ATLANTA — It was an odd sight to see from a divisional opponent.
On Saturday night, Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade walked into State Farm Arena sporting a black dad hat and a jean jacket with a black 90s Steve Smith Hawks jersey underneath. Granted, Smith was once Wade’s teammate in Miami during the 2004-05 season, however, the Wade of yesteryear might have frowned at the homage himself.
A lot of Wade’s perspective has been changed during his final hurrah this season, including how he’s handled other players telling him about how they grew up emulating his game.
“It’s cool now,” Wade said. “Earlier in my career, when I had guys who [told me they] wore No. 3 because of me and all of that, it was a little weird because I was like ‘I’m still here.’ But now, it’s so cool. You know what the game of basketball means for so many young guys around the world, so many kids around the world because I was one before. To be able to play against those guys, and have a conversation, have a moment with those young kids, it’s cool. To know that you have influenced them in some way, that’s the dopest thing in the world.”
One of the young guys who looked up to Wade growing up was Hawks’ rookie Kevin Huerter, who guarded him on Saturday night. Sitting at his locker after the game, with his right foot in a tub of ice, and a band-aid under his left eye from wounds that he suffered earlier in the week, Huerter admitted that while Allen Iverson influenced his No. 3 jersey choice more, Wade had a substantial impact on his life as well.
“I remember his shoe, the Converses were one of my first pairs of shoes,” Huerter said. “I watched him a lot. I think the first time we played them in the preseason, it was pretty cool stepping on the court with D-Wade, someone I watched growing up.”
Wade gave Huerter a glimpse of what guarding the Heat legend was once like during the night.
In the first half, he backed Huerter down low on the right block before knocking down a contested jumper in his face. A minute later, he spun on Huerter but lost the ball. The Hawks recovered the turnover, and Huerter had a clear path for a layup. The rookie then went up-and-under the basket, seemingly attempting one of Wade’s signature circus shots, before missing the attempt.
In the second half, Wade was guarding Huerter, and he stole a pass coming his way, which lead to a Miami dunk. Huerter was assigned to guard Wade down the stretch when the 16-year veteran seemingly ran out of gas on the offensive side of the floor. Wade finished the game with 19 points on seven-of-13 shooting from the field, four turnovers and three assists in 26 minutes. Huerter had 12 points on five-of-seven shooting, three assists and one turnover in 29 minutes of play.
Although sharing moments like the one he had with Huerter, or with Vince Carter swapping jerseys after the game is important to the Wade of today, nearly a decade ago is the era that he said will remember most in his time playing in Atlanta.
The back-and-forth fan interaction is something that Wade said stood out to him everytime he played in the city, especially when two teams played each other for two weeks in a playoff series in 2009. He recalls the battles with Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford as memorable. The time period was the awkward gap between Shaq and the big three taking their talents to South Beach, and it was same season that Wade finished third in MVP voting after averaging 30.2 points, 7.5 assists, 5 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.3 blocks per game.
The Miami Heat went up against the Hawks, who at the time were only in their second season being together in the playoffs. It was seven games full of blowouts, and a big turnaround for the Hawks in the franchise’s 10-year playoff run as Atlanta came into Miami, and stole Game 4 to save the season heading back to Atlanta. Some of the series’ highlights included Smith missing an in-game Eastbay in Game 5, Wade banking in a late-game three-pointer from the Philips Arena logo in Game 2 and Joe Johnson knocking down a jumper from the Hawk logo with Wade closing out on him in Game 7.
“I love Joe, man,” Wade said. “I played with him in the Olympics as well. [In] 2006 at the World Games, but [he] was just one of my favorite players to play against because he’s going to make you think. One thing that I took from Joe was his patience. That’s one thing that Coach [David] Fiz[dale], who came down from Atlanta to Miami, we sat down and talked about Joe’s patience. In the post, in the mid-post, etc. I love his game, man.”
Wade is also a fan of two of the Hawks most recent moves from this summer, by hiring Lloyd Pierce and drafting Trae Young.
“When ‘Bron came to Miami, he and Coach Pierce were very close,” Wade said. “I got the chance to get to know him, be around him. He worked us out in the lockout a lot of times, and [he’s] just a great basketball mind. He got the nod to be the head coach here, and obviously I supported it because I’ve been around it and I know what he brings. It’s great for organizations who are trying to find their way back to where they were a few years ago when they were at the top of the East. To hire a young coach like that, who really knows the game, that can really connect to the players and to the community. It was really a great hire.”
Young had another impressive game on Saturday night. He had 20 points and 13 assists by the end of the third quarter. He finished the night with 24 points, 15 assists, six rebounds and five turnovers. The performance came in front of a crowd that had a great share of Miami fans cheering for the road team. After a critical Atlanta score to keep the Hawks afloat, which forced a Miami timeout, Young emphatically gestured to the fans that they were indeed in his house. It was the latest small moment of the city developing its love for the rookie with expectations to become 1999 Chipper Jones or 2004 Michael Vick in a basketball jersey.
“I’ve seen him from preseason to now, getting a little more comfortable, just coming into his own,” Wade said. “Everyone knows he can shoot the basketball. He can come across half court and do that, but his ability to get into the paint and finish. He’s getting to the basket more, he’s learning how to finish over the big guys.”
Heading into Monday night, Young was fourth in the league for field goal percentage on drives. Only Russell Westbrook, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Tony Parker ranked higher than him in the category.
“[He’s] one of my favorite players to watch as a young player,” Wade said. “You never know what he’s going to do, you never know when he’s going to do it, and it’s exciting. I definitely think it was a great choice by this organization to pick a player like that, especially in the generation we’re in that Steph Curry and them have started. He’s definitely in that same breath of who can potentially be one of those guys who can be one of the all-time greats from the standpoint of the way he shoots the ball, the way he can pass the ball. So, you just wait and see.”
Wade and the Miami Heat will take one final trip to Atlanta on Jan. 6. Until then, the fan tributes and arena goodbyes continue during the modern-day legend’s “last dance.”