It's been a decade since Dwyane Wade played his first Christmas Day game. Back then, he was an emerging star, but, as is the case this Christmas, he wasn't the primary storyline. All the anticipation was about how his new Miami Heat teammate, Shaquille O'Neal, would be received upon returning to the Staples Center after falling out with the Los Angeles Lakers and agreeing to a trade to Miami. Would L.A. fans cheer or jeer the center who led them to three championships?
Turned out they would do a bit of both, standing for a tribute video and greeting O'Neal's introduction with a rousing 40-second ovation. Then, after the game started, many booed him every time he touched the ball, and subsequently booed him back to the bench after he fouled out.
Now, on Christmas Day 2014, Wade will be representing the Heat as LeBron James comes back to Miami—again, with uncertainty related to the reception. Naturally, all Heat fans wish James had never gone back to the Cavaliers, especially with the Heat struggling at 13-15 following four straight NBA Finals appearances. And while many seem to genuinely appreciate all that James accomplished for them, there's a contingent that hasn't moved on, either because they don't believe he communicated clearly with Heat president Pat Riley during the free-agent process, or showed enough appreciation for them in the essay announcing his Cleveland homecoming. Or both.
Wade isn't aligned with that critical chorus, however.
Not at all.
The 10-time All-Star guard has repeatedly insisted that he harbors no hard feelings, not even after opting out of his contract to accommodate offseason improvements and—after James left for Cleveland—signing one of lesser value. And last week, during an extended interview with Bleacher Report and ESPN.com, he called for those inside American Airlines Arena to welcome James in a positive way.
Even if he knows not everyone will.
"It's going to be a mixture," Wade said. "How I think he should be received is a little different. The man helped take us to places we've only been once before he got here. So I think he should be received very well for that at the start of the game. And then when the game comes on, then do what you've got to do (as fans)."
That would be a much more civilized reception than what awaited James on Dec. 2, 2010, when he returned to Cleveland for the first time with the Heat, and was relentlessly cursed, hissed and mocked before and during Miami's rout. Wade's expectation would be similar to what O'Neal experienced in Los Angeles, a celebration of a shared past followed by the typical treatment of a current rival. And Wade anticipates that even if there are some boos early in the game, "it won't last long."
"At the end of the day, the guy is an amazing basketball player and everyone is a fan of the game," Wade said. "So 'oohs and ahhs,' they come before boos sometimes. I hope our fans are just appreciative of what he brought to this organization in four years."
This isn't lip service. He said his personal relationship with James hasn't changed "at all" since July 11 (when James announced he was returning to Cleveland).
"At the end of the day, this is a sport," he said, and he would never let a sport come between him and the closest friends he has made through it, whether it be James, Udonis Haslem, Dorell Wright or Quentin Richardson.
How frequently do they speak?
"Very often, man," Wade said. "I think we talk as much as you can ever talk to one of your best friends, whether it's about basketball or it's about (James' sons) Bronny and Bryce and (Wade's sons) Zaire and Zion and so on. It's what we do, and what we've always done—even before we became teammates, when [there] were articles back then saying, 'How can these guys be so close and still compete against each other?' "
He said they may even speak more than they did before they teamed up, "just because we're used to leaning on each other a little bit. It's still good to reach out to a person and talk."
Will the general public ever understand that?
"No," Wade said, smiling. "No, they won't."
(James, when told over the weekend of Wade's supportive comments, smiled and said they would always be "brothers").
Wade also knows that not everyone will accept his account of the circumstances just prior to James' 2014 decision, no matter how many times he presents it. Still, Wade did so again last Wednesday, his version in line with what he has recounted since the summer, while providing just a bit more specificity.
For instance, a publicized lunch the Big Three had at Soho Beach House on June 25, prior to free agency....
"The lunch was me, Chris and LeBron all getting together and just kind of unwinding after the season," Wade said. "I knew that we were going to go our separate ways, and we just wanted to connect. That was it. There were no decisions being made. We just wanted to connect with each other before we went away, because we knew everyone had an individual decision to make. It wasn't like, 'What are you going to do, what are you going to do and what are you going to do?' Because it was too early after the season and no one really knew exactly. So it was just a connect kind of moment."
And the flight back from Las Vegas on the night of July 10, hours before the publication of James' Sports Illustrated essay....
"We had already planned to go to Vegas earlier in the year," Wade said. "[LeBron's] camp was out there at the time, and I was out there with D-Wright. It was perfect timing to be out there with two of my best friends. So that summer, it was already planned. When it came to the decision that had to be made, I kind of knew a little bit. I could feel it a little bit. But I didn't know it 100 percent until we talked. But I could feel it. I knew it was tough on him. It was probably harder because I was around, because it was a tough time to make that decision for him. And then, one of the toughest parts was because of me and the relationship we had and stuff like that."
Did Wade recruit James to stay?
"No," he said.
This may not be what Heat fans would have wanted.
But it was what Wade felt James deserved.
So he suppressed any personal or professional desires that he might have had as "Dwyane the teammate."
"That's all I ever will be is Dwyane the friend," Wade said. "Dwyane the teammate, I'm not that guy. I knew whenever it comes to somebody having to do what's best for them, I'm always going to take myself out of it and give them the best advice I feel I can give. I'm not going to be biased and give them what I think is going to be best for me. I'm going to give them what I feel is best for them, and I've always been that way in any situation. I tried to be selfless. I took being his teammate out of it and I was just his friend. It was as simple as saying, 'Do what’s best for LeBron James, because everybody is going to benefit from you. You stay in Miami, we benefit from you. Wherever you go, do what's best for you, because wherever you play, somebody is going to benefit off of you. So you have to be happy with your situation.' "
And here's the reality, as Wade first discussed openly with Bleacher Report early in 2014 training camp: The Heat weren't a happy team last season.
They weren't happy even as they were making history, not only becoming the first team to make four straight NBA Finals since the Boston Celtics of 1984 through '87, but also establishing themselves as one of the most unique teams in history in terms of scrutiny faced, trends set and stands taken. The Harlem Shake video. The Trayvon Martin hoodie photo. The postgame videobombing. The Heatles, as they dubbed themselves—with the custom T-shirts to prove it—were at the forefront in sports and society.
"Yeah, yeah," Wade said. "Very unique. It will never be seen again like that. I think, too, man, if it goes too long, you don't appreciate it. You know, it's like players stay around 12 years..."
He started laughing, since that applies to him, the way people now view him.
"It's like players that go to college," Wade said, still through laughter. "If they stay one year, they get a high draft pick. If they stay four years, you nitpick at everything. So, I mean, if we play together eight years, it ain't too special to everybody. If you only go to the Finals four in eight years, it's not that special. But you go four in four, they're going to do a documentary one day."
That's likely, especially considering that ESPN Films produced a documentary on another iconic NBA team, the Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Bad Boys debuted last April, as the Heat were weary from the rigors and irrelevance of the regular season, trying to gear up for another postseason run. The documentary featured plenty of footage of the Pistons lamenting the labor of trying to reach four straight NBA Finals, before ultimately falling in the East finals to Chicago in the fourth season.
"It was like perfect timing, 'cause it was exactly what it was," Wade said. "When I heard their documentary and them talking, 'I'm like, man, they got it!' That's what it was. It was just a grind, man, last year. I think for everybody. And obviously it doesn't look it right now, being 11 and 13 (now 13 and 15), like it was the best thing for this organization. But, you know, I think at the end of the day, that change is going to be good for everyone. It's just, right now, they're benefiting a lot more than we are."
Wade, who had just lost to Utah at home in spite of his 42 points, was told that the Cavaliers had actually lost by 29 that same night, also at home, to Atlanta.
"Oh, we gonna talk!" Wade said, smiling. "We gonna talk! We're about to both talk! We both lost by 20!"
He said he's watched the Cavaliers when he can, which isn't all the time, considering they have had much of their schedule in common. But he's been interested in seeing how some of the components, especially those similar to James' Heat teams, come together.
"I know they're gonna be good," Wade said. "I know they're a talented team, they're gonna win games, they're gonna win a lot of games. But you want to see. But I know when it clicked for us."
He snapped his fingers.
"And when it clicked for us, boy, we were dangerous," Wade said.
Dangerous enough to win 27 straight in one stretch.
"So I look to see if they have that same capability," Wade said. "I know they've got the talent, but I don't know—is it going to be the same way, or is it going to be totally different?"
James has often referenced the comparisons to the Heat experience as well, as he's tried to bring some of the Heat's culture to Cleveland. He's tried to mesh his game with that of two other stars, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, as he ultimately did in Miami with Wade and Bosh. Irving, unlike Wade, is a point guard, but some of the adjustments are similar. Both Wade and Irving were used to handling the ball a lot more before playing with James.
Does Wade see what Irving is going through?
"Oh, we very well know what Kyrie and Kevin are going through on a nightly basis, and even LeBron," Wade said. "You know, the thing is, [James] can do it again, because he's a little younger, but I wouldn't want to do it all over again. That was a grind, man. It was a great grind, because we got success out of it. But I wouldn't want to do it all over again. More kudos to him for doing it all over again. You've got to go through the same process, you know."
That process came to an end prematurely in Miami, at least the way that Riley, owner Micky Arison and the fans see it. Riley wanted to build a "generational team," and has spoken of a link in that chain being broken. Wade said he never knew, from 2010 forward, that it would be just four years, but also that he never really thought about it much.
"First of all, like I said, I never thought we were going to play together," Wade said. "When 'The Decision' happened (on July 8, 2010), I still didn't know. I was still, like, even though I knew, I didn't know. It just felt so surreal. It just didn't feel real. It really didn't."
Which is interesting, considering that many still think Wade, James and Bosh planned their 2010 collaboration well in advance.
"Like, years ago," Wade said, laughing. "Yeah. Years ago! It makes for a good story, but...but I never believed that it would happen and, when it did, I just tried to savor it. You know what I mean? I think everybody started to nitpick and say this, and all that."
He shook off some of the criticism. Some stung a bit. Some was just silly.
"I think the one thing that I never understood about us playing together is people talking about Chris, or talking about me, with our production going down," Wade said. "Obviously, you know, Kevin Love's numbers are gonna go down (now). He's gonna be a good player, but his numbers are gonna go down. I mean, somebody has to suffer. And to me, they're not getting the same negative media that we got, because we were the first to do it. Just like (Allen) Iverson was the first to wear braids and tattoos. He got negative [press]. Now everybody does it."
He laughed as he recalled his own trail-blazing ways.
"When you start off, you wear pink pants, nobody likes it," Wade said. "You wear Capris, everybody talks about you. Now everybody's doing it. One day you all gonna walk in here with something."
And what if, in two years, when Wade is a free agent again, James walks in with—or texts over—an honest proposal? What if he asks Wade to return the favor and come to Cleveland, to rekindle their on-court connection and help him break through again?
After all, Wade doesn't appear close to done yet, averaging 22.8 points on 51.7 percent from the field this season.
"Ha, ha!" Wade said. "Ha, ha, ha! Ahhh! That's funny!"
Funny enough that the loud laughter went on for six seconds.
"That is funny," Wade said. "I can't, I ain't even got an answer for that. Man, that's funny. We're gonna leave it at that."
Maybe so. Or maybe that will be just another good laugh for two great friends to share.
Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.