MIAMI (AP) — Dwyane Wade‘s former locker in the Miami Heat dressing room is empty. Dozens of photos of him still adorn walls all over the arena, including a giant one that every Heat player passes on their way to the court. And every championship banner that hangs from the rafters is there largely because of his work.
For 13 years, AmericanAirlines Arena was his house.
For a moment or two on Thursday night, it will be again.
Wade is returning to Miami as an opponent for the first time, as the Chicago Bulls – his new team – visit Thursday for the only time this season. The building will be jammed, the game will air on national television and the Heat will pay tribute with a highlight video that’s certain to elicit some long, loud cheering from fans who never wanted to see him leave.
“He’s going to get a great reception here,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Wednesday. “That’s going to be fun. That will be special. It’s deserving. It’ll probably be emotional for me. And then we’ll get to competition and that’s ultimately what it’s all about.”
It’s a short visit for Wade, an All-Star in 12 of his 13 Miami seasons. Chicago was playing in Atlanta on Wednesday, scheduled to arrive in Miami in the wee hours of Thursday morning. Spoelstra was planning to watch the Bulls-Hawks game to help finalize the scouting report for Thursday night, since Wade’s role in Chicago is a bit different than the one he had in Miami for 13 years.
“He ain’t fooling me,” Spoelstra said. “He’s a playmaker. He’s an attacker. Whatever the game calls for, that’s what he’s going to do.”
Wade’s entire NBA history before July was with Miami. Drafted No. 5 overall in 2003, Wade wound up pairing with Shaquille O’Neal to help deliver Miami’s first title in 2006 and then lured LeBron James and Chris Bosh to the Heat for what became four trips to the NBA Finals – and two more titles – in four seasons.
James left in 2014 shortly before Bosh got a $114 million contract from Miami that was negotiated by Henry Thomas, the agent Wade and Bosh shared. The enormity of that deal left the Heat somewhat handcuffed with what they could offer Wade, and almost lost him in 2015 before they agreed on a one-year deal for $20 million.
No such agreement could be struck last summer, and Wade was gone.
“I’m not wishing nothing bad on that organization,” Wade said after a game Monday in Chicago, his comments reported by ESPN. “I have nothing but love for everybody in that organization. And I want them to be successful, just as we all say, just not when they play the Bulls. But besides that I want them to be successful.”
Thursday’s game will be Wade’s 525th in Miami. He’s the Heat all-time leader in virtually every major statistical category, and is so far ahead of everyone else on many of those lists that he’s assured of being all over the team record book for probably decades to come. But he’s still a draw; on the secondary resale market, a seat in the highest row of the arena was going for $41 – the same seat for a Heat game last week was resold for $6.
“Everybody going to be fired up,” Heat center Hassan Whiteside said.
Wade has stayed in touch with many around the Heat. He’s extremely close friends with Udonis Haslem, been in regular contact with Spoelstra, and continues checking in on some of his former teammates as well.
“There’s no bad blood between him and this organization,” Haslem said. “He’s had a great, great career here. He’s had so much success – we’ve had so much success. For whatever reason, the time came where we separated.”
Wade has said many times since deciding to go play for his hometown Bulls that he will forever be appreciative of his time with the Heat and playing before the Miami fans. He’ll want to win Thursday very badly, and for the first time in 14 years, the 20,000 people expected in the seats in Miami will want to see him lose.
“He’ll handle it fine,” Spoelstra said. “He’s as good as anybody I’ve ever been around at compartmentalizing and knowing when to keep emotions where they need to be.”