UNCASVILLE, Conn. — When Dwyane Wade learned of the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012, he didn’t know what to do.
At that point, the Miami Heat guard was halfway through his ninth season in the NBA, which included multiple individual accolades, and an NBA championship in 2006. But Wade was stuck on what to do or say upon hearing of a young Black boy being fatally shot by a Hispanic man, particularly when he had a 10-year-old son of his own.
But soon after, Wade made a decision. He loaded up social media and posted an old photo of himself in a hoodie, illustrating how Martin, a resident of Sanford, Florida, and a Heat fan, was no different from an NBA superstar.
Days later, the entire Heat team donned hoodies to bring awareness to Martin’s shooting, which would go on to capture the attention of nearly the entire country.
Wade, who retired after the 2018-19 season, will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday based on his accomplished career as one of the best shooting guards to ever play the game, with three championships, NBA Finals MVP, All-Stars, All-NBA, Final Four, Team USA.
But it’s what Wade learned about himself in that moment in 2012 that will be a big part of his legacy.
“I didn’t understand how to use this microphone at that time,” Wade said at the Hall of Fame news conference on Friday. “We did interviews all the time. We talked about basketball, but I didn’t understand the power of this microphone.”
The Martin photo happened during a time in the NBA — in this country — when it was not normal for players to speak out against anti-Black racism. The days of athlete-activists Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf had passed by this time. An NBA player was more likely to put out a rap album in those intervening years than attach his name to social injustices. Black athletes were seen yet rarely heard, embodying the words of NBA legend and business executive Michael Jordan: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
Wade could have chosen to ignore these sorts of issues, too. After Martin was killed … or Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri … Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky … or Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia. … Wade could have been like some Black celebrities and refuse to talk about race because he couldn’t “relate.” But Wade didn’t. He waded into the deep end of social politics, risking his reputation, which at that point had been pretty pristine. But the slaying of Martin forced Wade to become comfortable with the uncomfortable, not fearing the repercussions for standing up for what he believes in.
“Just because we have celebrity, or we have the means, it doesn’t take you out of anything,” Wade told TV talk host Oprah Winfrey in 2018.
He even risked alienating an idol like Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, whom Wade affectionately called “Kob,” when he said, referring to Martin, that he wouldn’t “react to something just because I’m supposed to, just because I’m African American.” (Bryant later apologized.) Wade respectfully pushed back on Bryant’s comments, calling it a “difference of opinion.”
Wade and the Heat spoke up about Martin in 2012 because they believed they had to do something. They were Black men in their 20s. They were Black fathers of Black boys.
“I saw my kids in Trayvon,” Wade said Friday.
Speaking up about an injustice like what happened to Martin was second nature to Wade. Florida was becoming his state — “Wade County” is not for play — and he believed it was the perfect time to become a community leader.
“We wanted to highlight it. We wanted to shed light. We did not want this to be swept under the rug like a lot of killings when it comes to young Black kids in America,” he said.
It was like an entirely new Dwyane Wade after Martin was killed.
He appeared on the cover of the September 2013 issue of Ebony magazine with two of his kids, Zaire and Zaya (then Zion), in hoodies with the headline, We Are Trayvon. In 2016, Wade, along with close friends and teammates LeBron James, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony opened The ESPYS awards with a callout for more athletes to add their voices to a growing movement against anti-Black racism and police violence.
After a former student killed 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School nearby in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, put his stamp on the country’s gun debate by donating $200,000 to gun control organization March for Our Lives. He said later that the proliferation of guns in America “doesn’t allow me to sleep at night” with because he had young children in school.
Wade and his wife, actress Gabrielle Union, moved their family out of Florida after the state’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis signed into law the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prohibits “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity.” Wade’s daughter, Zaya, is a transgender girl.
“I continue to speak out on things that I’m passionate about, that I believe in, that I experience, because I know that I have this and everyone does not,” Wade said at the news conference, pointing at the microphone in front of him. “Everyone just don’t have the microphone to amplify that, and so it’s my duty, it’s my job, it’s my responsibility to amplify messages and to amplify things that’s going on, especially in my communities.”
Wade has said in recent years that the 2012 photos were a bigger moment than any of the championships the Heat won during that time. Competitive players — or “supercompetitive” players, as San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich called Wade at the news conference — work their entire years just to get a sniff of a championship. And yet the winner of three NBA titles puts those accolades aside for this.
Wade has accomplished many things in his basketball career to warrant inclusion in the Hall of Fame. But it’s the things he did when the most was at stake that make him a Hall of Famer.
Near the end of the news conference, Wade said his mother has always told him that his life was bigger than basketball. That can be hard to process for someone who won championships with James and Shaquille O’Neal. But when real life finally eclipsed hoop dreams for Wade, it finally clicked.
“I didn’t know what she meant when I was little. I was like, ‘Nah, I hoop.’ And then moments happened and things happened in life, and you realize I was bigger than this,” Wade said. “and that was the first moment I realized that my life was bigger than basketball.”