Dwyane Wade: The New Michael Jordan?

After a downturn in national interest and sagging TV ratings in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the NBA has shown signs of rebirth. Team basketball has been a staple of recent champions, reversing an increasingly held sentiment that the quality of the game had been watered down by individualism. An NBA buzz has returned. The face of the league's restored luster: Dwyane Wade. An overshadowed, unheralded, and somewhat shy shooting guard coming out of Marquette University three years ago, Wade almost single-handedly led the Miami Heat to the NBA championship last season after they were down 0-2 in the best of seven series, and six minutes away from losing game three. Wade was unstoppable, quietly delivering shot after shot before a national television audience, as more hyped players from his draft class were at home watching him on TV. As his star on the court has risen, so too has the NBA Finals MVP's business and endorsement opportunities—and the increasing chants that a player has finally arrived to take the baton from the league's premier icon and corporate pitchman, Michael Jordan.

Wade's hot status is a far cry from when he was drafted in 2003. He had few endorsement opportunities and his deal with Converse—a brand that had fallen from the top of the basketball shoe chain and had been in bankruptcy—was paltry in comparison to LeBron James's deal. James, who was drafted out of high school that same year, rode the hype express, bagging a $90 million dollar contract from Nike.  But my how things change. Now Wade is the toast of the league, Madison Avenue, and the fashion runway. Hardcore fans and outsiders alike have been drawn to a  player who gives his all on the court, speaks eloquently of the team first, and has an infectious smile of someone who loves to perform. He recently signed deals with Lincoln, T-Mobile, and Staples, adding to his portfolio that included Gatorade and a seven-year, multi-million dollar extension with Converse. He's had a fashion endorsement deal with Sean Combs' Sean John label and was one of only a few athletes on People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People list. But the stakes for Wade are high: will he be able to handle the pressure of being a league statesman, balancing exploding business commitments and philanthropic interests, resurrecting the Converse brand, and returning the NBA to its once prominent place in the national sports consciousness? NEWSWEEK's David Gerlach caught up with Wade in Miami, where he was shooting a commercial for his signature Converse shoe, the Wade 1.3. Spike Lee, whose last basketball shoe commercial client was Jordan, directed the spot. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why did you decide to sign with Converse after you were drafted?

Dwyane Wade: You get your pitches [from different athletic shoe companies]. What I heard back, I didn't like. I decided I was going to wait until the right thing came along. [Converse] wanted to get back into basketball. I was thinking this was a great opportunity. My agent called me and said Converse was interested. [Nike bought Converse a few weeks after Wade signed with Converse]. I understood where Converse came from: it was Converse and then it was Jordan who took Nike to where they are now. Hopefully, we can get back to where we were: being the soul of basketball.

Do you feel any pressure to bring back this once mighty brand?

Pressure? To me, I'm given an opportunity to put a good product out there look-wise, but also performance-wise. All I have to do is go out on the court and perform and that will help the brand come back to where it needs to be.

How did you feel when you learned that Spike Lee wanted to work with you specifically on a TV commercial?

When I found out that Converse got the best in the business to work with me, I was like 'Oh, yeah. We're good.' It's easy to come in and work with a guy like Spike. His credentials speak for themselves. ... Oh, and the commercials. The ones where Spike was partnered with a young Mike [Jordan]. They really grew together.

Nowadays, many entertainment and sports "stars" are pre-packaged; we are told someone is a star before it actually happens.

No question.

Was it helpful to come into the league under the radar?

I've always been the guy under the radar. I tapped people on the shoulder and said, 'I'm here.' I knew coming to the NBA would be the same [thing]; I came in with LeBron [James] and Carmelo [Anthony]. It gave me the opportunity to grow on the court and make my mistakes I needed to make. And when it was time for me to step forward, I was ready. I wouldn't want to come in with all the hype. I want to make my hype.

When did you realize it was time to "step forward?"

It was in the playoffs [in 2004]. During the season, LeBron and Carmelo were getting much of the attention. After the all-star break, I started coming up slowly. By the playoffs, I was really the only one [of the trio] on TV. I became the leader of the team. That is when I made my name somewhat.

When the Heat signed Shaquille O'Neal as a free agent that summer, some thought your marketing and exposure efforts would decrease.

One of the things Shaq told me was that he wanted to come here [Miami] because I was here. We were going to be partners in this. We were going to help change this franchise. Marketing wise, when you see him, you see me. When you see me, you see him.

It was recently announced that O'Neal is involved with a $1 billion real estate development project in downtown Miami.

The guy wakes up thinking about marketing. Where he can make his name grow. Where he can make his money grow. He pushed me quicker, because of his stardom and what he brought to Miami. I've only finished my third year and I'm into a lot of different things already. But I am taking things slowly.

Why not cash in on all of the offers that are coming your way?

If I do too much, I can't give everybody my best. If I am with the right corporations that I am excited to go work for and represent, they will get my best and that will make everybody down the line say, ‘This is somebody we need to keep.'

The NBA's heyday was in the '80s and early '90s. But by the late '90s, TV ratings had fallen off. The buzz and interest seemed to dissipate somewhat. I am getting this opportunity to bring back the NBA to where it was. Where people aren't just tuning in for the playoffs, but for whatever the NBA does. The NBA cares. It is not just about us. It is about what we can do to help people out. ... They've given me great opportunities to go out and reach higher. [But] even though there are certain individuals being talked about, it's not just about myself. You don't see guys pounding their chest. It is a team unity thing. It's about us and what we can do together to become winners.

You seemed to enjoy the opportunity presented by the league-mandated dress code that was enacted last season.

I'm the kind of person who likes to dress up. It actually didn't change for the Heat because Coach [Pat] Riley always had a dress code. When it [the league dress code] came, I knew I had to step my dress-game up.

You must have good fashion sense; you were named one of People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People in 2005.

I really don't believe it. [Laughs.]

Do those types of things help you connect with non-basketball fans?

Basketball is what I do. But basketball is not all I know. It shows companies that I can transcend beyond being just an athlete.

Is it hard to strike a balance between being seen as cool by kids on the street, and talking with Wall Street and resonating with Madison Avenue?

There's a time you put a suit on and go out in the corporate world. But then there is a time when you throw your white T-shirt and your hat on. You throw on your chain and jewelry. It's just not to be done all the time. I tell kids just because I wear a suit, it doesn't mean I'm not cool. The coolest thing is to know when to separate [things].

You and LeBron James came into the league at the same time. You both play in the same conference. Some are saying this is shaping up to be the best rivalry since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Are you feeling any pressure to live up to the hype?

I think it is great for the game. At first I used to stay away from it and say, 'There's nothing there.' We're very good friends, but we're very competitive. When we step on the court we're going to go at it.

Speaking of James, he said he wants to be the first athlete-billionaire. Do you have similar dreams?

I won't use the words Lebron used, but I want to be very successful. I want to pass it my wealth on to my son and his son and so on. I want to be on the cover of Forbes one day smiling in my nice suit.

You have started a foundation and sponsored a free basketball camp for kids near Chicago where you grew up. What philanthropic projects interest you?

My whole thing is to present opportunities to kids that don't have them. I have a great guy in front of me, [teammate] Alonzo Mourning who really reaches out to the community. I will continue to learn from him and make my splash. I want to help young men and women to go to college. Give them something to dedicate themselves to.

Do you tell kids your story about getting a scholarship to attend Marquette University, but having to sit out your freshman year and concentrate on academics?

I wasn't able to play [basketball], because I didn't pass the ACT test. I took the test and I was like, 'What is this? This is not what I learned in school.' You just want to provide to children what they are going to see in the future. I was not provided with that. I sat out [my freshman year]. It was the worst, but best year of my life. I learned it's not just all about basketball.

Since you have probably grown tired of the comparisons to Michael Jordan—both the player and business entity—is there anyone coming up who could be the next Dwyane Wade?

Who is the next Dwyane Wade? Hopefully nobody. I'm still developing into who I am. Maybe when I retire I'll give you that answer.