Flying home from Miami with Ava, my 13-year-old daughter, from Dwyane Wade’s last home game as an NBA player, I had much more emotion than I expected.  The amazing memories, watching my kids growing up over the many Miami HEAT seasons, cheering our hearts out, the great night with friends year after year over the holidays, and now the realization knowing it was finally over for good. It was a special season of life for both of us, me and Dwayne, yet he never knew my name.

I could see my memories racing through my mind of all the great Dwyane Wade nights in American Airlines Arena over the past 15 years that filled an entire arena up to the brim with screaming fans all the way up to the nose bleed seats in Miami.  I knew the whole time this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for a crazy basketball fan like myself from Louisville, Kentucky, to feel a part of the five NBA championship runs we had in just 13 years that my family and friends enjoyed like religious holidays. Both may never happen again in my lifetime!

But what really surprises me is the deep emotional attachment to someone (like Dwyane Wade) that I really don’t know at all, and yet my life feels intertwined with his in a very personal way that matters to me more than I realized.  When I was unpacking these feelings, I started to reflect on the very beginning of our connection that seems like a lifetime ago. 

First, I relocated to South Florida full-time from the Midwest in 2002 with great apprehension. Dwyane followed me there from the Midwest two years later as well, as the fifth pick in one of the best and deepest NBA drafts of all time!  Many in Miami were not excited about this Riley Selection but I had watched Dwyane torch my beloved Louisville Cardinals several times. But his national rise came from the NCAA game against Kentucky where he single-handedly beat a solid UK team by himself. I knew what was coming to South Florida by Riley’s bold selection – a new era – something they had never seen since the franchise started in 1988. 

Secondly, I joined an organization, as an executive, that was really struggling at the time and had great uncertainty and needed a winning attitude and a new culture immediately.  Dwyane joined the Miami Heat when his team was at a crossroads in many ways because seats were empty (I was there). The previous solid team of the past was becoming a distant memory and yet he took this challenge and made it a turning point to never look back.  We all tried the same thing in our professional lives in our day jobs just up the road. I think everyone started dreaming bigger from this point forward – the Miami Heat and my healthcare leadership team. 

Then we started to grow and learn to win as well while watching Dwyane win big down the road and that was my time and our place to celebrate – run down to AA arena and celebrate knowing we were all in His House for the night and we finally brought an NBA Championship to Miami! 

The professional achievements we witnessed are staggering to process because his initial billing the day we drafted him in 2003 was not the next Kobe, LeBron, or Michael, but it was the personal side of Dwyane that made this different for me and all of us who were part of this epic time and run.  Over these years we all got to know him personally because he allowed it while he shared his vulnerability with all of us, which was really the best part.  

The personal growth we all witnessed in Dwyane Wade season after season made you relate to him in a multi-dimensional way, which rarely happens in sports.  His humble basketball beginnings, trying to beat his brother/father in his driveway, we could all relate to. His deep loyalty to his family we all know is the foundation of our own values that we try to live today. His early academic struggles that he fought through had an impact on me, as I struggled greatly in high school with dyslexia. I see the impact of this in the screaming young kids at every game believing they can overcome learning obstacles too. His loyalty to a first-class organization like the Miami Heat, where he took big pay cuts to create the BIG 3 and never really wanted to leave, is a dying quality in the workplace that I still personally cherish as I received my 20-year pin last month at my organization. His painful divorce made you want him to find true love like he did with Gabriella Union, and we all felt part of as well.  

As you watch the last dance with Dwyane Wade this year, you feel it all around you if you allow it – redemption, legacy, God, hope, love, loyalty, commitment, excellence, teamwork, family…….

As the loud speaker introduced Dwyane Wade for the last time in AA arena, I got chills because this was it…the end of a once in a lifetime era in South Florida…coming to a glorious and yet very sad close! 

From the first big shot of his rookie year against Byron Davis, we were all in, no matter what the outcome was, for nearly 15 years. We were all part of Wade Country that brought great and beautiful diversity together like no other NBA arena in America that made us see how the world should be, not as it is! 

As Hemingway, (with deep South Florida roots as well) once said, “These are the best of times and the worst of times.” It’s fitting because we all cared, we are sad, we know it will be different after the final horn sounded this night.  

This is a football town with very limited historical basketball roots (this basketball phenomenon may never happen again in Miami – if you don’t believe me just ask the Dolphins fans about the last 20 years since Dan Marino retired – they have never recovered). 

I did renew my HEAT season tickets knowing it will not be the same in my lifetime and loyalty matters to me like it does to Dwyane! 

Anyone who was blessed to be up close and personal with Dwyane Wade knows that we were all impacted by him as a leader, player, father, community activist, teammate, and a MAN who was willing to grow with all of us, lead us to our promise land (NBA Champions), share himself with all of us the whole time, and profess his faith in the Lord in good times and in bad! 

Thanks Dwyane Wade, can we finally get together for lunch since things are slowing down a little and let me tell you about what Dan Issel and the NBA2LOU movement are doing in a Midwest town called Louisville, KY, that you know pretty well already – we need you because we dream of bigger things here, like Miami did, and you know we know basketball like no other city in the world!