His feet propped up on a conference table, Dwayne Wade is chilling in his hotel suite in downtown Indianapolis, anticipating the start of a grueling six-game road trip that begins in a few hours against the Pacers and ends a week later in Los Angeles against the Lakers. At the moment, the 31-year-old Wade looks every bit a model of NBA servitude: the 6-foot-4-inch superjock sent in by the leagues central casting, clad in sweats and Miami Heat hoodie, surrounded by the best-selling high-performance manual Clutch: Excel Under Pressure, on proud display.
But these days, Wade actually has a lot more on his mind — and calendar — than hoops. When he’s not leading LeBron & Co. on the court, he’s busy building an impressive business empire of his own design, whether it’s inking a sneaker deal in China; endorsing products for various U.S. partners in the beverage, snack, jewelry, or apparel industries; promoting his book, A Father First; or just generally weighing the myriad other opportunities that continue to proper his band to a whole new level.
Call it D.Wade’s crossover, the remix. “There’s noting like winning an NBA championship,” says Wade, owner of two title rings with the Miami Heat, earned in 2006 and 2012. “But being successful in business is gratifying, too. It’s challenging, for sure, and doesn’t necessarily help you sleep at night, but it’s gratifying,” he says while chuckling. “But like they say, ‘mo’ money, mo’ problems.’ Nothing is truer than that statement.”
It’s also the that the NBA, or any professional sports league for that matter, doesn’t have a history of spawning winning Black business figures. Sure, there are some success stories (e.g., Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan), but it’s mostly the cautionary tales of gifted athletes who earn millions, only to blow them on fancy cars, big houses, gambling, drugs, and enough baby mamas to cast a realty show that make headlines. The roster of lose-it-all jocks is too long to list here but includes such greats at Mike Tyson, Terrell Owens, Lawrence Taylor, Evander Holyfield and Allen Iverson.
Wade is working overtime to keep his name off that list. “Those are the guys we learn from,” said Wade, whose estimated $65 million net worth ranks him among Forbes’ richest celebrities. “It’s scary. You know I played with Antoine Walker but didn’t see any signs of [anything wrong]. Then two or three years later, [he] winds up bankrupt.” Walker, who won an NBA championship with the Miami Heat before joining the Boston Celtics, has spoken openly about blowing through $110 million over his 13-year career and pleaded guilty last year in Nevada to having more than $750,000 in unpaid gambling debts.
I have to open my mind to the opportunity I have to build my future and empire.
Of course, you might say Wade, Inc. is rolling its own kind of dice — as evidenced by its namesake’s gusty move recently to break from vaunted Nike — and yes, Brand Jordan, to sign with Chinese footwear making Li-Ning. Wade reportedly will earn $10 million per year during the 10-year contract and receive significant equity in the company. Although Li-Ning, founded by the Olympic gold metal gymnast of the same name, boasts huge popularity in China (ranking second in the market behind Nike), you’d be hard pressed to find an American who ever heard of the brand. Wade’s bet: that he can earn Li-Ning street cred on the urban U.S. blacktop while amassing some brant cachet in China, where the NBA and Western culture generally are enjoying a youth lovefest.
Li-Ning execs see huge promise in their new American ambassador. “Kids here are looking to consume all things Western,” says Brian Cupps, Li-Ning’s vice general manager for basketball during a phone interview from Beijing, China. “We’re not well-known in the U.S., so bringing on D. Wade puts us in a great position. For the NBA to go global, they have to win China, and for Li-Ning to go global, we have to win the United States. D. Wade has the celebrity and superstar power to help us do that.”
As Wade puts it: “The easiest thing to do would have been to sign back with Jordan and just be on the roster. But athletes get older, and the things I was looking for were not with Nike. Sure, I am taking a risk in terms of being part of the cool factor. I mean, Jordan and Nike are the cool factor. But I have to open up my mind to the opportunity to build my future and empire.”
Wade’s defection to the Great Wall means not only a “significant” amount of financial equity in publicly traded Li-Ning, which was founded in 1990, but his first serious cooperate title, chief bran officer, a role that gives him influence in setting the tone and direction of all Wade products. Among his first moves at the company: tapping Cuban-American designer Alejandro Ingelmo