 2013 training camp. Some in his camp are concerned that he'll slim down too much and lose some explosiveness in the process. But Wade's commitment to the program, at the least, is proof of his seriousness about this season.
"I ain't trying to go back five years," Wade said. "If we all could, we would, but that's not likely."
But he put up strong efficiency numbers last season, at least when he played—and he said Friday that he expects to well exceed his 2013-14 total of 54 games, that schedule lightened in part by a freak hamstring injury.
He joked that his shooting percentage might slip now that he'll be handling the ball more, but it's safe to expect his effort to be steadier, now that James isn't around to pick up so much slack. And he, like Bosh, has upgraded certain elements of his game, especially as an off-the-ball cutter. On Friday, he noted that Josh McRoberts is known as a strong passer, which could lead to some backdoor baskets.
Still, many aren't expecting much from him or his team, now that he's back in a more prominent role.
Not a No. 2 or No. 3.
But a No. 1A or 1B.
|Wade career stats|
"I need it, I need it," Wade said of that doubt.
He spoke of the constant search for challenges as the years progress, about how "you don't want to be in a fog the last few years of your career," going through the motions, searching for meaning.
Early July's events certainly weren't welcome; you never welcome watching the best player in the world, and one of your best friends, leave your side and cut short your shared cause.
You never welcome giving up millions of dollars, no matter how pure your heart.
But this setback did provide a new platform.
And for Bosh.
As the new duo.
Maybe Wade will never be his old self, but considering his repeated sacrifices, he's now entirely shielded himself from any local criticism as he ages.
Maybe Bosh can't pack the pretty people into the arena like James' presence did, but over the next few years, he'll get a chance to connect with true Heat fans on a deeper level than he did as the Heat's tertiary cog.
"It was a different summer for us," Wade said. "It's no secret, obviously, it’s been a change in how we looked the last four years by losing LeBron to Cleveland. I think our ownership has done a great job so far of trying to not replace but recover from that. The only thing we do as a franchise and as players is we move forward."
Two already did, by choosing not to move out of the neighborhood.
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report.