Adapted from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, December 11, 2006
"NO, YOU CAN'T COME WITH ME," HIS OLDER SISTER would say. This was 1988, on Chicago's South Side, and six-year-old Dwyane kept begging to come along. "Don't follow me, now," Tragil would say. "Stay home!" Then she would bang out the door of their first-floor apartment into the Englewood neighborhood's rough vibe, an 11-year-old girl wanting a little time on her own. Off she'd walk, sometimes down 59th, sometimes down Prairie, one block, two blocks....
"Hey, someone's following you," people would shout, smirking, and she'd whirl around and look: nothing. But she knew Dwyane was there. He was always there. Tragil had no say in that, not for a while; it was she who taught Dwyane to read and fight, she who wiped snot from his nose, she who often as not mixed the pork and beans with whatever was handy to make dinner—if there were any pork or beans to be had. They lived a welfare life, surviving on food stamps and government-issued cheese. Every so often she'd try to leave him with their barely awake mother or the two older sisters who came and went, but little Dwyane would have none of that. He had to be with her. He had to be just like her. Soon after Tragil went out the door, he'd race outside, zip across the street, hide behind trash cans or parked cars whenever she checked over her shoulder—until, too far from home to be sent back, he'd finally pop out behind her, all cocky. She had to take him with her.
"It became a joke; every time she'd leave, she'd think I was following her—even when I wasn't," Dwyane Wade says. "That was my favorite: just the whole chasin', knowing that she loved me and knowing she was willing to have me around. She wanted to have fun with her friends, but I didn't have friends. I wanted to run with her."
The alternatives were going up to Granny's place on the third floor, his aunt's on the second or the apartment where Mom was sinking fast. Jolinda and Dwyane's father, Dwyane Sr., had split up soon after the boy was born, and in the years they had been together, Dwyane Sr. says, he and Jolinda "both had problems. Back in the '70s a lot of people were doing drugs, different kinds of drugs, and smoking weed and stuff. We were too."
Jolinda spun out of control once she had Dwyane and left his dad. Their two kids, Tragil and Dwyane Jr., knew enough to leave her alone when the bedroom door was closed and the music blared. When their mother wasn't out late drinking, the two kids would rustle up close to Jolinda to watch TV, Tragil staring at The Cosby Show and thinking, I want that, want to be in that life, Jolinda closing her eyes and hearing the voices of her children, sounding so far away. On other days Dwyane would have special events at school—Momma, I'm having my first school picture tomorrow!—but Jolinda was usually sleeping it off. Tragil got him dressed nice for that one.
"My addiction was heroin, cocaine, alcohol and cigarettes," Jolinda says. "Four of them beating down on me."
In Englewood, as in every mean pocket of urban America, this kind of story usually doesn't end well. Gangs and drug dealers roamed the blocks; gunshots popped day and night; Tragil saw one of Dwyane's kindergarten classmates running bags of white powder. Dwyane Sr. had moved across town into an apartment with his fiancée, Bessie McDaniel, and her three boys. He offered to take Dwyane, so one Friday, Tragil packed a weekend's worth of clothes and escorted her nine-year-old brother on a 15-minute bus ride, dropped him off, told him to call if anyone mistreated him and promised to pick him up. But she didn't. Jolinda can't remember a thing about the day her only son left home forever. For Dwyane it now stands as the last in a line of noble acts his sister performed to save him, but as a boy he called Tragil to say, "You lied to me. You said you'd come back, and you didn't."
"At the time you feel relief that he's going to be in good hands," Tragil says. "Protected with Daddy. Later on it hit me: That's my best friend. I missed him."
The following year Dwyane Sr. moved his son and the McDaniel clan to the somewhat safer environs of Robbins, in Chicago's south suburbs. Soon Tragil left her mother. Then another daughter, Keisha, bolted, leaving only the oldest, Deanna, behind. "When I lost my kids? It seemed I lost the willingness to live," Jolinda says. "I just started surviving, because I didn't see a way of getting them back." In September 1992 she was arrested for the first time and pleaded guilty to possession of crack cocaine with the intent to sell. Dwyane Sr. took his 10-year-old son to see Jolinda while she was incarcerated at the Cook County jail. "I never went back again," Wade says. "I didn't want to see my mother locked up. I just couldn't." The following February she was sentenced to 14 months' probation.