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LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, opponents at long last

Oct 7, 2011, 2:19 PM EST

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade AP

The initial reactions to the formation of the Miami Heat primarily stemmed from places of awe, of anger, and of bewilderment. It was a development unlike anything the NBA world had ever seen, and that people responded so strongly came as no surprise.

Yet eventually, those three very separate reactions were filtered into one. The unprecedented team sparked unprecedented public vitriol, as indignant fans, columnists, and opponents vented endlessly. They stood on a high ground propped up by their own constructions, citing everything from the destruction of competitive equity to disloyalty to the personality flaws of Miami’s stars. Something about this collaboration struck followers of the game as inherently wrong. Miami had built an empire in a day, and apparently — judging by the unrelenting hatred of some really good basketball players that wanted to play together rather than apart — it had to be destroyed. Comment by comment, tweet by tweet, brick by brick.

Lest we forget, that mission essentially began with the theoretical wedge that many tried to jam between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the Big Two embedded within Miami’s Big Three. They were the true stars of the show, and with neither a standout jumpshooter, the first grounded (though unceasing) criticism of the team pointed out their supposed on-court incompatibilities. There were plenty of logical arguments made about where James and Wade might clash in terms of skill sets, but those sensible claims were reduced to taglines and repeated ad nauseum. Which one would lead? Which one would get the ball in crunch time? Which one would sit in the corner? Which one would run the pick-and-roll? James and Wade were pitted against each other more as teammates than they ever were as opponents, primarily due to the prescripted need to see some kind of conflict between them.

That was the plan, anyway. But James and Wade handled the pressures of the Heat’s season expertly, in no small part due to their deft decision to face the press as a duo. It wasn’t symbolism, but pragmatism; the two didn’t need to symbolize a joint front when they could literally create one that the media would be forced to encounter. No question would be thrown to Wade without LeBron within earshot and vice versa, and while that made it a bit tough for journalists digging for a salacious quote, it clarified the James-Wade dynamic: if they were pitted against each other, it was done so against their will and against their managed public appearance.

Until now.

For the first time in over a year, James and Wade have become opponents. Tickets for Saturday’s South Florida All-Star Classic — which pits Team LeBron against Team Wade — are selling like hot cakes, and while the James-Wade one-game rivalry isn’t the most compelling draw, one can’t help but wonder if it presents intrigue on some unconscious level.

James v. Wade is what the Heat faithful dreaded and so many sports fans craved, so much that the hypothetical (and false) conflict between the two was the dominant element of the team’s preseason storyline. Basketball fans finally have a chance to see that manufactured clash actualized, albeit in a form much more casual than was likely imagined. There will be no shouting matches or bad blood in the most star-laden of all the exhibition games thus far, but on the most fundamental level it will pit star against star in a way that the anticlimax of the season narrative never did. This, ladies and gentlemen, is as close as opposition gets for the leaders of the Miami Heat: James in one jersey and Wade in another, both smiling, playing, and working toward the same underlying cause.

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