MIAMI — By Thursday, Dwyane Wade may not be employed as a basketball player anymore.
That is the reality, like it or not. After 16 seasons as an NBA player, after three championships, an almost-annual spot in the All-Star Game, a scoring title, three franchises, four children, an Olympic gold medal and 161 teammates, the end may have arrived.
On Tuesday, Wade was playing his final home regular-season game when the Miami Heat hosted the Philadelphia 76ers — with Wade in the starting lineup for the first time all season. On Wednesday, it'll be a game at Brooklyn to end this season. Unless the Heat win both and get a lot of help in the final two days of the season, the career of Dwyane Tyrone Wade Jr. will be finished.
"I gave this game everything I had," Wade said. "And I have appreciated every bit of it."
The Heat still have a faint pulse in the playoff race. Of the 64 possible remaining scenarios involving Brooklyn, Orlando, Detroit, Charlotte and Miami — the five teams still vying for various spots on the bracket, with the Nets and Magic being assured of making the playoffs — only three will send Wade into the postseason.
Obviously, the odds are not good.
That is why Tuesday was generally viewed as the farewell, even though no one will officially describe it as such. He doesn't want it to be the end, but is acutely aware it may be the 576th and final time he plays at AmericanAirlines Arena, all but one of those coming in a Heat uniform.
"It's been incredible. It's been amazing," Wade said. "A lot of people in that arena have watched me grow, have watched me be imperfect, have watched me make a lot of mistakes in life, as well as watched me blossom and watched me do amazing things, great things. I'm thankful for it."
The game didn't tip off until 7:50 p.m. Tributes started in the morning.
A Budweiser video showed Wade getting gifts from people — his mother, Jolinda Wade, and others including Andrea Ghersi, the sister of slain teen Joaquin "Guac" Oliver — in a nod to the way he's exchanged jerseys with fellow players all season. Gatorade aired a video starring John Legend, who sang a tribute to Wade's No. 3. Heat President Pat Riley wrote a letter to Wade published in the game program, saying Wade will be loved "forever and for always."
Ghersi gave Wade her brother's jersey in the video, which was taped last week. The jersey — No. 3, of course — came with words scrawled in marker: "Please don't forget my brother."
There was a pregame series of events inside the arena. Wade addressed the crowd, thanking every teammate — even ones no longer on this season's roster — by name. Wade's children were there. Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, where the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre left 17 dead, performed the national anthem. It was fitting that the kids from MSD were there; the tragedy touched Wade deeply and Oliver, one of the victims, was buried in a Wade jersey.
The end of the anthem was drowned out by cheers. Wade's face appeared on the video screens. The fans roared.
"Noooooooo," Wade said. "Y'all are not about to make me cry before this game."
His wife Gabrielle Union-Wade, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, former Heat greats Shaquille O'Neal and LeBron James, Heat teammate Udonis Haslem and Riley narrated a 5-minute pregame video. Hardly anyone was sitting. Even the 76ers stayed on the floor and watched, looking up the whole time. Zaire Wade, his oldest son, introduced his dad in the same way that his father taped his famous "From Robbins, Illinois" commercial nearly 15 years ago.
"This city will always be proud to rep your name across our backs," Riley said.
Former President Barack Obama — like Wade, a proud Chicagoan — sent a taped message as well, playing during the first timeout.
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"I hope that the next phase of your life is just as fulfilling and just as spectacular as this one has been," Obama said.
Wade "L3GACY" shirts were given to fans, some of whom spent thousands of dollars for their seats. They got Wade commemorative lanyards. They bought Wade apparel. Some arena workers asked if they could be excused from wearing the usual game-night garb and don Wade jerseys instead. Fans flew in from as far as Australia and China. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver sent his regards in a video.
There also was a game, which seemed ancillary. The first shot? A dunk, by Wade. The decision for him to start was made by him and Spoelstra about six hours before gametime. The reason? They wanted that moment, one more time.
"I don't want this to end," said Spoelstra, who arrived for work Tuesday wearing a shirt with a photo of the scene that followed Wade's game-winning shot against Golden State emblazoned across his chest. "I'm literally having more fun this year and last year than in any of the other years with Dwyane."
They are the same in so many ways, Wade and Spoelstra. Both came to the Heat as unsure young men. Both have three championship rings now. Both are likely for the Basketball Hall of Fame. When Spoelstra was promoted to head coach in April 2008, he was unsure if he'd be able to handle the job — until he met with Wade a few months later and got pumped full of confidence.
"That's what great players do," Spoelstra said. "You talk about Hall of Fame players, they make the other players around them better. Well, great, Hall of Fame, superstar players also make their coaches better. And that's what Dwyane did."
Wade is beloved in Miami, of course, for obvious reasons. Beloved in Chicago, too, his hometown. Beloved in Milwaukee, where he took Marquette to a Final Four in 2003.
And this farewell tour — the "One Last Dance" — is a league-wide victory lap for someone NBA players rave about.
"A legend," Toronto's Kyle Lowry said.
"Still amazing," Dallas' Luka Doncic said.
"My idol," Washington's Bradley Beal said.
"A leader," Detroit's Wayne Ellington said.
"True winner," Phoenix's Devin Booker said.
Wade isn't 2008 Wade, or Big 3-era Wade, or NBA Finals MVP Wade anymore. But he's still superb, and with a flair for the dramatic — such as the buzzer-beater to top Golden State a few weeks ago. He's been the best Heat player all season. It's hard to imagine how Miami will replace him, because he is going to be clearly missed.
But that's also part of the reason why this season is his last. Wade didn't want to go out as a shell of his former self. He wanted to leave the stage with the fans clamoring for more, and that is precisely what has occurred.
"That's the sweet part of it, seeing him be able to go off on his own terms, saying when he's done," James said. "Nobody forced him out or did anything of that nature. He's able just to hang it up when he was ready to hang it up and be at peace with it all."