Dwyane Wade Closes Out NBA Career as Leader in Miami Community

MIAMI -- There are two words, in particular, that Nataly Garcia remembers fondly from her first encounter in 2007 with Dwyane Wade. Nataly was one of five kids—and the only girl—who wished to meet the Miami Heat legend and future Hall of Famer through Make-A-Wish Southern Florida.

“Every time he would get another kid from the room that we were waiting in, he would tell me, ‘My girl, my girl, you're coming up.’ So he saved me for last,” Nataly tells CloseUp360. “I'm walking to the court to where he is and he tells me, ‘Finally, it's my girl’s turn.’"

Nataly, then just 10, was struggling to manage her autoimmune disorder, but that day with Dwyane meant everything to her. She remembers how he playfully rubbed her dad’s belly for good luck during their game of one-on-one. How they played W-A-D-E instead of H-O-R-S-E. How his dunk was the first one she had ever seen in real life. How he adjusted the backpack of swag he gave her, so it would fit just right. And, most importantly, how he encouraged her with his words.

“He told me always keep my head up and to keep pushing forward,” Nataly recalls. “As much as I could, never let anything get in my way.”

The South Florida community is littered with stories like Nataly’s where Dwyane has found a way to make special moments even more extraordinary. He adds a personal touch through his investment in those moments. “Community,” “team” and “family” are words he treats like synonyms.

So as Dwyane sets foot on the court at AmericanAirlines Arena for #OneLastDance in a Heat uniform at home, he will do so with thousands of fans in the stands (and many thousands more at home) close to his heart.

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Dwyane Wade adjusts Nataly Garcia's backpack. (Courtesy of Make-A-Wish Southern Florida)

Dwyane’s philanthropy spans an array of causes—most notably from his Wade’s World Foundation, which works to provide support to community-based organizations that promote education, health and social skills for children in at-risk situations. The foundation’s work includes the lauded “3 Under the Tree” initiative, where he helps and visits families specifically during the holiday season.

Dwyane’s charitable portfolio includes community bike rides, and work with Make-A-Wish Southern Florida and so many others. Overall, his impact on South Florida beyond basketball has been profound. His push for social responsibility predates the current era of teams hiring staff dedicated to aiding players in those efforts.

“The long and short of it is, D-Wade and I realize that we would not be here without the contributions of others,” says Alonzo Mourning, Dwyane’s former teammate and fellow Miami community leader. “We've been blessed with so much. We’d be doing those folks [in the community] a disservice if we did not give back.”

The Heat didn’t have to wait long to catch glimpses of Dwyane’s giving spirit. During his second NBA season, he parlayed his then-new deal with Converse to have hundreds of pairs of shoes delivered to Miami’s front office in duffle bags.

“I'm looking, like, what's going on here?” recalls Michael McCullough, the Heat’s longtime executive vice president and chief marketing officer. “And then we get a note from Dwyane's people saying that he really appreciates everything that you guys on the business side have done for him.”

Michael adds, “I’ve been in the NBA 31 years and I have never seen anything like that from any player to any team in the front office. And this was a kid in his second year in the NBA, which told me a whole lot about who he was going to be throughout his career.”

Commitment to the community often comes with the spoils of increased fanfare and media recognition. While those things have certainly come for Dwyane, it was never his intention to become more famous as a result of what he did for others. According to Michael, the team had to convince the rising star to allow them to chronicle his efforts.

“Early in his career, we had to kind of force our way in because he wasn't doing it for the coverage,” Michael says. “We were, like, ‘Look, we understand that, but if a tree falls in the forest and nobody's there, no one knows. We need to let people know what you're doing because it's important to you or you wouldn't be doing it.’”

Michael believes that he is reserved by nature, despite his stardom, and credits Shaquille O’Neal, who spent three-and-a-half seasons and won a title with Dwyane, for convincing the Chicago native to open up more.

“I think Shaq really helped him with that stuff when he was here,” Michael notes. “He showed Dwyane that you can be this other personality and maybe not lose what you really want to hold onto.”

Dwyane, though, doesn’t cheapen important moments with cameras unnecessarily. Take, for example, his visit to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, after the horrific shooting in February 2018. Heat representatives were already in contact with the school to coordinate healing efforts, when word broke that Dwyane was taking matters into his own hands.

“He went up there and literally got up there before we could do anything about it,” Michael adds. “So all the footage and stuff that we have from there is all from the kids' phones and everything. We weren't there. That's what he wanted. He just wanted to go up there and let those kids know that they were on his mind, and that he was very concerned about them.”

The shooting touched Dwyane on a deeper level. His sons, Zaire and Zion, go to school in the same county.

One of the victims, Joaquin Oliver, was a lifelong fan. Dwyane, in turn, honored him by giving the Oliver family a commemorative jersey and custom sneakers featuring his name and the logo of the school.

“Just for a moment, to give them that positive memory of their son, was great,” Dwyane told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

He would also go on to dedicate the rest of the 2017-18 season to Joaquin by writing his name on his sneakers for every game.

Father Prime’s feats in the community spark different memories across his reach. Alonzo remembers a particular young man who got suspended from school, and how Dwyane paid the kid’s attorney fees as he fought to get back into the institution.

“Because he’s D-Wade, he realizes the value of education,” Alonzo says. “The kid may have made some bad decisions, but that didn't make him a bad person. Dwyane just went to bat for this kid. That's not his child, but he felt like it was the right thing to do. He's always doing amazing positive stuff. In this case, it might have changed a life.”

Dwyane did so in a sweet and simple way for Max Costanzo. In 2009, Make-A-Wish Southern Florida facilitated a meeting between him and Dwyane prior to a Heat game against the Golden State Warriors. Max, who lives with Common Variable Immune Deficiency (CVID), entered the Miami locker room more like a reporter than a kid meeting his idol.

His first question to Dwyane? Favorite type of milk.

Dwyane’s answer? “Chocolate.”

“I actually was doing it interview style. I brought my little notebook and everything,” Max jokes. “I had all my questions and I wanted to know his nutrition plan and everything. Most kids that meet him just shake his hand, high five, all that...but I was there to know more about him as a person.”

Max would enjoy many more unforgettable moments with Dwyane, who also brought out Udonis Haslem for the interview. During the game, Dwyane had a team-autographed basketball delivered to Max’s seat as the cherry on top to a perfect evening.

“He really went above and beyond,” says Max, who’s now studying communications at Florida Gulf Coast University. “That day helped me forget for a minute that I’m different.”

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Dwyane shares a moment with Max and his mom. (Courtesy of Make-A-Wish Southern Florida)

Dwyane never treats anyone like they are different from the rest of society, but he does treat people like they are special to him. According to Make-A-Wish representatives, he’s granted the wishes of 38 kids and counting—and, sometimes, more than once.

Years after her wish was granted, Nataly and her dad spotted Dwyane and his wife, Gabrielle Union, at the airport in Ibiza, Spain. After some nudging from her father, she reluctantly approached the couple and identified herself.

“Hey Dwyane, it’s me, Nataly, from Make-A-Wish,” she exclaimed.

Without flinching, he turned around, smiled and hugged his girl one more time.

“He probably doesn't even know how much he's helped a lot of us kids move forward with our diseases, or with any problems that anyone's having,” Nataly says.

Helping others is what Dwyane does regardless of who’s watching or who isn’t. The Miami Heat arranged for him to meet Michael “Mikey” Stolzenberg, one of his many fans and a quadruple-amputee. He surprised Mikey with a new computer equipped with speech recognition, and then walked the streets of the neighborhood as if they were old friends. They chatted back and forth with an easy banter usually reserved for lifelong connections. Neighbors gathered around them, not to intrude, but to share in the moment in their own way.

“I was right there and it was something I will never forget,” Michael McCullough recalls. “It’s one of those things Dwyane just has...and other people, they have it or they don’t: that ability to just immerse yourself in someone else’s world.”

For the last 16 years, Dwyane has shared his world with countless people, close confidants and complete strangers alike. Alonzo calls him one of the all-time most charitable and giving people in sports. And from what Dwyane has shown so far, retirement isn’t going to change that.

 

Warren Shaw is a veteran NBA writer based in Miami. Follow him on Twitter.