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ESPN’s Dwyane Wade film a candid look at NBA star on and off the court

The documentary ‘D. Wade: Unexpected Life’ offers intimate footage of his family life and straight talk from his parents about their rocky pasts.

Dwyane Wade speaks with students at his alma mater, Richards High School in Oak Lawn, about the documentary “D. Wade: Life Unexpected.”
Dwyane Wade speaks with students at his alma mater, Richards High School in Oak Lawn, about the documentary “D. Wade: Life Unexpected.”
Annie Costabile / Sun-Times

For those of us in the Chicago area who have known Dwyane Wade’s name since he was standout at Richards High School in Oak Lawn, it’s almost startling to realize he’s just 38 years old.

From leading Marquette to a Final Four appearance in 2003 to an Olympic gold medal to three NBA championships with the Miami Heat to a late-career stop with the Bulls to a high-profile custody battle to his romance with the actress Gabrielle Union, Wade has lived under the brightest of spotlights for nearly two decades.

It feels like we’ve known Wade forever, but, of course, we’ve just known ABOUT him for a long time. Now, with ESPN’s intimate and candid (albeit borderline hagiography) documentary “D. Wade: Life Unexpected,” we’re given unprecedented access to Wade’s journey on and off the court, from his hardscrabble upbringing to his early stardom to his growth as a person and as a father to the curtain call on his NBA career.

“D. Wade: Life Unexpected” begins with a close-up of Wade in bed, rubbing the sleep and tears from his eyes. It’s the morning after Wade’s final home game in Miami, and the cameras are right there — just as they’ve been a nearly constant presence in Wade’s adult life.

The documentary has the expected bounty of archival highlight clips as well as standard, talking-head interviews conducted for this film — but the most interesting material is the home-video style footage of Wade waking up to his post-basketball life, hosting family get-togethers and spending time with his children, including 12-year-old Zaya, who has come out as a transgender girl.

After the initial glimpse of Dwyane Wade the fully formed superstar, we go back to the beginning, when Wade was growing up in unimaginably tough circumstances in the Washington Park neighborhood on the South Side.

His mother Jolinda was a heroin addict who was in and out of prison. His father Dwayne Wade Sr., an Army veteran, had a drinking problem. They were often virtual strangers in their son’s upbringing.

“My mother thought she did a great job of hiding [things] from me,” says Wade. “And I was, like, ‘Mom, I watched you shoot up.’ In her addiction, she didn’t compute that I was sitting right there.”

Both of Wade’s parents are now in his life. To their credit, each sat for interviews in which they offer unblinking recollections and admissions about their past issues.

“Life Unexpected” follows Wade through his college days at Marquette, where he revitalized a dormant program, was adored by the fan base and achieved All-American status — but nearly quit school when he and his childhood sweetheart were expecting a child. Marquette’s then-head coach Tom Crean was instrumental in mentoring Wade and keeping him focused on basketball as a way to make a name for himself and support his family.

Marquette coach Tom Crean looks on Dwyane Wade announces his availability for the NBA draft in 2003.
Marquette coach Tom Crean looks on Dwyane Wade announces his availability for the NBA draft in 2003.
AP

Cut to the NBA and Wade being picked fifth in the 2003 draft, going to the Miami Heat, where he would win one championship with Shaquille O’Neal and two more with LeBron James.

(Conventional wisdom says that, in the summer of 2010, Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron secretly agreed to sign with the Heat and form an instant powerhouse, and indeed Wade thought they were all onboard — but, as we see in the doc, LeBron had ghosted D. Wade in the days leading up to “The Decision,” and Dwyane actually held a viewing party at his house. Like everyone else, he found out James was coming to Miami when James announced it on ESPN.)

“Life Unexpected” doesn’t shy from chronicling the long and bitter custody battle for Wade’s two oldest children, which played out in Chicago courtrooms and in the news media before Wade won sole custody; his acrimonious split from the Heat and Pat Riley; and the moment Wade had to tell Gabrielle Union he had fathered a child with another woman while he and Union were on a break.

The “unexpected” theme continues with Zaya coming out to her dad, who acknowledges this is something for which he wasn’t prepared.

“When I was a kid, I never knew if I was around someone who was gay or transgender,” he says. “So when Zaya came out to us, I had to get educated … and I’m still being educated.

“So, when my child comes home to say, ‘Hey Dad, I feel that I am a she,’ my job is to help you become who you are, but I’m not going to change who you are. I see you how you see you. I stand for you.”.

Wade and the filmmakers received Zaya’s blessing to include a private conversation he had with Zaya in which she says, “What’s the point of being on this Earth if you’re going to try to be someone you’re not? It’s like you’re not living as yourself. I feel like it’s VERY worth it when you reach that point of [being] yourself.”

“Feeling free, feeling like you,” says Wade.

That support for Zaya, and sharing it with the world, just might be the most impressive legacy yet for Wade in this life unexpected.