This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.
It might be that we started reminiscing about Dwyane Wade too soon. Because he's been so memorable for so long, and because of the decade-and-change effort to brand him—the chain of nicknames, "this is my house," the "fall down seven times, stand up eight" commandment—this has been easy. And the things he's done on the court over that time, all the gravity-defying dunks, the position-defying blocks, the skill set that is as elastic as the game demands—all this, too, has given us an image of Wade that's frozen in time. He's a player everyone can agree on in a disagreeable time, but Dwyane Wade is also still playing.
The abiding image of Wade seared into the collective memory of basketball fans was supposed to be just that: a memory. But while the volcanic player who earned the "Flash" nickname a decade ago plays a little closer to earth these days, Wade effectively reinvented himself in 2016, and is delivering a vintage postseason that also bears little resemblance to the ones he's authored before.
After missing 22 consecutive threes, he nailed two in crunch time of Game 6 of the Miami Heat's first round match-up against the Charlotte Hornets, effectively channeling his former self to stave off elimination. Wade hasn't let go of that earlier version of himself since, waging a war of attrition against Toronto's pick and roll defense in the second round, snaking through multiple defenders with his hesitation dribble on a tight string, alternately coaxing and bulling his way to the hoop. Heading into tonight's Game 6, Wade is averaging 25.8 points and six rebounds per game. He is also staring elimination in the face yet again. It's a testament to how magical he's been in the playoffs that it seems like that's the best place for him to be. Years past his prime, Wade is living up to the mythologized version of himself, evoking old memories and creating new ones simultaneously. It's pure cinema.
It's also fun to watch, if only for the combination of raw will and old-guy craftiness. Wade's inner trickster is out in full force, manipulating opponents to open express lanes to the foul line and rim. Against Toronto, he's goaded the dogged but inexperienced Norman Powell to bite on pump-fakes time after time—that Wade regularly does this effectively despite twelve years of below-average shooting seems only to make it more impressive—and has cut sharp backdoor on the roaming DeMarre Carroll.
None of this is unfamiliar, exactly. For years, his repertoire has been well-stocked with these ploys. The crossovers, the hairpin turns through the lane, the knack for understanding when the opportunity is not there and the instinct for seizing it when it is; the probing, the prowling, hunting out every advantage—this is what Wade has always done. And even at 34, he can brutalize the rim like it's 2008 when the moment presents itself. Down 11 in the third quarter of Game 3, Wade clanked a short transition jumper and, immediately recognizing where the ball would ricochet, exploded to the rim and slammed the rebound home, igniting a run that would eventually lead the Heat to victory. He finished with 38 points, 29 of which came in the second half. He hasn't restocked his toolbelt as much as much as he's played up that tactful maneuvering in the absence of his former athleticism.
The surprise of this owes mostly to the fact that Wade left this role behind long ago. When Flash's knees buckled, he happily stepped into the role of LeBron's trusty sidekick; after LeBron's departure, he repurposed himself yet again to allow Chris Bosh to thrive. The goalposts on who Wade has deferred to has shifted, from LeBron to Chris Bosh to Goran Dragic, and in fits and starts—he is, habitually, an alpha dog—but he has acquiesced to all but the latest. I suspect that has more to with Dragic's inability to convincingly claim the mantle for an extended period of time than it does with Wade's ego. This most recent iteration of Wade is, maybe more than any that has come before, about whatever works.
And for all that, there's still this. In the final minute of Game 1 against the Raptors, Miami led by two and Wade, dribbling at the top of the key, motioned for Hassan Whiteside to set a ball-screen. Jonas Valanciunas, tasked with guarding Whiteside, followed his lead until Wade, who patiently waited for the moment when Valanciunas could no longer be an obstacle between the ball and the rim, took off. He feigned an explosion, then crossed back over to the top of the paint; just as the entire building was squared up for him to shoot, and just as Dragic's man, Kyle Lowry, changed tack and swivelled toward Wade with psychic panic in his eyes, Wade fired the ball to Dragic for a wide-open corner three. Swish, dagger. It worked, and it served to boost his most important teammate to boot.
And so we have Dwyane Wade, Elder Statesman, a player who, in an age where smart basketball and hero-ball live on opposite ends of a binary, manages to embody a seeming paradox—smart hero-ball. As a result, Wade has achieved a lightness rarely seen in aging greats, who typically handle their waning superiority with reflexive denial, their psyches are wired to double down on the same formula that accorded them their success, and they bet on themselves until they're broke. Wade, on the other hand, has happily played decoy to his teammates, sometimes more happily than others—in Game 2, it helped get Dragic a wide-open three that pushed the game to overtime; in Game 3, Wade kicked out to Joe Johnson, who missed.
Contrast this with Kobe Bryant for a delicious parallel: both all-time shooting guards who played with one franchise their entire career, both synonymous with their team's brand, with enough championships to earn an unyielding fidelity from their respective fan bases. And yet the difference between the two, and how they've dealt with aging, is deep. They're both untouchable but Wade, who has a self-awareness that's rare among the uber-successful, actually knows it. While Kobe's motivation has always been rooted in a constant battle against every perceived slight, Wade possesses a genuine self-confidence that approaches grace. The old insatiable hunger is evident in every rim-rattling dunk, but Wade looks utterly peaceful in the face of a future in which he's no longer at the center of everything.
So remember Dwyane Wade again. Remember him skipping away after yet another dagger, arms outstretched and exultant, steely-eyed or gushing with bravado, champagne or sweat pouring off his head. He has, in the twilight of his career, an enviable balance. And because of that, he's maintained, with the ball in his hands in the final seconds, what nearly every great athlete eventually loses in the twilight of his career, which is trust. He won't allow himself to be haunted, and he's not just a memory, not just yet.