- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Around 11:45 a.m. on Wednesday, two games of one-on-eight basketball were going on at the courts off Lake Shore and Hayes in Jackson Park, when a black chauffeured Escalade pulled up to the mostly empty parking lot.
The best active basketball player this court, or any court in Chicago, has ever seen gets out, dressed head to toe in black gym clothes with tiny Jumpman logos, and looks around two side-by-side full courts just a fast break from Lake Michigan.
"Man," Dwyane Wade said. "I haven't been out here in a long time."
If this were a movie, it would be too cliché. The prodigal son returns in a limo and learns the lessons of humility; play the Mike & The Mechanics song and fade to black. But this is Dwyane Wade. This is real.
He is home, but really, he never left.
The courts are somewhat famous in city hoops lore, the kind of place known for a good run. Wade said he used to see Scottie Pippen and R. Kelly play here on summer weekends. It has been said that President Obama used to play here, in his less famous days.
The President may be too famous to come back, but the First Guard of Chicago is not.
As Wade took the court, followed by cameramen, the two games continued unabated, everyone going hard to the hoop. A small, hard-looking man with sunken cheeks and a rarely seen Chris Webber Sixers T-shirt unfurled ugly hook shot after ugly hook shoot. No one played defense. Everyone acted cool for the cameras.
If Michael Jordan walked onto the court, there would have been silence, awe, reverence. But Michael Jordan wasn't from Chicago. He just played basketball here, starred in commercials, branded himself Chicago's own.
Wade is the real deal, as South Side as Harold's Chicken Shack and I-57.
Wade was at this court not by chance or for reflection, but rather, for the first stop of his "Homecoming" shoot. The show is ESPN's version of "This is Your Life," with Rick Reilly as the host.
Coming home is nothing new for the star guard of the Miami Heat. Wade returns to Chicago regularly to work out, visit family and friends and occasionally torch his hometown team. Wade recently caused Bulls fans' tongues to wag when he closed on a $1.4 million townhouse, just 2.5 miles from the United Center.
Wade is currently slated to be a free agent in the Big Class of 2010, along with LeBron James and Chris Bosh, so the question is on everyone's lips: Will Wade come to the Bulls? Can "Homecoming" be a regular series?
I don't even think Wade knows the answer to that. Not yet anyway.
Wade has told reporters that he sees himself staying with the Heat for the rest of his career, but isn't closing the book on anything, or any team. One of his associates verified to me those feelings are authentic.
"Dwyane is happy in Miami," he said.
In many ways, Miami is home to the adult Dwyane Wade. It's where he works and plays. Chicago is where Dwyane Wade is from; it's the genesis of his identity. So the question in my mind is, can you go home again and be the same person you were then, and are now? Do you want to try?
Sure, it might just come down to money and contract years, which Miami can offer more of. It might come down to South Beach versus Lake Effect Snow. Still, all hope isn't lost, Bulls fans. Maybe Pat Riley will try to trade for Matt Cassel. (If you don't get that joke, you're not a Bears fan.)
If you want to dream, getting Wade would give the Bulls an unstoppable, All-Chicago backcourt. During the taping, Reilly mentions Derrick Rose as one of the great Chicago guards, along with Isiah Thomas and Mark Aguirre, who went 1-2 in the 1981 draft. Wade, showing a Jordan-like sense of comedic timing, laughed.
"Derrick Rose, already?" he said. "Huh."
All jokes aside, Wade and Rose are tough, savvy guards who have unmatched blow-by ability. Could you imagine them together? Chicago would be the center of the basketball world again.
The duo would be the 21st century, homegrown MJ and Scottie, the best one-two backcourt punch in years. The Bulls obviously have an interest, and an opening at shooting guard and money to spend. Wade would have to find the on-court product enticing and the marketing opportunities plentiful.
Here's the problem: It's not going to happen. I'm calling no way, no how, on this Hoop Dream.
Two kids from the South Side starring on the Bulls? They're more Englewood than Hollywood. In some ways, it would be a perfect fit. But maybe it's too good to be true.
Living in Miami allows Wade to focus on basketball away from familiar distractions. Chicago means more obligations, potential headaches. Now he can dip in and dip out whenever he pleases, crash downtown and visit friends and family. He can go to his mother's church, jet to Peoria to see his alma mater, H.L. Richards in Oak Lawn, play in the state championship, as he did in 2008, and no one's the wiser.
Would Wade be able to move back to Chicago and continue to grow, continue to develop into a man? He had a rough go of it this past year, going through a very public divorce with his wife, Siohvaughn. How would he like to wake up and see that on the back page of the Sun-Times?
Rose knows all about that kind of negative attention. After a wildly successful rookie of the year campaign, he was implicated in the academic scandal that has since wiped the record from his only season at Memphis. It led the news in Chicago. When he was caught making gang signs in a photo, it was everywhere. Wade is much older and wiser than Rose, but would he want the extra headaches? We'll see.
Wade's friend Marcus Andrews, who moved to Miami with Wade after he was drafted fifth by the Heat in 2003, said it was good to get out of the city to start his career, a blessing in many ways. Indiana Hoosiers coach Tom Crean, who coached Wade at Marquette, said it wouldn't have mattered where he played, because he was mature beyond his years in college, and cognizant of potential stumbling blocks.
"He's in control," Crean told me before the main taping of the "Homecoming" show. "He's guarded and he's very shrewd. He thinks before he acts. He's always been that way."
While Rose has been a star in Chicago since he was in junior high, a legend by the time he reached Simeon and the beneficiary of a fateful pingpong ball to wind up in a Bulls uniform, Wade didn't get that kind of love until he was in the NBA. He was a well-kept secret in the south suburbs, not far from Midway Airport, before getting into Marquette as a Prop 48.
"He was seventh in Mr. Basketball voting," Crean said to me before Thursday's big taping. Crean just shook his head and smiled. He took a chance on Wade and it changed the kid's life, and Crean's. He was a fledgling head coach when he signed Wade; now he's the head man at Indiana University. Wade helped make it happen.
Wade had to persevere from a troubled home life with his mom to adjusting to a new environment with his father. His friends still see him as the scrappy overachiever, even though he's a chiseled, 6-foot-4 superstar.
"He's always been an underdog his whole life," his buddy Andrews said. "He's always had the skills and the talent, but he was always overlooked. He's still overlooked in the NBA."
"That's one of the keys to his path to his growth," another friend, Vincent Holmes, said. "He's never been first, or the People's Champ. Even going into the draft he's never really gotten the recognition he deserved."
Wade is already thinking about his future. Andrews, who helps manage his friend's business and personal affairs, is now focused on Wade's life after basketball. Wade is only 27.
Andrews grew up next to Wade's house in south suburban Robbins, where he awoke to a familiar sound every morning: Dwyane playing basketball.
"He would shovel a path from the free throw line to the basket back to him, so the ball would roll back to him," Andrews said. "Every morning he would be shooting. Fourth, fifth grade all through high school. It's hard work and dedication. That story is a prime example of it."
Wade moved easily through his shoot for the show, which has an unknown air date. He went from the courts to his mother's church on South Halsted to his old high school, never changing out of his Jordan gear.
Wade bought his mother, Jolinda, this church, cutting the ribbons last year. Jolinda was a former drug addict and minor criminal who turned her life around as Wade came into his own on the court. Now she's a preacher, at ease with life.
At the church, Wade relaxed between the shoot, watching home videos on a laptop with some family members, eating pizza, goofing around with his 7-year-old son, Zaire, who was born when Wade was playing for Marquette. He seemed at peace.
At the high school, he shot around with some current Richards players. Wade is a major donor to the program, providing them with a Converse deal when he was with that company. Now they can expect head-to-toe Jordan treatment. The court is named after Wade. When he hung on the rim, Reilly chided him, and Wade joked, "These are my rims."
It wasn't always like that, and that's what makes Wade's story so relatable. Growing up, Anthony said Wade "was the worst athlete of all of us." What made him different, Anthony noted, was his focus, and skill, in basketball. The athleticism kicked in later during high school.
"It's inspiring," Richards senior guard Brandon Snowden said of Wade's story. "It makes you feel like it can happen to you."
"When I talk to him, I feel like I'm talking to one of my friends," said Eliud Gonzalez, who led Richards to the 2008 state title and now plays for Illinois Wesleyan.
The kids aren't cowed by Wade and he doesn't try to play it cool in front of them. The first 3 he takes is an air ball. He then misses a dunk during a scripted layup drill and asks for a second chance, which he promptly slams with authority. Wade is beloved by his former coach Jack Fitzgerald (now a scout for the Heat) and the team's current coach, John Chappetto, who was an assistant during part of Wade's time. All coaches love this guy.
"He's never been entitled," Crean said.
Everyone has something good to say about Wade, and it wasn't just rote praise. Everyone in Chicago really loves him. Maybe that's the beauty of coming home. No one gets sick of you, and you don't outgrow your roots. When Wade returns, he's still the same guy who had to fight for respect, who had to grow to become great. He earned his ticket out.
After Wade leaves the small gym early Wednesday evening, a day before the big taping and two before the induction in Marquette's Hall of Fame, I'm talking to Chappetto when a rangy kid no bigger than Wade was when he was in high school walks by.
"You should have let me dunk," he joked. "I can jump higher than Dwyane."
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
Dwyane Wade comes home to visit, which may be more comfortable than coming home to play.