MIAMI – Six weeks after Dwyane Wade left Miami in 2016 to sign with the Chicago Bulls, his 32-year-old cousin, Nykea Aldridge, was killed when she was caught in the crossfire of a gang war. Wade, feeling more emboldened by returning to his hometown, spoke out about the gun violence that gripped the city that year and then-presidential candidate Donald Trump using the tragedy for political gain.
Six days after Wade returned to Miami last month, 14 students and three adults were shot and killed by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland. Ten days later Wade learned the parents of 17-year-old Joaquin Oliver buried their son in a Wade jersey. Wade was back on his platform calling for changes in gun laws and reminding everybody that he will not be silenced.
Was Dwyane Wade put in Chicago and Miami for a reason?
“It definitely crossed my mind,” he said.
Wade’s return to South Florida transcends the basketball court. Sure, he has energized the city and the Heat fan base. The online demand for his Heat “Vice” jersey continues to outweigh the supply. And he turned back the clock with two vintage performances this week in which he averaged 26.0 points and knocked down a game-winning contested jump shot against the 76ers.
But he also returns to a community in which his voice resonates, especially with children who look to him as a role model. Because of that Wade promises he will not “shut up and dribble” when it comes to social issues.
“It comes with age,” Wade said about his comfort in taking a stance. “You get older you stop worrying about things the same. As well, you go through life you get educated on a lot of things. There’s a lot of things I’ve learned over the last two, three years, experiences that changed me, that’s changed my outlook. I’m comfortable getting behind, supporting and talking about things that I want to and I’m not really worried about the repercussions of it.
“I feel that I do understand even more now sitting here at 36 the responsibility of being in a position like this. It’s not just making a lot of money and being on SportsCenter or things like that. I know my role in this life and I try to live up to it and I will continue to.”
Wade joined the Heat in 2003 five months after his 21st birthday. He was bursting with energy and talent. His contributions to the Heat then primarily were on the court. But as he has grown and matured, that impact has become far reaching.
“There was such a purpose attached to his life before he even came into the world,” said Jolinda Wade, Dwyane’s mother, a pastor at New Creation Church in Chicago. “Dwyane is a blessing to the world. I believe that he is strategically placed to serve whatever purpose that is attached to his life at that particular moment.”
Few have seen Wade grow and mature in his professional setting as has Heat president Pat Riley, who drafted Wade and then coached him in his early years.
“When he was first here he was young, he wasn’t naïve, he was excited and he was about the game only,” Riley told The Post. “He has matured in a way like I haven’t seen many players. Very sophisticated and almost worldly to a certain extent. How he expresses himself articulately whether it’s social media or whether it’s on a microphone. And he’s right on.
“I think everybody has seen Dwyane grow over the years in these areas, grow through adversity, grow through maturity, grow through being a great player and winning championships, just getting older.”
Riley coached Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for nine seasons with the Lakers, after playing against him in high school and with him in the NBA. Jabbar, 70, is one of the more outspoken social and political activists of his generation. And although Jabbar’s causes were different growing up in the 60s and converting to Islam, Riley sees similarities in Jabbar’s an Wade’s paths.
“I don’t know if Dwyane has the depth in those issues that Kareem has because of their age but I think one day he will,” Riley said. “When you’re seeing things from 15 years in the NBA and 10 years prior to that what he saw in Chicago, it definitely formulates a base of reference for you to be able to fall back on, and Dwyane is continuing to get educated by life and he knows to speak to life in a very succinct way.”
Wade said the first time he felt confident enough to speak out was after Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American, was shot and killed in 2012 by a security guard in a gated community in Sanford during a physical altercation between the two. Martin was unarmed.
George Zimmerman was tried for the crime and acquitted on self-defense grounds but that did not stop the protests, one coming from the Heat and led by Wade and LeBron James. Wade posted a photo of himself wearing a hoodie to his Twitter and Facebook pages one month later.
“That was the first time for me where I really started getting behind a lot of issues, whether it was politics, whether it was tragedies, and I started doing a lot of things in the community,” Wade said.
Then, after losing his cousin in a year in which Chicago saw 762 murders, the most in nearly two decades, Wade participated in a forum at a YMCA in the South Side of Chicago, not far from where he was raised.
“When you go back and trace his early years, he experienced so much and was around so much of that violence in the South Side,” Riley said. “And he was one of the few that was able to use basketball as a way to get out and to express himself and to become somebody who had a voice.
“Is he going to become an activist or would he ever become an activist? I think one day there is a possibility that he could. People believe him. People will follow him.”
Joaquin Oliver certainly would have had his life not been tragically cut short on Valentine’s Day as he sat in a classroom. Joaquin was excited that Wade had returned to the team he helped lead to three championships and will be remembered for when he is one day enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
And although it was just six days since Wade returned to Miami, Joaquin’s joy must have been overwhelming for his parents to make sure the last time they saw their son he was wearing a Dwyane Wade jersey.
“You play this game and you give everything you have to it and at the end people will argue how good you were statistically, are you in the top, are you not, all that bullcrap,” Wade said.
“It really doesn’t matter. Moments like that is really what the impact is about. What you’ve been able to do for others. What joy you’ve been able to bring.”
Wade has reached out to Joaquin’s family, and Jolinda and her daughter, Tragil, visited the Olivers this week.
Wade feels emboldened by players like James and coaches like Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr and Stan Van Gundy, who are outspoken in their opinions on a wide range of topics, including social issues to politics. And he is not surprised when he hears commentators like Fox News’ Laura Ingraham criticize athletes who use their platform by saying they should “shut up and dribble.” In other words, keep their opinions to themselves.
Ingraham directed her comments towards James, who is one of many NBA players who is critical of President Trump.
“It’s not the first time I’ve heard that as an athlete,” Wade said. “She said it to one of the biggest athletes in the world and it got picked up. I was glad it was said to LeBron because now that conversation can start even more.
“We’re people. We’re people who have a tremendous talent God’s given us but we still live in our communities, we still deal with tragedy, we still deal with depression, the stress. We still deal with everything that everyone deals with. … We’re no different than other individuals. … So, yeah, our voice needs to be heard for the parents, for the individuals in the school to bring and share light or attention on what needs to be done and how we can help get it done.”
And Jolinda, for one, will continue to encourage her son to preach.
“There’s not really works that can explain how proud I am as his mother to see the young man he has become, through life experiences, being a father, understanding that he has a bigger purpose than just playing basketball,” she said. “For him to be the voice to speak the way he speaks and to share his heart, I love it.”