Stop Dwyane Wade before he falls again! The best player on the suddenly animate Miami Heat got his Jordan "Flu Game" last night, pacing Miami with 36 points on a knee so gimpy that a day earlier he had to be ferried around the arena in a maintenance cart. Maybe the injury wasn't as crippling as it was originally made out to be. Or perhaps Wade is now accustomed to playing through any malady, be it a sprained wrist, a strained rib, or the sniffles. Most decent pros do the same, though none so constantly and dramatically as Wade. His Converse sneaker ad —"Fall Seven Times. Stand Up Eight."—is all about Wade's penchant for getting beat up. It's a strange trademark for a pro athlete: No basketball player gets his ass kicked more than Dwyane Wade. Oddly enough, that's what's made him the most popular player in the NBA.
The Heat were receiving a handy thumping from the Mavericks until late in Game 3. That's when Shaquille O'Neal fell onto Wade's knee, wounding the Miami guard so grievously that he went on to score 15 points in a near-perfect fourth quarter. After Wade's 42 points propelled the biggest comeback in Heat playoff history, newscasters down here in Florida apologized for comparing Wade to Michael Jordan, then did so repeatedly. Such comparisons are lazy: Jordan didn't win titles playing like a Plinko chip. Smaller than Jordan and more nimble than his cohort LeBron James, Wade is more like fellow contact hound/walking infirmary Allen Iverson—if Iverson were a mite bigger and more consistently pleasant. After tying the series last night, Wade smiled broadly in a post-game interview and later offered the media a line straight from the Book of Iverson: "Everybody knows I don't fake. If I'm hurt, I'm hurt. Y'all have seen me. I don't have to fake."
Writers slaver over the scrappy kid who bumper-cars his way to 30 points a game. No one has gone further than ESPN's Marc Stein, who declared this week that Wade "plays better when he's hurt and he loves for everyone to know that he's playing hurt." Some opposing fans jeer Wade's gravity-obeying act: "Fall down eight times, get eight whistles," one fan board has sneered. But for most observers, Wade's charisma and baby face combine to villainize the bigger, badder players who club him as he hurtles toward the rim as if in a borrowed body. After the falls, Wade simply peels himself off the ground and marches to the free-throw line, where this year he made more shots than anyone save Kobe Bryant, Iverson, and Gilbert Arenas.
Anyone who hasn't played pickup hoops against neighborhood teens lately can be forgiven for assuming that Jordan or James are the favorite objects of comparison. Kids who can't out-specimen other players the way LeBron does want to be compared to an artistic water bug—He's only 6 foot 4! And he looks like a choirboy!—who can find the hoop even with a forearm in his gut. This phenomenon may stop outside South Florida, but I doubt it. It's not for nothing that Wade's is the best-selling jersey in the country.
Evidence of why kids wanna be like Wade resides on YouTube. The highlight montages, set mostly to Miami hip-hop, are orgies of dunks, crossovers, and spin-moves slo-mo'ed like a John Woo movie. In contrast to those knockdown-centric Converse ads, the picture that emerges in these video valentines is of a player blessed with the kind of deceptive power, speed, and agility that drops other players to the floor. Perhaps the finest moment among dozens came against the Utah Jazz last season. Wade launches himself at the hoop, dragging a defender with him. At the top of the key, Wade stops—and the off-balance Jazz player goes sprawling, skids 20 feet, and comes to rest by bonking his head on the base of the goal. It's a highlight of the sort that you, scrawny hoop dreamer, would perform if you played in the league. A scrapper among the giants, you would dunk on Kevin Garnett. You would block Amare Stoudamire, then drain a 70-footer at the buzzer.
Wade, who's now finishing his third season in the NBA, still plays with the joie de vivre of a rookie. There are a few signs, though, that stardom is getting to the lad's head. Wade has started letting machismo trump masochism, jawing at the referees more and more when the calls don't go his way. In Game 4 he kvetched after the first two of his three offensive fouls. Tsk! Such a sense of entitlement is unbecoming of a plucky underdog.
Will Dwyane Wade have staying power as a playground icon? The test will be whether he can develop a finesse, a back-to-the-basket game once his speed and leaping ability desert him. All of those floor burns are a good marketing ploy for now. But Converse will need a new slogan when Wade falls down seven times—and only stands up six.