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.
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 as creative consultant for special projects and assigning him to design two off-court fashions sneakers to be launched this spring.
“I write my own ticket,” Wade says. “I sign athletes, look around the league and see whose contract is coming up. I talk to our designers, owners — not just about my brand but about how the overall business of Li-Ning is doing.”
Wade’s journey to this point has been anything but smooth, and its bumps are well chronicled. There was his mother’s drug addiction that landed her in prison; a high divorce profile; and a bitter custody battle for his two young sons Zaire, 11, and Zion, 5. And, of course, there’s that tidal wave of tabloid fodder about his romance with actress Gabrielle Union.
For his part, Wade chalks it all up to the steepest of learning curves: the evolution of a well-intentioned-if-not-naive NBA upstart into worldly business man. To dramatize just how far has traveled, Wade hops up, grabs his iPhone and starts scrolling through pictures. He finds the shot, circa 2003, snapped shortly after he decided to leave Marquette after his junior year to enter the NBA draft. It was around that time that he took a $300,000 advance from his agent and bought, among other things, a pimped-out Cadillac Escalade.
He peers at the photo while laughing: “It was so ghetto-looking: a blue Escalade with the blue 26-inch rims,” he says. “But that’s how I started my [professional] life. As soon as I got my money, I was like, ‘I’m doing what I want.’ I also wanted to fix my credit and make sure my mom had a place to live because she was just out of jail. So that’s what I did.”
He shrugs and adds, deadpan: “Being first-generation rich is tough.”
Wade also wanted to open a Miami sports bar and partnered with a group of local business people to pull it off. The honeymoon into entrepreneurship was short-lived. Before D.Wade’s place served up a single burger, his partners were suing him, demanding more cash, and then he had to walk away from the venture.
In 2010, Wade settled the dispute for an undisclosed amount. Lesson learned: When you’re negotiating a business deal, bring along more than your crew of inexperienced homies. “I didn’t put the right legal team behind me,” he says. “We didn’t do our due diligence.”
He reflects further on this lapses. “When you first come into the league, all you want to do is play basketball, and you don’t think about how important your name is,” Wade says. “You’re on top of your finances and you don’t ask questions because you don’t want to look dumb. But now, I’m asking questions. [Or I say] ‘I don’t understand what this means.’ I mean, it’s my money — I better ask.”
These days, when Wade steps into meetings, he’s fully prepared and engaged whether it’s with sponsors such as beverage giant Gatorade, watchmakers Hublot, snack company Pepperidge Farms or his team at the Dwayne Wade Fantasy Basketball Camp. “Dwayne is a consummate athlete partner,” says Josh Shaw, founder and president of Mission Athletecare, a maker of personal-care products designed by athletes including Wade, who owns shares in the company. “He has great maturity, thoughtfulness and intellect, and he’s always checking in with questions and ideas for improvement.”
D.Wade’s latest Mission innovation: Court Grip, a traction enhancer applied to the bottom of sneakers for indoor athletes, sold in 20,000 U.S. stores. “A lot of courts I go on are slippery, and so I wanted to develop something food for gripping,” Wade says. “The deal with Mission is good because not only am I an equity partner, but I’m also helping build the company.”
In the end, that’s the new philosophy at the center of Wade’s world. “I want more for my line of the Wades coming up: to build a legacy away from basketball,” he says. “And I want to get my passions out. So that’s what I’m doing — more than anyone ever probably thought I would.”