MIAMI — Dwyane Wade was 12, watching on television at home in Chicago, when Scottie Pippen leapt to the 3-point line, fingertips outstretched, to obstruct a Hubert Davis jump shot as the desperate Knicks tried to salvage a pivotal playoff game against the Michael Jordan-less Bulls.
It was 1994, and a panicked Madison Square Garden exhaled when Davis made two free throws to seal Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The whistle of the referee Hue Hollins spared the Knicks from having to face elimination in Chicago against a three-time championship team that had been tossed to the has-been heap when Jordan stepped away from basketball before the start of that season.
So was it a foul from where Wade sat?
“I’m on the Chicago side, so it was a bad call,” he said before Miami opened the post-LeBron James era Wednesday night by beating the short-handed Washington Wizards, 107-95, at American Airlines Arena. “But if I was on the Knicks’ side, I guess that’s a good call.”
And on the Knicks’ side that night, on the way to a seven-game N.B.A. finals defeat against Houston, was Coach Pat Riley, who later became Wade’s career-long ally in Miami. That stretch includes the last four years with James, or Heir Jordan.
The point is that Wade, as a young fan of those Jordan-less Bulls, who posted an astonishing 55-27 record during that 1993-94 season, and Riley, who had the gel scared out of his well-groomed hair in that playoff series but survived its seven games, should understand from the Bulls’ example that there could be life after LeBron. There could be a run.
Logic tells us it won’t be a championship run. But however defined, “run” rhymes with “fun,” and as the former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause always said, the act of overachievement in the face of utter dismissal can be recalled, in rare cases, as fondly as the actual experience of winning it all.
“That team was exciting that year, obviously led by Scottie and Toni Kukoc,” Wade said, forgetting Horace Grant and, sacrilegiously, Coach Phil Jackson. “It said something about that team, but obviously every team is different, so I don’t know what it could say about this team. We still have good players. We still have a good team. We’re just not the headlining team that comes into a city and 40 people are following the bus.”
He laughed and added, “Now there’s probably one guy out there, three if we’re lucky.”
That’s what happens when James, the proverbial driver, disappears and takes the steering wheel with him and when the replacement is Luol Deng, a nice puzzle piece but not a game-changer.
Deng, in his 11th year, entered Wednesday having played all but 40 games of his career with Chicago but said he recalled no historical discussion of 55 victories sans Jordan. Only seasons that conclude with parades are commemorated. Still, what Deng could speak to was the satisfaction in Chicago over how hard the Bulls competed and won 45 and 48 regular-season games, most without the former N.B.A. most valuable player Derrick Rose.
“One thing we did really well was to tune out everybody, good or bad, just focus on the team,” Deng said. Asked what made him, a veteran without a title ring, climb aboard a bus presumably going in reverse, he added: “There wasn’t the mind-set that they weren’t going to win.”
Riley, the Heat’s fanatically competitive president, gave one of his classic speeches after the Heat were annihilated by San Antonio in last June’s finals, challenging his three high-priced free agents, mostly James. The takeaway quote: “You’ve got to stay together if you got the guts and you don’t find the first door and run out of it.”
James returned to Cleveland, which largely absolved him of not only gutlessness, but also of disloyalty. Wade took a pay cut to re-up and presumably finish his career in Miami. Chris Bosh, after rejecting Houston, got a maximum deal to earn the title of “Heat Lifer,” a new organization testimonial for those who stayed.
Wade is the true Miami lifer and the pride of Heat Nation — another promotional mantra dreamed up to market cultural stability, the looming presence of Riley. If Wade were four years younger with healthier knees, and fans could be confident that Bosh really could, as currently advertised, be a leading man on a contending team instead of a luxury third option, a 55-victory season would not sound far-fetched.