By Sean Jensen
It seems fitting that Dwyane Wade, of all athletes, would provide an incredible break for my new video series.
The thrust of Model Student Athlete is to spotlight the key characteristics necessary for a young person to be his or her best, to be the sort of individual coaches cherish and teammates admire.
Dwyane has showcased so many of those traits throughout his inspiring life, starting with the many challenges he faced growing up in the South Side of Chicago.
Yet many — especially his youngest fans — get distracted from his remarkable story.
Today, he’s an international superstar, a dynamic half of one of the most popular couples in the world. One can get starry-eyed by Dwyane’s A-list actress wife, Gabrielle Union, his tens of millions of followers on social media, or his luxurious vacations, homes or cars.
But it’s hard for me for me to ignore is the fact that Dwyane played a central role in many of my career highlights as a sportswriter.
And almost central to what could have been one of my biggest professional blunders.
Covering the Minnesota Vikings for the St. Paul Pioneer Press at the time, I jumped at the chance to cover the NCAA Midwest Regional at the Metrodome in March 2003. Wade was brilliant, leading Marquette to a narrow victory over Pittsburgh. In a rush, I filed my story minutes before the deadline.
I had unknowingly made a critical mistake, one that was inexcusable in my News Writing class at Northwestern University. My favorite professor, John Kupetz, gave you an F if you had any factual errors. Didn’t matter if 99% of the story was Pulitzer Prize worthy, you’d get an F if you had the wrong date, wrong location, misspelled a name, etc… Well, in my haste, I wrote, “Dwayne Wade” in my story.
Fortunately, a copy editor at the paper caught my mistake, but I’ll never forget that near-miss.
In the next game at the Metrodome, Wade had one of the greatest performances in NCAA Tournament history. Kentucky, coming into the game with a 26-game winning streak, was a tournament favorite, and Marquette were a massive underdog.
But Dwyane willed his team, finishing with 29 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in a 83-69 win.
“We didn’t have an answer for Wade,” Wildcats coach Tubby Smith said.
Naturally, Dwyane was named the regional MVP.
“I was going to give it my all,” Wade said at the time. “I told the guys at halftime, ‘Leave your hearts on the court.’”
That’s the thing about Dwyane. Though he was consistently one of his team’s best players, he was respected for his work ethic and consistency, a refusal to ever give up.
The next time our paths crossed was in Athens, Greece, at the 2004 Olympics. Because I loved basketball, I convinced my editors to let me write a few stories on the men’s basketball team. Ditto for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Then, fast forward to 2012, when I was at the Chicago Sun-Times. I penned a front-page story on Dwyane’s monumental deal with Li-Ning, a Chinese apparel and athletic shoe company.
One of his responses really impressed me.
“I never imagined myself as a global icon,” Wade said to me via an email. “Growing up as a kid on the South Side of Chicago, I never dreamed that big for myself or thought the opportunity could ever exist. Which is why I was truly humbled by the press announcement in China. It brought me back to where I came from and where I am today.”
Well, the refreshing thing about who Dwyane Wade is today is this: He honors those whose stories are like his decades ago. He takes seriously the example he sets, the influence he holds on so many. And he doesn’t take any of that for granted.
He epitomizes the slogan of Model Student Athlete, where character counts more than the score.