- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2005

MIAMI — Shaquille O’Neal likes giving people nicknames, and when he joined the Miami Heat last summer, it wasn’t long before he dubbed guard Dwyane Wade “Flash” because of his exciting, explosive style, quickness and athleticism.

It also unwittingly sums up how quickly Wade’s star has ascended in the NBA universe and beyond in just his second season.

Among several endorsement deals, a new Converse television commercial featuring Wade and Shaq and the whole “Flash” thing begins airing today.

Wade recently learned he will grace the cover of EA Sports’ NBA Live video game. He has signed with hip-hop impresario Sean “P. Diddy” Combs to market Combs’ Sean John clothing line next fall. And People magazine named Wade one of its “50 Most Beautiful People.”

Too much, too soon? Wade, married and the father of a young son, seems grounded enough to handle it all.

“I think I’ve been bringing myself along slowly, trying to find the right things that identify and present me in the right light,” he said yesterday after practice. “You want to get the most endorsements you can, but at the same time, you want to get the ones you can handle and the ones people can identify you with.”

Wade quickly was identified as O’Neal’s new partner in the big fella’s latest championship quest. After Shaq’s stormy and well-chronicled relationship with Kobe Bryant ended with his trade from the Los Angeles Lakers to the Heat, all has been copacetic between Wade and O’Neal.

Now the duo is trying to bring Miami its first championship. The Heat had the best record in the Eastern Conference (59-23), swept the New Jersey Nets in the first round of the playoffs and beat the Washington Wizards 105-86 in Sunday’s Game 1 of the conference semifinals. Game 2 is tonight.

More than peacefully co-existing, O’Neal has played mentor to Wade, who in turn has been a willing and able student. Also, with O’Neal hobbled by what has been described as two bruised thighs and by foul trouble against the Wizards, Wade has become the featured attraction. During the sweep of the Nets, Wade averaged 26.3 points, 8.8 assists and 6.3 rebounds. He also shot 50 percent from the floor.

Only six other players have posted such numbers in a playoff series. All are in the Basketball Hall of Fame or headed there: Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.

“Dwyane Wade we could never get a handle on,” Nets coach Lawrence Frank said after the series.

Wade “is 100 times better than I thought he was,” Nets forward Brian Scalabrine told a reporter.

Shaq, who yesterday blew off reporters for a second straight day, said at the time, “He’s been a superstar. It’s just that now you guys [in the media] are recognizing it.”

Buried somewhat by the LeBron James-Carmelo Anthony hype last season, Wade, had a solid year and finished third in the rookie of the year balloting. The fifth pick overall in 2003 out of Marquette played a lot at the point, but that changed when the Heat signed free agent Damon Jones and moved Wade to off-guard.

This season, after surviving the U.S. Olympic team debacle, Wade increased his scoring average nearly eight points to 24.2 and joined Allen Iverson and James as the only players to make the NBA top 10 in points and assists.

None of this surprises Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld. While working as general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks, Grunfeld frequently watched Wade play for Marquette and against other NBA players during the summer.

“He’s always been very competitive, outstanding going to the basket, finishing very strong,” Grunfeld said. “But he was never intimidated. That’s the thing for a young kid that I notice first. He was always very confident.

“He’s made unbelievable progress, of course. He has a great work ethic and a very good feel for the game. He’s really improved his outside shooting, and he’s an outstanding defender. Very strong.”

How strong?

“I call him the Tank,” said Wizards coach Eddie Jordan, who employs as many as three players to defend Wade’s drives to the basket.

Even tenacious defenders unafraid to take a charge think twice about getting in Wade’s way.

“You can’t just stop him with one or two guys when he starts his power drives,” Jordan said. “He’s quick, he’s powerful, he’s explosive and he’s strong. That combination, all in half a second, is deadly.”

Wade perhaps tried to do too much in the first half of Game 1, when he made just two of nine shots and had four turnovers. But he settled down, relaxed and shot more effectively, finishing with 20 points and no additional turnovers.

“He drives, and once he gets a step the rest of it is muscle,” Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas said. “He’s so athletic, but what helps him out is that he’s so strong. Once he goes and he spins, he’s spinning with power. You can’t just bounce him off his route. You’re bouncing off of him. He’s like a little tornado.”

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