CHICAGO — The white Chicago Bulls jersey with the red No. 3 felt no different to Dwyane Wade than the one he wore for 13 seasons with the Miami Heat.
“It’s the same material,” he said with a smile.
It’s also a new beginning.
Wade is starting work with his hometown team after winning three championships and spending his entire career with Miami, and the Bulls are hoping he and fellow newcomer Rajon Rondo can help point them back in the right direction after last season’s collapse.
“It’s a different environment,” Wade, a 12-time All-Star, said at the Bulls’ media day on Monday. “I was somewhere for so long I knew where to go, I could walk backward and get everywhere. It’s just different. But different is not a bad thing. It’s been cool. I’m like the new kid in class. I’ve got to find my one friend to talk to before I get more friends.”
That shouldn’t be too difficult for such an accomplished player.
While Wade may be in the twilight of his career, the Bulls are counting on the 34-year-old to help set the tone for their younger players and help them bounce back from what might have been the most disappointing season ever for the franchise.
A year that began with high expectations ended with a 42-40 record, Chicago’s first playoff miss since 2008, a disjointed locker room and all sorts of questions about the team’s leadership. But they’re hoping for a different result, starting with the first practice on Tuesday.
South Side product and former MVP Derrick Rose got traded to New York. Joakim Noah signed as a free agent with the Knicks shortly afterward. And Pau Gasol left as a free agent for San Antonio.
“I’ll say this,” said executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson, who has rarely addressed the media in recent years. “If I was a young player on this roster and I saw Dwyane Wade in the building, Rajon Rondo, Jimmy Butler — you can throw Taj (Gibson) and Robin (Lopez) in there, too — I would be soaking up every day what they bring to the table.”
Wade, a native of Chicago’s south suburbs, stunned Miami when he accepted a two-year deal worth about $47 million from the Bulls that was more lucrative than what the Heat were promising.
That was part of an eventful — and tragic — offseason in which he spoke out against violence and lost a cousin to gunfire in Chicago.
Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul took the stage together at the ESPYs, ESPN’s annual awards show, to decry violence against unarmed black men. They also encouraged athletes to speak out and support local police.
In August, Wade was part of an ESPN discussion in Chicago on violence. The next day, his cousin Nykea Aldridge, a mother of four, was shot to death while pushing her baby in a stroller near a school where she planned to register her children.
Violence is a hot-button topic in Chicago and around the country. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been kneeling in protest during the national anthem, and NFL and college players have followed his lead.
“I think Kaepernick educated a lot of us on things that we didn’t know, that we weren’t aware of,” said Wade, who is not sure if NBA players will do the same. “But I think for me … we have a different kind of battle here in Chicago, a different focus. That’s what my focus is on. My focus is on the city. What am I capable of doing to help out youth in the city?”
He is also focused on the Bulls, who at this time a year ago thought they were a contender. Management believed soft-spoken coach Fred Hoiberg and his fast tempo were just what the team needed after a falling out with the hard-driving, defensive-oriented Tom Thibodeau.
But it didn’t work out the way they envisioned.
Hoiberg’s transition to the NBA after a successful run at Iowa State was a rocky one, with Butler even saying last season that the Bulls needed to be coached “a lot harder at times.” Butler also said Monday that he implored Hoiberg to “really get on my tail about little things” in order to motivate the younger players.
Paxson said he expects to see growth from Hoiberg and that he and general manager Gar Forman “talked a lot to Fred this summer.”
Hoiberg said: “Nobody looked at this thing harder in the offseason than I did.”
Note: Forman said trading Rose was a “basketball decision” and not related to rape allegations brought against him. And Paxson said the Bulls did not investigate the allegation against Rose. “We knew what everyone else knew,” he said. “That’s it. We did not do anything beyond that. These are legal matters. That’s not our purview.”