OKLAHOMA CITY – Dwyane Wade was angry. He already had been frustrated with what he and other members of the National Basketball Players Association had been hearing from the opposite side of the table. The NBA lockout was three months old, the 2011-12 season was in jeopardy and, during a five-hour negotiating session on the first day of October, commissioner David Stern started pointing his finger at Wade while making this point or that about the players’ proposal.
“Don’t point your finger at me,” Wade reportedly said, his voice rising, according to sources in the room that day. “I’m not a child.”
That was then, back when the leaves were changing. Fast-forward to Tuesday morning, on a hot Oklahoma morning, with Wade sitting courtside after the Miami Heat’ s shootaround session inside Chesapeake Energy Arena. He was about eight hours away from tipoff of Game 1 of the 2012 Finals, more than eight months removed from one of the lockout’s darkest moments.
Did Wade ever lose hope, I asked him, that anyone would get to this point, never mind his Miami team?
Wade chuckled. “There was a lot of touch-and-go whether we’d even have an NBA season, I think for a lot of players,” he said. “To be here after everything that went on [last] summer, this shortened season, to finally be in The Finals … Till you brought it up, I kind of forgot about it a little, with everything that went on.
“But this was where we wanted to get to. When I was sitting across [from Stern and the owners] in the boardroom, this is what I wanted to be back to.”
There been a lot of games since then, 66 per team crammed into about a four-month bag. There have been injuries, chronic ones and serious ones, both in the regular season and postseason. There also has been record ratings for broadcast and cable TV games, attendance records in some markets. That overall clamor for the NBA outweighed any ill effects from the compressed schedule or lost weeks of October, November and most of December. Stern was expected to talk about all that in his state of the NBA media conference about an hour before Game 1 Tuesday.
But Wade didn’t have to wait — he is, after all, not a child.
“A great season,” he called it. “Probably better than we thought we would have with the shortened season. Unfortunately we had some injuries, but you have injuries every year. I think overall, the excitement for the game of basketball is either the same or better than it’s been. From the rise of a team like OKC to [become one of] the better teams in the league … there’s a lot of storylines. I thought this was one of the best years in the NBA.”
OK, so on that one, Stern and Wade are on the same side of the table. But what about players and management across the league? Coming out of the 1999 lockout, there was talk of friction and resentment over the millions of dollars flushed in potential revenue and from the sting of comments that couldn’t be unsaid.
“Nope,” Wade said of current player-owner relations. “Once it was over with and we signed the deal, we’re partners again. We’re working together to grow this game.”
Another lockout issue from 1999, when the NBA salvaged a 50-game regular season that began in February, was the integrity of everything that followed. Phil Jackson, who was between gigs with Chicago and the Lakers back then, said San Antonio’s championship that June deserved “an asterisk” for being less than 82-games legit.
So what about the Heat or the Thunder? Is 66 games, plus a full playoff run, credible in a way that 50 was not?
“I don’t see no one taking a championship away from Tim Duncan,” Wade said. “I wasn’t there. I don’t know. But this was more challenging than an 82-game season. Because everything happened so fast. You barely got any rest, even in the playoffs.
“The guys who are left, who get crowned for this season should really feel like real champions. Because you have to be a real champion to make it to the end of this season.”