By Anthony Peretore
This past NBA off-season was undoubtedly one of the more eventful layoffs in league history. We welcomed in the expansion Charlotte Bobcats (Team B.E.T), witnessed one of the best drafts in recent history, and saw a flurry of transactions snatching headlines across the globe. Big name players such as Tracy McGrady, Steve Francis, Steve Nash, Kenyon Martin, Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington, Antawn Jamison, Jason Terry, Quentin Richardson, Gary Payton and Paul Shirley all changed addresses. However, the biggest deal of the summer was most certainly the Los Angeles Lakers dealing the disgruntled Shaquille O’Neal to the Miami Heat in exchange for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a first-round pick. What this entailed was arguably the most dominant player in league history switching teams (and conferences) and perhaps swaying the power in the East directly into American Airlines Arena. After the deal went down, we all expected Shaq to have a brilliant season, if only to show Laker management as well as Kobe Bryant what a terrible mistake they had made. What we questioned however, was how well the rest of the relatively lackluster Heat roster would help O’Neal in his quest for a fourth NBA Title. Christian Laettner, Wang Zhizhi, Rasual Butler, Keyon Dooling? These were the guys Shaq might have to depend on in crunch time? While we all anticipated big things in Miami, there were countless reasons to remain skeptical at the same time. But here we are three months later at the half-way mark, and the Heat own a conference-best 33-14 record (fourth best overall), valid proof that the supporting cast has most certainly done their job.
So who, besides O’Neal, has stepped up the most in guiding this team to such a commanding post in the East? Most notably it’s been the rest of the starting five. Second year power forward Udonis Haslem has provided excellent support for Shaq down low in averaging 11.9 PPG and 8.9 RPG. Free agent acquisition Damon Jones has been extremely versatile, one night playing as a pass-first guard (10 games with 7 or more assists), the next as a deadly shooter (3rd in NBA with 121 3-pointers made). Veteran Eddie Jones has become more consistent as the year wears on, with his scoring average and shooting percentages rising in each of the first three months. But the main ingredient in this season’s rise to the top has undoubtedly been the emergence Dwyane Wade. We first got a sense of how good he truly was during the 2003 NCAA Tournament when he lead the Marquette Golden Eagles to their third Final Four appearance, averaging 21.8 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 6.9 APG, 1.8 SPG and 1.6 BPG in five games. No one expected the tiny school from Wisconsin to advance that far in the tournament or to field such a mature and exciting NBA player. We all heard about Wade, but let’s be serious, it was Marquette, how good could he be? And if he was that good, why was he at Marquette? So when he was chosen 5th overall in the ’03 Draft, big things might have been expected of “Flash” down the road, but certainly not this soon. But, last season he finished third behind LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in Rookie of the Year voting after posting 16.3 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 4.5 APG, 1.4 SPG and 0.6 BPG. While all the hype was on these other two however, D-Wade was quietly evolving into one of the league’s best guards.
Dwyane Wade has gone from being the “other rookie” last year (in comparison with James and Anthony) to possibly owning a spot on the All-NBA First Team this season. His numbers can’t be denied: 23.7 PPG (9th in NBA), 5.2 RPG, 7.5 APG (5th), 1.5 SPG and 1.1 BPG. In addition, he has 11 double-doubles and 1 triple-double while budding as one of the relatively unguardable players in the NBA. Not only has the second-year star stepped up to help shoulder the load, but he and Shaq have also established themselves as the league’s best duo. The biggest reason behind this establishment may surprise you however. It is easy to see how well both have meshed on the court, but the main ingredient behind their fusion can perhaps be further attributed to their similarities in personality. The same gentlemanly eloquence we have witnessed from O’Neal for all 13 seasons of his NBA career, we are also seeing first hand from Wade. This trait has not only allowed these two to establish a trust in one another, but also a mutual respect, something obviously missing for Shaq last year in L.A.
It was expected: Lakers lose in the Finals, Phil Jackson quits, the team self-implodes, Shaq is traded, Shaq is mad, Shaq gets in great shape, Shaq has his team in first place all season. We didn’t need Dionne Warwick, Jackie Stallone, and the Psychic Friends Network for this one. What we weren’t expecting was the vastly improved play and maturity from Wade in just his second season out of Marquette. It is no secret that Dwyane Wade is a mild mannered player-a guy giving everything on the court without the swagger or cockiness so often seen in NBA arenas today. When a player of his caliber comes along, we as fans cannot help but compare him, looking back saying things like, “Oh, he reminds me of…” And with Wade, well he reminds me a lot of Barry Sanders, though it may be too soon judge. What I remember best of Sanders is that he gave his all every Sunday even if he was hurt or knew his team had no chance of winning that day. More importantly, when he did his job well, he acted like he had done it before and that he would certainly do it again. He never high-stepped into the end zone, signaled first down or bitched at referees. He was everything we expected from a professional athlete, and what made it even better was how great he truly was. To me, this is Wade in a nutshell, at least from what I’ve seen so far. He’s different from all the other superstars in this league in that he gets the job done but could care less if it goes relatively unnoticed, a characteristic that tends to put rings on fingers. All in all, he appears to be the perfect role model not only for aspiring ball players, but also kids in general. He doesn’t sport any tattoos (nevermind 37) nor does he show up to games in hoodies or throwbacks. Not that there is anything wrong with these things, but it’s good to show kids that there is an alternative lifestyle to the majority of these players. Wade is a true gentleman of professional sports, something we do not get a chance to witness very often. Although Shaq has given him the nickname “Flash,” it is certainly not due to a large ego but more so to his quickness and excellence on the basketball court.
So whom should we credit for Wade’s professionalism? His parents? His education? His wife? I’m sure it’s a combination of all these things, but the maintenance of this maturity has most certainly been assisted by the guidance of O’Neal. Think back to Shaq’s career. What has he ever done to make us question him as a person? He’s the guy always talking to reporters, telling them what they want to hear without the endless loopholes. He’s the guy always cracking jokes, allowing us to see the real human being behind the monstrous 7’1, 325 lbs. frame. He’s the guy in “Kazaam” allowing us to perhaps see a sensitive side of him. It’s a fact: we’ve always felt comfortable with him because he’s always been comfortable with us knowing who the real Shaquille O’Neal truly is. Sure he gets angry from time to time and will yell at reporters, coaches and teammates, but who wouldn’t? He’s a real person and we as fans appreciate that. And that’s all he wanted in Los Angeles, for his teammates and management to be real with him. All he wanted was for those in the organization to treat him like the player that won them three championships. It all boiled down to one thing: respect. So, Shaq demanded a trade and now he has found that respect and realness in Miami, and especially with Wade.
On Christmas Day, O’Neal fouled out late in the fourth quarter in ironically, a game against the Lakers. Instead of throwing in the towel, Wade went up to Shaq and assured him that he had his back. It was ironic because if the people in that arena had had Shaq’s back last season and this summer, he would have been wearing gold and purple that day. Perhaps the trust O’Neal and Wade established at that moment helped seal the victory that day. But it was much more than one win. It was extracting a bit of revenge on his old mates and more importantly, letting them see how far a little respect and trust will get you. Right now the Miami Heat are the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. How are the Lakers doing?
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