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Dwyane Wade’s Rarefied Air

5 minute read

Let’s face it — the comparison just isn’t fair. At all. Remember the highlight clips, the posters from the 1980s, when a skinny Michael Jordan soared above the seven-foot stiffs of the day, his knees knocking their noses, for a ferocious, “did that just happen?” dunk? Well, as amazing as he is, anointing Miami Heat superstar guard and NBA Finals MVP Dwyane Wade the rightful heir to His Airness is just silly — just as it was before with such flameouts as Harold Miner, or stars in their own right like Vince Carter and Kobe Bryant.

Still, along with laughing at Dallas owner Mark Cuban’s ranting against the refs like a Little League dad, showering Wade with superlatives became fashionable during the NBA Finals, which ended Tuesday night with Miami’s stirring 95-92 victory in Game 6. He certainly deserves most of the compliments — he did average 34 points a game in the finals, in one of the most dominating individual performances in recent NBA history. And indeed, Wade’s aerial escapades may eventually catch up to Jordan’s. But for the moment, let Michael just be the greatest player of all time. And let Wade be the best player in the world right now.

In just his third NBA season, Wade, 24, has carried the Heat on his sculpted shoulders to its first-ever NBA title (Michael didn’t win one until his seventh season), taking over a series that was one part gripping basketball, two parts circus. There was Dallas coach Avery Johnson sequestering the Mavericks in Fort Lauderdale after blowing a 2-0 lead in Miami — no South Beach for you, Dirk Nowitzki. And Cuban conducting sweaty interviews from his treadmill while badmouthing the refs — some deserved — which earned him a $250,000 fine. For good measure, Nowitzki kicked a ball into the stands after Miami’s controversial 101-100 overtime win in Game 5. The Mavs spent so much energy off the court, they could have used that extra ammo for the games.

Especially when it came to stopping Wade, who shined when the Heat needed him most, scoring 15 points during the fourth quarter of Miami’s crucial Game 3 victory (he finished with 42), and 17 in the fourth quarter of Miami’s Game 5 win (finishing with 43). Last night, a 36-point outing, he hit the bank shots, fall-aways and foul shots that made the difference. “[His teammates] had so much respect for him because they trusted him,” said Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, who won his fourth NBA title, and his first since 1988, when he coached the Magic Johnson-led Showtime Lakers. “They trusted that he wasn’t for himself only. They trusted that he was all about winning. Wade is probably one of the most respected young players the game has had in a long time, and I think he proved a lot in the last four games.” Added Heat guard Jason Williams: “I just gave him the ball and got out of the way. I knew he’d do the rest.”

No one predicted Wade’s stunning ascension to the top of the basketball world. He wasn’t one of the overhyped high school stars who expect everything handed to them. While growing up in a suburb near Chicago’s South Side, idolizing Jordan’s Bulls, Wade was seriously recruited by only three colleges. He chose Marquette, in Milwaukee. “My hope was just that he would get some quality playing time at Marquette,” says Wade’s high school coach, Jack Fitzgerald. But he has improved his game every year in college and the pros, and in 2004, Shaquille O’Neal demanded a trade from the Los Angeles Lakers to the Heat in part because he knew he could co-exist with the ego-free Wade. “Everything that happened in L.A.,” says Wade, referring to O’Neal’s clashes with Kobe Bryant, “wasn’t going to happen here.” How humble is Wade? His tithes 10% of his $3.03 million salary to his Chicago church.

No doubt, Wade’s slashing style benefited from NBA rules changes that require referees to call the game much closer — even slight contact might get you to the foul line. In Game 5, Wade shot 25 foul shots — as much as the entire Dallas team. In Game 6, he shot 21 more. For years, Dallas will be smarting over a foul call against Nowitzki in the waning seconds of game 5 — he barely touched Wade, but the refs awarded Wade the winning free throws. So yes, Wade’s stats might be a bit inflated — but getting questionable foul calls was also a trademark of Jordan and other NBA superstars.

Some basketball purists have griped that the very success of Wade’s one-on-five isolation game is a setback for a league that had only recently, with the help of rule changes, brought back the beauty of old-fashioned team basketball — the kind practiced by the Detroit Pistons, San Antonio Spurs and, yes, Dallas Mavericks. But most are just happy to celebrate a superstar unique in his own right.

In other words, just talk about Wade as Wade. “To me, it’s still crazy when I walk around and I see people wearing my jersey, people wearing my shoes,” said Wade, whose jersey sales are tops in the NBA, and who has a sneaker contract with Converse. “It’s still weird to me but I’m sure some kid will go out in the backyard and try to be like me, and that’s great.” An NBA great who is startled by his own stardom? Now that’s rarefied Air.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com