MIAMI -- Dwyane Wade has had June 20 circled for a long time.
Not because Sunday will be exactly four years since the Miami Heat beat the Dallas Mavericks for the 2006 NBA title, the series where Wade's spectacular play earned him the Finals MVP trophy. In fact, Wade insists that until he was reminded of it a few days ago, he didn't even make the connection between that date and the championship anniversary.
For Wade, June 20 is significant for two other reasons -- his young sons, Zaire and Zion. He'll spend Father's Day with them, something that hasn't always been possible during a nasty divorce and custody fight that has waged since 2007 between the Heat star and his estranged wife.
"Being with my kids, biggest thing right now," Wade said. "No question."[+] EnlargeElsa/Getty ImagesMiami's Dwyane Wade is one of this summer's top free agents, but right now he's just trying to be a better dad.
The free agency window opens July 1, when Wade will stand alongside LeBron James and Chris Bosh as one of the most-coveted players to hit the NBA's personnel marketplace. Yet even with the possibility of a $127 million contract awaiting and an ongoing quest to lure another superstar to join him and the Heat for next season and beyond, Wade spends most of his time right now fussing over his kids, trying to rebuild relationships that were damaged by the failure of their parents' marriage.
Yes, for the former NBA scoring champion, this Father's Day is far bigger than the looming Free Agent Day.
"You go through a whole season, even the last two seasons and feel incomplete in a way no matter what kind of success you have, because you don't have the most important thing to you with you," Wade said in a telephone interview. "My boys. To be able to have this relationship with them as I have since this summer hit, it's been probably the best feeling I've had since winning the championship."
Wade doesn't always speak about the emotional strains that came as a byproduct of the divorce proceedings between himself and the former Siohvaughn Funches, his high school and college sweetheart.
Custody arrangements have been often strained, the divorce trial still hasn't happened -- delayed numerous times by his estranged wife changing attorneys. This month, a Chicago court awarded temporary custody to Wade, citing "continual interference" by his wife when it's his turn to have the kids. Meanwhile, Mrs. Wade has asserted in court filings that the Heat star is not a worthy father.
So Wade is taking some steps to further prove his commitment as a dad to the court.
This summer, amid all the free agency hubbub, Wade is taking parenting classes -- just to ensure no missteps with the boys.
"I have been out of their everyday lives for the last three years," Wade said. "I understand my parenting ways aren't as much as someone who's around them 80 percent of the time. I understand I have things to catch up on. I will get better at it. If I learn one thing, I'll feel accomplished."
Wade acknowledges several things, including that he's not a perfect father (for example, the ever-competitive perennial NBA All-Star simply can't allow himself to let his kids win all the time when playing anything against their dad) and that it's often difficult for him to have that traditional, everyday grasp on parenting.
He travels tens of thousands of miles annually for his job. He works nights. Those alone are two reasons why it's not easy.
Then consider in that Wade's job is in Miami, that he didn't have a steady relationship with his father growing up in a broken home, that his kids and soon-to-be-ex-wife are in Chicago, and the barriers keep piling up.
That's why, he says, this summer is so vital to his role as the family patriarch.
"It's way harder than I can put in words," Wade said. "It's tough, especially for the kids who can't have the relationship with their father like they want all the time, come to him when there's a problem, or sit down all the time and help them with their homework, or take them to school or pick them up from school. It's the little things you miss, the little things the kids appreciate."
And it's one of those little things that might just be the highlight of Wade's offseason so far.
It happened Thursday morning in Chicago. He was taking his younger son to day camp, dropping him off for a few hours of running around with other kids.
The boy would not let go of his father's leg for 30 minutes.
It was a Father's Day gift that came three days early, Wade said.
"That's what you miss," Wade said. "To me, it was priceless to get that feeling. That's what this is about for me right now. I don't think people really understand that."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press