Zaire Wade's African Hoops Journey
The video starts with a closeup of Kobe Bryant’s back as he walks toward center court, gesturing to someone who doesn’t yet appear on screen. It’s minutes before tip-off of his final NBA All-Star Game. In the background, Inside the NBA’s Shaq, Kenny, Charles, and Ernie sitting in front of bright lights, arms over backs of chairs, watching the action below. Mars-colored-blazer-wearing Craig Sager surveys the court for a pre-game interviewee, while Chris Bosh glides along the far baseline, and a towering Pau Gasol and tiny Isiah Thomas dribble beside him. It’s like a “Where’s Waldo” of the NBA universe, and all of its stars, of course, are out.
Then, all of a sudden, from the right side of the screen, a kid—maybe 14 years old—enters Kobe's orbit. There’s something familiar about his eyes. Kobe recognizes him immediately, and turns to post him up. The kid positions his lanky teenage frame in a defensive stance that proves he’s grown up around the game, but he doesn’t really have a chance. Kobe shimmies three times, then turns towards rim and shoots a fadeaway. Slowly, this seemingly-lucky ball-boy’s identity becomes clear. He’s the only guy wearing the blue of the East All-Stars on this red, West side of the court: three-time NBA Champion Dwyane Wade. The kid is Zaire, his oldest son.
“I was always one of the ball boys for the East, and it was forbidden in our little circle to go to the West side,” the younger Wade told me recently. “But my pops told me, 'You better go over there and get your Kobe moment.’ I’ll never forget it.” That moment is one among many in the deeply specific basketball life that comes with being the son of a soon-to-be Hall of Famer. But these days, Zaire Wade is far from the familiar faces, courts, and NBA royalty he grew up around. In fact, he plays for a team that didn’t exist five years ago on a continent that, until earlier this year, he’d never set foot on.
In February 2023, the day before his 21st birthday, Wade signed with the Cape Town Tigers to compete in the pan-continental Basketball Africa League (BAL). Now in its third season, the start-up BAL, which the NBA runs in cooperation with FIBA, basketball’s global governing body, is the league’s first outside of North America. The league pits twelve top African teams—each representing a different country—in a competition that culminates in the finals later this month in Kigali, Rwanda.
Wade’s bumpy journey—including stops at four high schools (one alongside Bronny James at the now-famed Sierra Canyon in Los Angeles) in four states, a controversial decision to forego D-1 offers from schools like DePaul and Nebraska, and a forgettable stint with the NBA G League’s Salt Lake City Stars that ended in injury—has brought him far from the comforts of home and family, to South Africa, with the opportunity for a fresh start. His arrival in the BAL feels representative of a few different things: basketball’s continued growth overseas, for starters. A reminder of the unique situation faced by talented high school athletes in the social media era—magnified when the athlete is the child of someone famous. And, just maybe, Wade’s time in Africa might be the beginning of his journey to playing professionally in the States. “It's the NBA's league and the best teams across Africa,” he says. “I’m 21, so I’m still in a place where I’m striving for my Day One dreams. There’s a growing path everywhere.”
On a FaceTime call from Johannesburg, Wade shows me some of the Zulu he’s picked up in the six weeks since touching down in South Africa. He translates:
How are you?
I’m fine, how are you?
It’s his first time on the continent, even though his name, “Zaire,” is the former moniker of present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo—a country he’d like to play for one day. He’s enjoying himself. “The culture is dope and different from back home,” he explains. “[Here] I don’t have to be anybody else. The people out here, they accept me being myself.” Within days of arriving, Wade’s new teammates gave him a nickname—“Sbusiso”—the Zulu translation of his middle name, Blessing. “Everybody around South Africa that I interact with now will be like, ‘We got Sbusiso in the building’ and I'm like, ‘How do you even know that?” he says.
Nicknames have always been a thing for Wade. One of his first was “Young Flash,” in homage to his father’s sobriquet (coined by a veteran Shaq in their early Miami Heat days). Wade tells me it all started when, at 16, he hit a game-winner over NBA player Tim Hardaway Jr. in a Miami ProAm game, alongside teammates-for-the-day Hassan Whiteside and Andre Drummond. “The announcers kept on calling me ‘Young Flash,’” he recounts. “But when we got home, my dad was like, ‘It's dope that they were giving you recognition, but I don't really like it. It's too similar to [my name]. And he came up with ‘Young DNA.’” Even with a constellation of nicknames, though, it’s hard to escape the otherworldly pressure that comes with a last name like Wade.
Getting himself to Cape Town is a start. There, he’s found a mentor uniquely positioned to understand his journey: new Tigers head coach, Rasheed Hazzard, whose own father, Walt Hazzard (later Mahdi Abdul-Rahman), was also a basketball legend. As a player, the elder Hazzard won UCLA’s first basketball championship (under John Wooden in 1964), took home an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo, got drafted by the Lakers, and achieved All-Star status with the SuperSonics. The younger Hazzard, like the younger Wade, grew up on basketball courts around the sport’s giants. (While his dad coached UCLA in the early 80s, a pre-teen Hazzard helped Reggie Miller with the superstar’s pregame routine.)
“I've walked in his shoes,” Coach Hazzard says of Wade. “My own college coach tried to put that pressure on me, tried to make me a version of my father, but I just refused to accept that Rasheed Hazzard wasn't good enough. What I tell Zaire is that our fathers are .01 percent-ers. As long as we live up to being the best versions of ourselves, we'll meet that standard.”
About his coach, Wade says, “He can relate to the pressure of living up to his father's name, being in articles when he was growing up, things like that. It's just a lot easier to maneuver through this than alone. It always gives a feeling of comfort, especially so far away from home.”
So far, the BAL is looking like a solid path, and the Cape Town Tigers, a welcoming base. The team is co-owned by American basketball journeyman Raphael Edwards, who also played professionally in leagues around the world. The team, established in 2019, has already won the South African championship twice, and recently brought in three other Americans—including former G Leaguer Josh Hall—to bolster its homegrown squad. Later this month, the Tigers head to Rwanda to tip-off against teams from Angola, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Mali, Mozambique and Senegal for a chance at a BAL championship.
Six short weeks after touching down, Wade looked ready for lift-off. At 6’1”, he plays point guard, and put on a dominant performance in a recent tune-up match, tallying 20 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds—easily his fullest statline since high school. “That was my first time playing 30 minutes in a while,” he says. Even so, as we talk, I can’t help but wonder about all of the different places, injuries, teammates, letdowns, coaches, missed shots, clutch shots, and online comments that have marked his fledgling career. Does he ever get tired of this journey?
Wade directs me to one of his favorite Lil Baby songs, “California Breeze,” as a means of explanation: Everybody goin' the same route, so, I switched up my route. Of course, the traditional road was never really an option for Wade. From the instant his father stepped on an NBA court in 2003, his life’s trajectory changed.
Wade seems at peace with that. Or, at least, he’s on his way. He mentions the importance of his “uncle,” Udonis Haslem—who, after going undrafted in the 2002 NBA Draft, played for a year in France before joining the elder Wade and the Miami Heat and winning three championships. Our conversation came only days after Haslem, at 42—the oldest player in the NBA—put up 24 points in the final regular season game of his 20 year career.
Of course, for every Kobe or Dwyane, there are a hundred—a thousand—guys a lot more like Zaire and Rasheed. Stars are not born; they’re formed from gas, dust, gravity and tension. The ever-expanding NBA universe means that there should be new space for players to develop over time—to take a couple of orbits around the sun, drop into a different galaxy for a while, and then meteor back hotter and better than ever.
Originally Appeared on GQ