By the time the 2013 NBA Finals began last week, it was clear that the Heat's once-chesty plan to be the next hoops dynasty had gone startlingly fragile. Did you see it? Where once there had been a Vegas-style unveiling of the Big Three and LeBron James's prediction of "not four ... not five ... not six ..." championships, where once—just this spring, no?—there had been a historic 27-game winning streak, all grandiosity had been put on pause. Now there was uncertainty. Now there was a question of how long the trio might last. Now there were just three desperate words.
Whatever it takes.
Did you hear it? In practice and pressroom last week a phrase tossed off down the season's stretch run had evolved into verbal tic, repeated so compulsively by coach Erik Spoelstra that local scribes had taken to parroting it in their copy and players wove it into nearly every utterance. LeBron, will you take over, score more, guard Tony Parker all game? Whatever it takes. Spo, will Chris Bosh attack the paint more, Shane Battier play more minutes? Whatever it takes. Cream in that coffee, Mr. Haslem? Whatever it takes.
So maybe that's why no one blinked the first time Dwyane Wade's mother begged God to heal his right knee. Ever since he suffered a deep bone bruise against Orlando on March 6, the 31-year-old Wade has played with the kneecap shifted and taped, and at least three times he has experienced searing pain after rebruising it during play. His scoring average has plummeted. At times he seems to be aging before your eyes. Rest is the only cure, but he can't rest. Because not even the great James can win it alone. Because even in limited doses Wade's energy—what team president Pat Riley once described as "attack, attack, attack"—has been the fuel that makes the Heat run.
"You don't win big unless your horses bring it in June," Battier says. "A lot of times role players step up and do something unexpected to put you over the top, but you need your horses to get you there."
Last month, after Miami had beaten the Bulls in Wade's hometown of Chicago to go up 3--1 in their second-round playoff series, he hobbled into the postgame crush of family and friends at the United Center. His knee had collided with the Bulls' Jimmy Butler during the second quarter, leaving Wade crumpled on the sideline, and retaping it didn't help much. He finished with six points, hit just three field goals. His mother was in mid-sentence with someone else when she heard him yell.
"Ma!" Wade said. "Come and touch my knee and pray on it."
Jolinda Wade—58 years old, a former drug addict who lost her family, went to prison, reformed and is now a minister—walked over to her son, bent down and placed her hand on a knee. She rubbed it and asked for it to be healed. She didn't think she did a very good job. In truth, Jolinda was surprised Dwyane had even asked. "He had never done that openly, loud, in front of everybody before," she says.
But by then, of course, Wade had become the embodiment of Whatever it takes. Since his injury he has endured "countless hours of treatment and whatever you can do to just prepare for one game," James said. "I can feel for him, but I can't really understand what he's going through. You appreciate when someone puts their body on the line each and every night when they're not even close to 100 percent." Yet Wade still never knows how he'll respond. There are games when he has walked onto the court feeling, "Oh, yeah, this is my night," Wade said last Friday. "I got out there, and it was, Oh, no, it's not." For three months now his health hasn't been judged day-to-day. It's quarter-to-quarter.
Still, there has been room for one small miracle. Jolinda gave it one more shot: She and Dwyane's older sister Tragil traveled from Chicago to Indianapolis for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, where Wade was benched for most of the fourth quarter and extended his streak of sub-20-point games to 12—the worst such string in his 10-year career. This time Jolinda called Dwyane over, and the two sat in the emptying seats at Indiana's Bankers Life Fieldhouse. She reached over and felt heat rising off his right knee.
"Nobody knows what to do about it," Wade told her.
She bowed her head. He sat waiting. Much of Basketball America figured he was tapped out for the season—and could see the Heat losing Game 7 in Miami. When she was finished, she said he should be prepared to be mystified; God likes confounding man by fixing the unfixable. "You've just got to believe that this knee's going to be healed," she said. "It's going to mess you up when it's healed; it's going to mess the doctors up; it's going to mess people up. But you're fixing to have a supernatural healing on that knee."
Wade stood up and hugged his mother and sister goodbye. They weren't going to Game 7, but that was fine. He felt good enough, in fact, to make a prediction. "I'll see you at the Finals," Dwyane told them. Two days later he scored 21 and pulled down nine rebounds, and the Heat crushed Indiana to take the series. He's not sure if her prayer helped. "Hey," he says with a shrug, "let's keep it going."
"People don't understand the pain that he's experiencing," Jolinda says. "But he doesn't let it stop him. He understands that the body he's playing in now is not the body that he played in when he came into the league.
"But he plays well as much as he can. And it puts him in a place where we were before. If you remember when he was going through the divorce, when he was going through the battle to get his sons back, he played through all that. But nobody saw it because he knows how to suppress the pain. If anybody knows how to survive, it's Mr. Wade."
Lord, they seemed loose. Howls of laughter, trash talk, circus shots lofting up from half-court, and now, after many misses, there was Dwyane Wade last Friday, grinning and hopping and, most important, dancing on court at AmericanAirlines Arena. His knees dipped. His toes went all pigeon and, yes, for a few seconds he was grooving to some song only he could hear, something different from Whatever it takes because the pain had receded and he'd scored the first basket in some meaningless prepractice shooting contest. Reporters on the sideline, teammates on court: Suddenly everyone was eyeing Wade and his right knee. He wasn't wincing.
LeBron's mouth twisted: He wanted to win the contest, too, but this was a good sign. Because that right knee was bending. That right knee was taking weight. That right knee had played 35½ minutes the previous night in Miami's 92--88 loss to San Antonio in Game 1, and in the first half Wade had his attack going, scored 13 and—shades of 2006, his star-making turn in the Finals against Dallas—even uncorked one of his vintage Did you see that? drives to the basket. Yes, he faded in the fourth quarter, and for the postseason he was scoring 10 points below his career average of 24.7, and the mighty Heat had now lost four of its last seven games. But that energy was flowing again: Wade dropped another banked-in bomb from half-court, jumped, spun and jabbed a finger at the floor yelling, "Hey, now!"
And maybe it's that the Miami players were feeling no pressure. Or maybe they're just very good actors. But if it hadn't been for what Wade confessed just minutes before in the interview room, the whole scene could have you convinced that some corner had been turned—and the Heat players were actually enjoying themselves.
"Playoffs ain't fun, man," Wade had said. "I'm sorry to bust anyone on the outside's bubble. As a player in the playoffs you have no joy until it's over and you won. If you don't win, you have no joy for a while. So for us it's the grind every day as a team of trying to win the series, trying to win four games. Me, the last couple days I've been coming in, get my work in that I need to, and the last two games that I've stepped on the court, I felt better physically. Hopefully I can continue."That sense of unease—D-Wade Agonistes—has been the dominant theme of this organization for a while now. Among South Florida athletes only Dan Marino surpasses Wade in popularity, and the sweet surprise that attended his astonishing rise in 2006 has long been replaced by harsh reality. The ugly split with his high school sweetheart, Siohvaughn Funches, that began in '07 has run a vicious gamut of divorce lawyers, tawdry accusations from both sides, legal action—quickly dismissed—by Funches against Wade's current girlfriend, actress Gabrielle Union, and TV-ready feuding that shows no sign of fading.
On most fronts Wade is winning. In 2011 he was granted full custody of the former couple's two sons, Zaire and Zion—and now he is also raising his sister Deanna's 11-year-old son, Dahveon Morris. Last year he published a best-selling book, A Father First, and last month he won an award from the NBA for his charitable and community work. But the franchise has hardly been insulated from the turmoil: Last year, during the Heat's victory over Oklahoma City in the Finals, Funches made news when she was arrested on child-abduction charges after not making the boys available for Wade to pick up after a visit.
She is currently fighting in Miami-Dade County for enforcement of her visitation rights and readying for a July trial in Chicago to decide the disposition of the marital assets. On May 30, while Miami was preparing for Game 5 against the Pacers, a process server from Gotcha Legal Services showed up at the Heat offices to present Riley with a subpoena to testify about Wade's salary and incentives. A Chicago judge granted a delay for the deposition until after the Finals. After that, in yet another courtroom, the seven-year battle will resume.
"I want to be completely severed from him—just in every aspect, financially, and I want him to comply with these orders," Funches says when asked the point of her current legal actions against Wade, "so that I can be able to see my children."
Wade declined an interview request from SI last week, but he has repeatedly stated his desire to have Funches in the boys' lives. She says that riches and celebrity killed the marriage. And even before the breakup, those closest to Wade were worried that his determination to not repeat his parents' own broken marriage, to get married and have a son at age 20, was a recipe for disaster.
"He wanted to break the curse," says Tragil, who all but raised him until he was nine. "The generational curse, what we've been through in our life—living without our mom and our dad. He's a mama's boy, so he never wanted to get into a space where they don't have their mom, because he understands how close his mom is to him. That's why it hurts: He wasn't able to break that curse. So now we're in a space where I'm big on saying, 'Well, we're going to pray for Zaire and Zion, so that doesn't happen to them.' "
All athletes die twice, the saying goes, and neither is easy to accept. The same goes for carefully orchestrated schemes for franchise glory. No one around the Heat these days wants to state outright that with Wade's knee and Chris Bosh's sore ankle the Big Three have become the Big One—if only because such an admission would spark a year of wild speculation. After next season James can opt out of his contract and become a free agent. The state of Wade's body—last summer he had surgery on his left knee—figures to be a heavy factor in whether LeBron stays or goes back to Cleveland or ends up somewhere else.
"You're not as young as you used to be," an ESPN reporter informed Wade after Game 2 on Sunday.
"I ain't that old, neither," Wade shot back.
Both men had a point. For the third straight game Wade had broken on court with his trademark aggression, looked to score, slashed into the paint. Despite coming up limping on a turned ankle in the first quarter, he racked up a team-high 10 points and four assists in the first half. He has decided to enjoy himself a little more, to be more vocal, to leave behind the survival mode he adopted against Indiana. "In that last series I was kind of like, Man, just get through it," Wade says, "but now I'm starting to feel a little better, a little stronger. I'm past that."
Yet it's no small thing that he didn't score again and managed only two assists in the second half. It's no small thing that Wade was on the bench for virtually all of the 33--5 avalanche Miami dropped on the Spurs in the third and fourth quarters that gave the Heat a 103--84 victory in its must-win game and evened the series at one game apiece. As much as the Heat players say they need Dwyane Wade, it was stunning to see how easily they could beat a great team without him. He sat watching as they ran like colts and the city roared, and the game went on and on.
Wade's mother was in mid-sentence when she heard her son yell, "Ma! Come and touch my knee and pray on it."
The state of Wade's knees figures to be a heavy factor in whether LeBron stays or ends up somewhere else next year.
For complete coverage of the NBA Finals—plus Chris Mannix's latest mock draft and Andy Glockner's profiles of the most intriguing prospects—go to SI.com/mag
Photograph by GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
INTO THE FIRE As badly as he might need a rest, Wade has been put out on the floor all postseason: He's averaged 34.9 minutes per game in the playoffs, slightly higher than his regular-season average.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (WADE)
TALL TASK The prospect of facing Tim Duncan (far right), Danny Green and the rest of the Spurs' D had Wade calling upon his mom to find some divine intervention.
NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (MOTHER)
[See caption above]
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
SLOW STARTERS Like Wade, James struggled to score against the Spurs, with just 18 and 17 points in Games 1 and 2—his worst playoff totals since the 2011 Finals.