Dwyane Wade has had the kind of career you would expect of an NBA superstar—mega contract, Olympic gold medal winner, two NBA championships, the latest this past season with the Miami Heat as part of the triumvirate with LeBron James and Chris Bosh. What might surprise you is he’s a passionate family man and the author of the just released A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger Than Basketball. Wade talked with Bloomberg Businessweek editor Josh Tyrangiel about the book, his family, managing money, and playing with two other superstars.
You are a world-famous athlete and you spent time creating boundaries so you can live a private life and go about your business. Then you decided to write a book that is excruciatingly private in some places. Tell us why you decided to do that.
My mother always told me when I was young that my life was bigger than basketball. She wanted me to look further. Having this platform, I wanted to shed some light on my situation, on my upbringing. And in a different way, tell about how we can all go through these things and you can still come out and be this person. But even when you become that person, you’re still going to have other things. A lot of kids see you, and they say, “Oh well, you have money, everything should be fine.” But it’s not. So just telling different stories about that, sharing my experience, and shedding light on it.
In your book, you talk about your estrangement from your wife, and it got incredibly personal. I’ve read many private memoirs, but there are things in there that you must have paused over when deciding what to include.
Well, that’s very mild, what’s in the book. I left a lot out. The message I want to portray to my kids is, it’s not their fault. Their lives are public in the sense their parents’ lives are public. We had to deal with the divorce and a public custody battle. I never spoke ill of their mother. It’s not about me; it’s not about her. I never made it about us. I was fighting to be a father in my kids’ lives. And the rest of it, she threw at me. I stuck to my principles of what I believe in and what is most important. And it was those two kids.
What was your relationship with your father like?
I look at it different now. We still work on it. When I was younger my dad was the drill sergeant, you know, things were the way he said it, when he said it, how he said it. I respected that. But he wasn’t loving. Dad never gave me a hug, never said I love you. It was weird, ’cause I got a [text] message from him today, and I was like, this is the nicest thing he ever said to me. Thirty years later.
Maybe he just needed text to loosen up.
Yeah, he was waiting on text messaging. I do look back on the relationship that we did have, and even though I hated it at the time, I do respect it and understand that everything happens for a reason. I wouldn’t be the person I am if I didn’t have that structure he tried to set for me.
Your parents divorced when you were pretty young. How much of that—living in separate households—influenced your decision to push as hard as you did for custody?
It influenced everything. I wanted to be the one to break, as my sister always said, the generational curse of my family. I was able to do that when it comes to the financial side. But I wanted to do everything else different, too. I got married the same day my mom and dad got married. I didn’t even plan it. My mom and dad got divorced with my sister being five and me a couple of months old. I got divorced with my kids at that same age. It’s just weird how stuff worked out the same way. I tried to not be the same person, and I’m not the same person. But you do some similar things and you don’t even know you’re doing it.
You endured the longest child custody case in the history of Cook County. What was the day-to-day impact on your family and on your career? How did you manage it?
My family was very supportive. Not having my boys around, not being able to have relationships with them, not having them on Father’s Day, just different things, my family saw my hurt, they saw my pain. I think what it did for our family is make us closer. I couldn’t be in Chicago all the time for court. So my mom would go and my sister would go. They supported me. So family is huge.
I want to frame this in a HR perspective. You have a boss, Pat Riley, who seems very understanding and compassionate. Like, a lovely, sweet man. You’re going through this incredibly difficult time. This is a full-time endeavor for you. Did you talk to him about it? Did you explain what you would be going through? Did you have any sense at that point how long it would be going on?
My divorce went on for about four years. And my custody battle went on for three years. That was a long time ago. But the organization was very understanding. As long as my play wasn’t dropping on the court and I was still able to perform and I wasn’t bringing any baggage from the standpoint of how I was behaving, they were 100 percent on board with everything I needed to do. It was great to have their support. That loving, huggable, cuddling Mr. Pat Riley, he was very supportive—patting me on the back when I needed and giving me advice at the same time. I used some of his wisdom, some of his advice.
At some point your sons Zion and Zaire are going to read this book. What do you think they’re going take away from that?
I put it down in a book, through my eyes, the things I dealt with, and my successes and my failures as well. Hopefully they can learn from it. Hopefully they can find an appreciation of where they are and where their life would be. When they reach a certain age, they can see how much work they have to continue to do to keep this.
A couple years ago you had a decision to make. It could have made your personal life a little bit easier. You’re a free agent; you could have signed with Chicago where your kids lived at that time. You decided not to. Take us through the calculus of that decision.
It was tough. My ideal of becoming an NBA player came from the Chicago Bulls, growing up watching Michael Jordan and great players who came to Chicago to win six championships. So going back there and having the opportunity in a city you grew up in, it was playing on my emotions. Obviously my kids were there, it was the opportunity that I could see them more. But not being in that city while I was dealing with all this [the divorce and custody battle], I was able to go to Miami and get away from everything. In Chicago there was a lot going on. In a sense, it became about that. But also, you want to be with an organization and a team that really wants you, that really showed that they want you. Miami showed me that since day one. It was just about loyalty that I have and that they have to me.
How dizzying is the experience of getting all these people who will say, “We’re going to pay you the most money we can pay you—let’s get that out of the way.” What is it like to be wanted on that scale?
We all have egos. It massages the ego very, very well. It was awesome.
Everyone knows how that free agency situation played out. A little bit was made of the fact that you and LeBron James and Chris Bosh sacrificed to play together. And, in fact, you make the least of the three players.
Given where you came from—you grew up in legitimate poverty—does it feel like a sacrifice to take a half million dollars less than the maximum allowed to make something like that happen?
In the dollar sense, I’m blessed beyond my imagination. Obviously, we all work very hard, and you want to be compensated for what you feel your talents are. But you get to a point in your career when you say, “You know what? I want to win.” It became clear to me winning was more important than the dollar amount. That’s what it boiled down to. I could have the most money that any team could have paid me. But I decided not to do that. I decided to bring others in, and that made the pot a lot smaller. But that made the opportunity a lot bigger for the future. That’s a decision that not a lot of people understand. I don’t expect them to understand.
What made you think this recipe of three players was going be the most successful?
I didn’t know. I had no idea. I have a great relationship with both of these guys. For one thing, it was to play with guys who are my friends. But also, these guys are great players. I know what they bring to the game. I know how dynamic we can be together. But I never thought about how hard it would be. We didn’t know the backlash we were going to get. We didn’t know that no one was going to understand we were doing this because we wanted to. Maybe at times we questioned, is this going to work? But we stuck together so we had to make it work.
Was there a moment when you thought, “Oh, maybe people aren’t rooting for us anymore?”
The first game of the season is when you really get to feel it. We ran out in Boston, came out of that tunnel, and I’ve heard boos before, but this was something different. And it lasted a long time.
Yeah, like two years, right?
Yeah, it lasted like two years. We really got a chance to sense that people weren’t rooting for us in Cleveland. That was like out of a movie. It was unbelievable to look at someone’s face and see real hatred. You start to understand how important sports are [to a community]. I never thought about it until that point. In Cleveland, the business took a hit. A lot of families, the way they eat, they weren’t eating anymore. You start thinking about all these things, and I get why it’s anger.
When you were coming into the league, how much did you know about personal finance and the business of the league?
I knew nothing. Took me a long time to figure it out.
What was your reaction the first time you actually saw an NBA paycheck? Did you know what to do with it, where to invest it?
I’m not going to say I knew what to do with it. But I knew how to do something with it. I remember getting my first check. It was a humbling moment because my first check was more than my father made in probably two years. It humbled me to think about how many kids he raised and how we were even able to live.
There’s a sad history of guys like Antoine Walker and others who really are among the most talented basketball players in the world, they get paid, and then it all goes away. Is there a conversation about that among players, about ways to avoid it?
When I first came to the league, it wasn’t a topic of conversation. A lot of guys keep to themselves, they’re individuals. I played with Antoine Walker, and I never knew he had financial problems. It was two years after I played with him that the story came out.
People are still making the same mistakes, and I understand why. I went from making $210 a month in college to roughly $100,000 every two weeks. What do I do with that? You feel like, “I’ve worked for this. I’ve earned this. It’s mine. You can’t tell me nothing.” That was my mentality early on. You get in a situation where you don’t have the money when you’re done because it’s fast money. Dramatic things have to happen to some guys to say, “I need to stop this.” My divorce was that moment for me. I was like, “O.K., this is not the life I want to live. This is not how I want my kids to live, way beyond my sport playing days.” So it clicked.
For the first time in the finals I actually heard someone say, “Well, you know, Wade is entering the later years of his career.” And I just thought, “Wow, that is brutal.” So first of all, how do you see the next trajectory of your career? And then, what do you want to do with the rest of your life?
Well, on the first part, it’s weird because when you’re 27, they say you’re in the prime. Then when you’re 30, you’re done. It’s three years. It’s amazing to me.
What I will continue to do is try to walk through the doors that have been opened from playing professional sports. When I first came to the NBA, I probably would have said I wanted to be in broadcasting, ’cause that’s what I did in school. Now I have so many other areas in so many fields that I’m into and that I love, the sky’s the limit. I’m at the point now I’m just seeing what sticks. I’m having fun with it all.