Basketball is a big sport, played by big men for big money, a game populated by larger-than-life characters, few more so than Dwyane Wade. While most mega-rich icons might buy their parents a pub or a house, the 26-year-old Miami Heat star has bought his mother a church. As Don King would say, only in America.
And while in America basketball is huge, in Britain it remains one of those fringe sports, like ice hockey and speedway, that has a small but dedicated following yet rarely captures the headlines. One day, we are assured, it will really take off, and America's National Basketball Association are certainly doing their best to help the game along its way. Tonight sees a slam-dunk special which for the third time in succession has attracted a 16,500 sell-out to London's O2 Arena, and the hope is that it is more than just another chavs' night out.
Wade will be turning it on for the Heat against the New Jersey Nets as part of the NBA Europe Live pre-season tour. He is bringing his mum, Jolinda, a reformed drugs offender who is now a Baptist pastor at the Temple of Praise in Chicago, which Wade bought for her in April. "When I was growing up in southside Chicago,basketball was my way out of trouble," he said. "Because I was an athlete, some of the bad people didn't bother with me. The crime and the drugs things that were going on didn't really come my way."
But they did come the way of his mother, who served a 15-month sentence for drugs offences but found religion through Bible studies while in prison. The 6ft 4in Wade explains: "I was about six years old when she started on her path of drugs and alcohol, but she did 180 degrees in turning her life around. I respect my mother so much from the life that she used to live to see her today in the life that she has now. Everyone thinks I'm the miraculous story in the family, but actually she is.
"What I've done means I've been very blessed, but she's been more than blessed, she's been anointed. It's the dream of every man and every boy to be able to give their mother everything they want. So that was my dream and this is her dream. The price meant nothing to me because it's brought her alive again."
A devout Christian himself, Wade wears the No 3 shirt because it represents the Holy Trinity, and he donates 10 per cent of his seven-figure salary to the church. He was named sportsman of the year by Sports Illustrated in 2006 and has had the top-selling jersey in the NBA for the past two years. He led the Miami Heat to the first championship in their franchise history in his third professional campaign two years ago and was named the NBA finals MVP (Most Valuable Player) after their 4-2 series win over the Dallas Mavericks. He was also a member of the 2008 US team who won the gold medal in Beijing this year.
Wade, who says he relaxes by reading Jane Austen, is a shooting guard but can also play point guard, and has established himself as one of the quickest and most difficult players to mark in the NBA. "Sometimes I do things on the court that even I don't know I can do," he says. "I like to think I play with my heart as well as my head."
He says he has "been blessed" to have two sons, six-year-old Zaire and Zion, one, although he is going through a $10 million divorce from his wife, Siohvaughn, whom he met at high school. Despite his religious zeal he has acquired a reputation as a serious player off court as well as on, and been linked with the actress Gabrielle Union. His split follows the equally high-profile divorce of the former Miami Heat star Shaquille O'Neal.
He insists tonight's match will be no Harlem Globetrotters-style exhibition. "These may be pre-season games but they are still competitive. You want to go out there to work hard and win. It's a great opportunity to try new things. There'll be a lot of different line-ups, not exactly how it's going to be during the season."
He says he is very much aware of the impression Britain's Luol Deng has made in the NBA. "He's a great player. Very solid. I've played against him many times. He's one of the best small forwards in our game."
By the time of London 2012, Wade will be 30. He says he has not really thought whether he will be part of the US team then. "In the NBA you can go on to 34 or 35, but I know I can't play this game forever, which is why I play every game like it's my last."
Miami Heat v New Jersey Nets is live on Setanta Sports 1 from 7-9.30pm tonight
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