DALLAS — With 5:52 remaining in the first quarter, a familiar face rose up from the opposing bench, took off his Black History Month warmup t-shirt, and walked to the scorer’s table. Taking notice, the crowd made a mixed reaction. It soon grew to cheers as another rose, this time from the Mavericks’ bench. The two met in the middle. Forty seconds later, during a dead ball, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki walked onto the court together.
In any other season, this event would mark another chapter in the long history the two future Hall-of-Famers share. Wednesday night, however, served as their final chapter at the American Airlines Center. Before and after the game, coaches and players from both the Heat and Mavericks said the right things — as they should — praising the two veterans. Yet, the reverent words didn’t do justice to the rivalry the two players established throughout their careers. Nor did they placate the fans in attendance.
When it comes to Wade, there isn’t a player that Mavericks fans love to hate more. No one on the Showtime Lakers or the Spurs comes close. He is the alpha and omega of their ire. Prior to the game, Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle said he expected the fans’ reception of Wade to be “very positive.” In a way it was. They were positively delighted to rain down boos on the Miami star one last time. They just had to wait a few minutes before doing so.
Sending Nowitzki into the game at the same time as Wade appeared to be a tactical decision. The AAC is deafening every night when Nowitzki checked in. If there were jeers for Wade when he checked in you couldn’t hear them. In fact, had it been any other player, fans may not have noticed. Sean Heath, the public address announcer didn’t even say Wade’s name when he entered the game. Once he touched the ball, though, you knew who it was. The arena erupted in a chorus of boos.
For a player on a farewell tour, especially one of Wade’s stature, this isn’t the norm. Most fans applaud. But in Dallas, the derision was inevitable. The Mavericks — and their fans — have a long, frigid relationship with Wade dating back to the 2006 Finals. The reasons are myriad and not worth rehashing here. Chances are if you’re reading this, you can effortlessly recite them at length. It’s their lingering presence that still haunts. And while those memories are fading, they’re not forgotten. Once sparked, though, they rush to the fore.
If Wade’s presence on the Mavericks’ home court, where he won his first championship, wasn’t enough to vex Dallas fans, he gave them a taste of that moment from 13 years ago prior to the game. During his pregame shootaround routine, he reenacted the final seconds of Game 6 of the Finals. It was a moment that had the media in town from Miami awestruck and left a bitter taste in the mouths of everyone else. Nowitzki, though, took it in stride.
“He got on my case a little bit about recreating ’06 — throwing the ball up before the game,” Wade said of the conversation he and Nowitzki had at the scorer’s table. “We just had a little laugh about it. It was fun.”
After everything, this is where the rivalry — if you can still call it that — stands today. Neither Wade nor Nowitzki are competing for championships anymore. Rather, they are in the twilight of their careers with nothing left to prove. Whatever animosity that existed between the two is relegated to the past.
“There was a time there around ’06 and a little after where our relationship was a little frosty,” Nowitzki said of Wade recently. “But I think we’re both over that.”
Even though the fans showered Wade with boos early on, they began to taper off as the game slipped away from the Mavericks in the third quarter. In a way, it was fitting. Both the Mavericks and the Heat are transitioning. Nowitzki and Wade aren’t drawing the crowds for their play on the court anymore. Instead, fans are packing arenas for one last glimpse of a bygone era.
Late in the fourth quarter, Heat fans in attendance — they still pack opposing arenas years after their dynasty dissolved — made their presence known. They began chanting “We want Wade” as their franchise icon sat on the bench. Erik Spoelstra did not heed their pleas, however, and Wade remained seated.
For more than a decade, Dwyane Wade was the definition of villain in Dallas’ lexicon. It’s possible that he always will be. But as a new generation of players take to the court donning the blue, white, and silver, Wade’s role as the Mavericks’ main antagonist will drift and fade into background just like the boos on Wednesday night.
As the two exchanged jerseys after the game, one thing was clear. For all the trials, missteps, lows, and highs of their careers, Nowitzki and Wade will forever be linked. And on this night, they both went out on top.