As reporters encircled Clippers coach Doc Rivers before the game Wednesday night, one person stood apart from the group inside the American Airlines Arena hallway.
The man clutched a black gift bag as Rivers held court, describing the previous night’s loss in Dallas (“just one of those nights”) and rookie guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s play (“very aggressive”).
Mostly, though, Rivers spent the time talking about a fellow Chicagoan and Marquette star, Dwyane Wade, ahead of the Miami veteran's final game against the Clippers before he retires following his 16th and final season.
“Second-best player in Marquette history,” Rivers joked.
Once Rivers was finished the courier, an arena staff member, stepped forward and delivered the present to Rivers.
“From the second-best player in Marquette history,” he said.
For so many years, as Wade led Miami and Rivers coached Boston, the guard delivered pain, not gifts, to the coach. After Boston’s win over Miami in the 2010 Eastern Conference playoffs’ first round, Miami won both of its following playoff series against the Celtics — the 2011 Eastern semifinals and the 2012 conference finals. Wade had 17 points in Game 6 and 23 in Game 7 of the latter series as the Heat rallied from a 3-2 deficit to eliminate Boston and advance to the NBA Finals.
How times, and stakes, have changed.
Wade now comes off the bench, valued as much for sharing wisdom as scoring baskets, for a Miami team constructing its post-Wade future. He’s shooting a career-low 43% in 25 minutes a game, the second-lowest average of his career. Rivers, meanwhile, has been in the Western Conference for five seasons, where his team’s playoff paths no longer run through South Florida.
The atmosphere in the arena Wednesday no longer resembled a playoff game. A mostly full arena watched the West’s eighth-place team meet the No. 7 team in the East.
What remains unchanged is Rivers’ respect for Wade.
Rivers, who tried to acquire Wade in the 2003 NBA draft in a pick-and-swap deal with Miami, said he was pleased watching Marquette honor the guard with “Dwyane Wade Day” earlier this week.
“Just tells you who he is, it really does,” Rivers said. “When you see things like that it tells you he’s far more than a basketball player and I think that proved that.
“He means a lot in a lot of ways.”
He meant a lot to several Clippers, too.
Rookie guard Jerome Robinson, who watched Wade play while living for a time in nearby Fort Lauderdale, now shares an agency with the Heat veteran and guarded him on several occasions Wednesday. Wade missed a three-pointer while guarded by Robinson before schooling the rookie with a spin move for a baseline basket during the second quarter.
Second-year forward Johnathan Motley was 11 when he watched Wade lead Miami to the 2006 NBA title over Dallas and he grew up idolizing Wade.
“Then all of a sudden you’re on the same court with them, battling,” Motley said. “It’s definitely a surreal feeling for me. I always think about it, every day I’m like, I can’t believe I’m here playing against guys I idolize. But once we get on that court it’s a battle. We can save all the congratulations for after.”
The matchup came one night after the Clippers faced another prominent face of the league for years, Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki, for what could be one of the final times. In his 21st season, Nowitzki has yet to say whether he will return next season.
“Wade could play another year if he wanted to, you could clearly see that,” Rivers said. “It’s amazing, the league is changing quickly. I do think the league is as talented as it’s ever been … so these guys are leaving the league in a good place.”