Even after Wade appeared on Live with Kelly to discuss his decision to leave the Miami Heat after 13 seasons; even after Wade and his wife, actress Gabrielle Union, spent the past two weeks documenting their promotional tour of China on Snapchat, where they frequently sported Bulls gear at public appearances; even after the team made it official and started flashing images of Wade in a Bulls jersey on the video board outside the United Center.
It all still felt hypothetical until Friday, when Wade and his family met with reporters at the Bulls’ practice facility and held up his new jersey.
Wade may be 34 years old, with his best basketball behind him. His on-court fit with Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo (the #ThreeAlphas, as they’ve come to be known) may be awkward. But it’s hard to overstate how big a deal it is for fans and those in the Bulls organization that Wade is in town.
Chicago is the NBA’s third-biggest media market, and the Bulls play in a building with a statue of Michael Jordan outside. But until now, the franchise’s biggest free-agent gets were Carlos Boozer as a consolation prize in 2010 and a past-his-prime Pau Gasol in 2014.
Even at the tail end of his career, Wade brings a level of global star power that hasn’t been felt in this basketball-crazed town since Jordan retired in 1998. Derrick Rose came close during his MVP campaign in 2010-11, but he never had the same cultural crossover appeal Wade does. Regardless of basketball implications, that's something new for the 21st-century Bulls.
“I brought a lot of excitement to Miami, and it's a home to me,” Wade said. “It will always be. I want to bring a little to Chicago, while I have a little bit left. And I still have a little bit left, by the way. I've listened to all of you guys talk over the last couple of weeks. I know what you all have been saying. But I want to come here and be a part of building this organization back up to where this organization should go and should be.”
The afternoon was as polished and well-put-together as anything that has gone on in the Advocate Center since it opened in 2014, and it’s no accident. As monumental a day as this was for the Bulls, it was so far from the biggest spotlight Wade has ever been under.
Wade, remember, was part of one of the most infamous moments in recent NBA history, the “Not one, not two, not three…” welcome party for the Heat in 2010. He spent the next four years as part of a much-vilified superteam around which the NBA universe revolved. And he did this four years after winning Finals MVP in 2006.
Wade is used to mattering to basketball fans in a way the Bulls haven’t had since Jordan’s exit, even when they were playoff contenders. His significance goes beyond basketball. He’s the caliber of player and celebrity even non-sports fans could identify, and his wife is well-known and accomplished in her own right.
Needless to say, they’re pros at this stuff. At his introductory press conference Friday, Wade hit every note you’d want him to hit, with the practice and sharpness of someone who’s been doing this for a long time.
Wondering if Wade is worried about the Bulls' being his team or Butler’s? He’s got you.
“I remember when Shaquille O’Neal came to Miami, coming from the Lakers, three championships,” Wade said. “We had no championships at the time. I remember his press conference. I was playing in the Olympics, like Jimmy is right now. I remember Shaq said, ‘We’re not going to go through this all year. It’s Dwyane Wade’s team.’
“So we’re not going to go through this all year. This is Jimmy Butler’s team. Myself and Rondo are here to bring what we bring as athletes to this team and to this city. He’s a young Bull on this team. He’s a 26-year-old that can play 40 minutes if Coach [Fred Hoiberg] wants him to and maybe more. I ain’t trying to do all that.”
Worried about how a career 28.4 percent three-point shooter can adapt in a league that has only grown more perimeter-oriented over the years? Wade’s got you there, too.
“We’re not going to come here and try to be Stephen Curry,” he said. “That’s not our game. As much as my son loves Stephen Curry, sorry—he’s not your dad. I am. So what I’m going to do is play my game and play my game within what the system is and what the team needs from me.”
Worried about his willingness to embrace a mentor role on a young team that isn’t necessarily contending for a championship in the near future? Wade has something for you there.
“I feel that with the knowledge that you've gained over the years in playing this game, I feel it's our duty as veteran players to give that knowledge back to the next generation, so this game can continue to be as amazing and as great as it is,” Wade sad.
“At the end of the day, I'm a leader and that's all I know how to do. I've been around some amazing leaders in my life and I've grown into being one because of playing with guys like Shaquille O'Neal when I was young. He really showed me the way as far as how a leader comes in and gives all his guys confidence. I can't wait.”
Wade began the process of integrating his famous family into Bulls fans’ lives. Union sat in the front row with Wade’s two sons, Zion and Zaire, and Wade talked at length about their involvement in his decision to come to Chicago. At one point, Union stood up and reminded media members that she’s going to be following everything people write about this team on social media, and she won’t be afraid to clap back if she doesn’t like something.
All of this is new for a Bulls team coming off a season in which they were both mediocre (they went 42-40 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008) and thoroughly uninteresting. Next to Kevin Durant’s league-shaking decision to sign with the Golden State Warriors, the biggest story of the offseason has been Wade's leaving Miami.
After 13 seasons, three titles, a Finals MVP and an indelible place in that community, the idea that he would ever play somewhere else was akin to Kobe Bryant's leaving the Lakers or Dirk Nowitzki's leaving the Mavericks. But it happened, and it’s going to keep getting attention during the season, and the Bulls are going to be part of that story.
The basketball part of this marriage still needs to play out. The Wade-Butler-Rondo dynamic could combust, despite everyone’s early optimism. There still isn’t proof that Fred Hoiberg is a coach equipped to manage these personalities. The Bulls’ roster has plenty of young talent but not much in the way of a long-term plan beyond staying competitive and hoping Wade’s presence and stature give them credibility with star free agents.
But even if these Bulls are destined for the same middle-of-the-road results they’ve grown accustomed to, Wade’s arrival will make the journey there much more compelling.