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The Real Power of a Power Couple

Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union are athlete and actress, husband and wife, and beautiful people. They’re also cementing their legacies as impactful voices, and they’re doing so in deeply raw, personal ways.

After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.

This is Banana Boat Week. We’ll be looking at how that group of friends has shaped the modern NBA and what we might expect from them in these final seasons before they ride the waves into the sunset. Grab your life preserver. This should be fun

Gabrielle Union loves to publicly needle her husband, Dwyane Wade, and most of the time he takes it like the champ that he is. When they were married, in 2014, Union told The New York Times all about her groom’s meticulous wedding planning, right down to the orchestration of more than one wardrobe change. “It’s his princess day,” she said, “and I’m just along for the ride.” Wade did not dispute this version of events, but protested: “You’ve got to know the bride.”

Those who do know Union understood. She’s warm and she’s blunt; she can successfully charm you and roast you; and she has zero problem negging one of the world’s most popular basketball stars. (Wade is nine years younger than her, and she once referred to him as a “fetus” in an interview with Glamour.) In 2012, she told Conan O’Brien that she sometimes heckled Wade from her courtside seats. And early this August, in an interview with ESPN, she admitted that when she sees her husband dog it on D or bicker with an official, it hurts her “to the core.”

It’s not him she’s worried about, though. It’s the kids. Wade has three sons, ages 14, 9, and almost 3, and is also a father figure to his sister’s 14-year-old boy. Union is an involved and observant stepmother, watching the kids the way they watch their dad. “We go to AAU, with our boys,” Union continued to ESPN’s Cari Champion, “and guess who’s not back on defense, arguing a call? I’m like, I wonder. … And [Wade]’s going crazy because our boys are arguing the call, or they’re showboating, and they’re not back on defense, and then he’s incensed.”

If Union is a tough critic, it’s because Wade’s career has set such a high bar, and because she understands that it won’t be there forever. Drafted fifth overall in 2003, Wade wasn’t always on the same level as the others in his Banana Boat generation. (At the 2004 All-Star rookie game, “I was like a third wheel,” he told Sports Illustrated’s S.L. Price. “It was like, ‘Move out of the way, Dwyane, let Carmelo and LeBron take a picture.’”)

But he won his first title with the Miami Heat in 2006, with Shaquille O’Neal by his side and Pat Riley as head coach, and then won two more in 2012 and 2013 with James and Chris Bosh. And in many ways, it’s the later era that feels the most distant, that really delivers the whiplash of time. James has since gone back to Cleveland and brought the city a title; Bosh, struggling with persistent blood clots, may never play an NBA game again. And now Wade, after 13 seasons in Miami, after years of voluntary pay cuts and titles and doing the little things and being a part of the Big Three, is moving on and away, too.

In July, the 34-year-old Wade signed a $47 million, two-year deal to return to his hometown of Chicago and play for the Bulls, turning down a reported $40 million offer from Miami. It was strange to see him at the press conference in some other team’s jersey, even if the colors weren’t much different and the material, as he pointed out, felt the same. He joins a new-look Bulls team hoping to figure out a new identity, and he will play an uncertain, “fluid,” and hopefully essential role. NBA fans, from Chicago to Miami, will be watching it all unfold closely. And as Union is more than happy to remind her husband, his sons will be watching, too.

If you’re the type who takes your coffee with the morning talk shows and the papers, then last month you may have been served up a double shot of Union and Wade. On the first Friday of September, Wade appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America, and Union’s work was featured in the pages of the Los Angeles Times.

This sort of PR blitz is far from unusual; the two are an actress and an athlete, they are red carpet fixtures, they are beautiful and talented and a true power couple. Wade has been known to post snaps of the two of them lounging in bed; Union tweets about 3-pointers and crafting vision boards as a family. This summer, before Wade left the Heat, the two had started shooting an HGTV show about renovating homes.

And considering the latest news in both of their careers, some publicity was in order. Wade was starting training camp with his new team. Union will appear in the highly anticipated film The Birth of a Nation when it premieres in theaters on Friday. But Wade wasn’t on TV to talk basketball, really; he was there to discuss the shooting death of his cousin Nykea Aldridge. And while Union’s Times appearance did involve her new movie, it was far from the typical promotional fare. She wasn’t the subject of the article — she was the author of an op-ed piece focused on her personal experience as a rape survivor. Union wrote it in reaction to the news that Nate Parker, the director, cowriter, and star of The Birth of a Nation, had been accused of rape in 1999, while a student at Penn State, and acquitted in 2001.

Celebrities have always championed causes, with levels of sincerity ranging from lifelong to woo-woo to #SponsoredTweet. But in the past few months, both Wade and Union have used their voices to talk in the first person, and have used their lives to speak to the world. In doing so, they’ve tapped into something distinct from the usual easy, low-stakes angling — something real, and something raw, and something unshakably personal.

On August 26, in Chicago, 32-year-old Nykea Aldridge was pushing her weeks-old infant in a stroller when she was struck by stray bullets and killed. (The baby was unhurt.) Chicago is a city beset by astounding gun violence; more than 3,000 people have been shot in 2016 alone. But Aldridge’s death received disproportionate coverage. Not only was Wade her first cousin — their mothers are sisters — but Wade had, in the weeks earlier, been growing increasingly outspoken about the disparate but intersecting subjects of guns, violence, and race.

At the ESPY Awards in July, Wade was one of four NBA players who opened the event with a statement about gun violence against black citizens. And just one day before Aldridge was killed, Wade participated in a series of discussions, headlined by the ESPN-owned site The Undefeated, on the topics of athletes, responsibility, and violence.

The event was held at a YMCA in South Chicago, not far from where Wade grew up, although he was interviewed by ESPN’s Jemele Hill via satellite. He recalled a poor and unmoored childhood under the capricious watch of his mother, Jolinda, who was in the grips of a drug addiction that landed her in and out of prison and earned the constant attention of local cops. “I was scared of them,” Wade said. “The police would come knock down our doors many times. And you really didn’t know what to expect from them. Sometimes they’d be nice, sometimes they’d plant something on you. So a lot of times I would run if I heard any loud knock, if I heard the police, me and my sister would jet out the back.”

A few years ago, Wade said, his sons were approached by police in the über-wealthy enclave where he lived in Miami. “At the end of the day, there’s not many of us on that neighborhood, so our kids was stopped,” he said. “And after that, that was when we realized we really got to sit down with them, because what’s the first thing they do when the police stopped them? They ran. … We really had to educate them and say, ‘Hey, stop, say your name, say where you live, answer the questions how they ask you.’”

Wade was a junior at Marquette when his mother, Jolinda, was released from prison; three days later, she saw him score 26 points to secure the regular-season Conference USA title. She has since become a minister, and in 2008 he bought her a church. She was also a panelist at The Undefeated event. The day after speaking, she stood outside an emergency room, with her sister Diann sobbing on her shoulder, and announced that Nykea — her niece, Diann’s daughter, Dwyane’s cousin — was dead. The news coverage was widespread and eventually caught the eye of presidential candidate Donald Trump.

“Dwayne [sic] Wade’s cousin was just shot and killed walking her baby in Chicago,” Trump tweeted. “Just what I have been saying. African-Americans will VOTE TRUMP!” He pulled down the tweet and replaced it with one correctly spelling Wade’s first name. Only later did he express more standard condolences. In the Good Morning America interview, Wade gave an admirably diplomatic answer when asked about Trump’s comments. “I was grateful that it started a conversation,” he said. “But on the other hand, it just left a bad taste in my mouth because of what my family is dealing with and what our city of Chicago is dealing with, and it looks like it’s being used as political gain.”

It’s a strange thing, being a parent. Even if you anticipate the societal issues your children might face, even if you raise your kids to handle them, you’re ultimately pretty helpless. In a wide-ranging and passionate interview with the website xoNecole, Union recalled the way her parents always took great pains not to fixate on her appearance.

“‘That’s a great crossover,’” she said in the interview in an imitation of her father complimenting her basketball skills. “‘Nice jump shot. You’re so smart.’ But I was never validated for my looks. My parents thought that was the best route, because you don’t validate young black girls for their looks; you validate them for their achievements. Cut to me standing in a three-hour line waiting for my chance to objectify myself, hoping to be chosen by 2Pac.”

Union was talking about the time she and some friends auditioned to be the background grinders in the “California Love” video; years later, she would appear in a number of music videos in more-prominent roles. She also made brief cameos in a wide swath of TV shows early in her career. But it was her role as Kirsten Dunst’s rival cheerleader in Bring It On in 2000 that served as her true breakout. By the time she met Wade at a Super Bowl party in 2007 where they were promotional cohosts, she had starred in Deliver Us From Eva and Bad Boys II. In one of the more intriguing entertainment counterfactuals of our time, she auditioned for the role of Olivia Pope in Scandal. It went to Kerry Washington, but Union wound up getting a show of her own, Being Mary Jane on BET, which has been renewed for a fourth season.

She was cast as a slave in The Birth of a Nation, a film based on the life of slave rebellion leader Nat Turner. “All I kept thinking,” she told Vulture at Sundance, “was, ‘The chick from Bring It On is about to fuck up this movie.’ I just prayed, like, ‘Please don’t let me ruin this.’” The movie prompted a bidding war at the film festival. To Union, the role was intensely personal; her character survives being raped, and so did she.

In 1992, when Union was 19, she was preparing to lock up the Payless ShoeSource franchise where she worked when a former employee from another location broke into the store and raped her at gunpoint. (The rapist is currently serving 33 years in prison; Union also won damages in a lawsuit against Payless that she put toward completing her degree at UCLA.) Over the years, Union has occasionally mentioned this experience, and has publicly advocated for other victims and survivors. In 2009, she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the importance of the Violence Against Women Act.

But her Los Angeles Times op-ed piece was her most powerful work yet. After Variety released a bombshell report that Parker’s accuser had died by suicide in 2012, his film came under new scrutiny. Union wrote that she had taken the role in the movie as a way to give a voice to silent survivors, and that the news about Parker had sent her into “stomach-churning confusion.” She read the long, complicated, and troubling trial transcripts. “Regardless of what I think may have happened that night 17 years ago,” she wrote, “after reading all 700 pages … I still don’t actually know.

But, she wrote, she had decided that the best way to move forward would be to use the movie as an opportunity to have difficult conversations. “I believe that the film is an opportunity to inform and educate,” she wrote, “so that these situations cease to occur on college campuses, in dorm rooms, in fraternities, in apartments or anywhere else young people get together to socialize.”

She and Wade, she said, had sat down with the boys to explain to them the concept of affirmative, enthusiastic consent. “As a black woman raising brilliant, handsome, talented young black men,” she wrote, “I am cognizant of my responsibility to them and their future.”

Wade was raised in Chicago, but was made in Miami. He had always seemed destined to be a Miami lifer, but there came a point where the franchise’s future could no longer be a function of his past. “Riley talks a lot about family,” wrote Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard in the wake of Wade’s departure, “but the mafia is a family, too, and the godfather wasn’t going to handcuff his flexibility to do his job in the future by tying himself emotionally to an aging star whose percentages are all in decline.” During negotiations, Union couldn’t help but fire off a subtweet. (“When u waiting for a text/email/skywriting and nada…” she tweeted in early July, “thanks for being crystal clear.”) After Wade signed with Chicago, Riley texted his thoughts to Le Batard: “SADDDDDDD!!!! SO saddddddd!”

Last month, Riley was in Saint-Tropez with Heat owner Micky Arison, on the occasion of the 25th wedding anniversary of Magic and Cookie Johnson, when he gave the Palm Beach Post a few thoughts about Wade becoming a Chicago Bull.

“No apologies, no regrets — except for one,” Riley said, the one ostensibly being Wade. “No tears. Good luck. We move on. Players come and go, but franchises move on.”

But players move on, too. It’s difficult to stay in one place in the modern NBA, and the guys who were picked in the legendary 2003 draft — those Banana Boaters James, Wade, and Anthony — are no longer the league’s young stunners. They’re the elder statesmen. James has practically turned into a player-coach. Anthony has continued to show up for Olympics the way old men refuse to miss their annual golf outings. Wade found himself this summer dealing with not one but two hair-obsessed, SAD!-texting narcissists who own property in South Florida. “If all your personal and business relationships end the exact same way,” Union subtweeted about one of them, “it’s a safe bet it’s you. You are the problem.”

Wade, one of several high-profile but past-their-primes pickups made by the Bulls this offseason, has insisted that this team will be led by 27-year-old Jimmy Butler, not him: “This is Jimmy’s team,” Wade said. “It won’t be a tug and pull whose team it is.”

Still, just as Wade is the “incensed” dad on the sideline at his kid’s AAU games, he’s eager to provide influence on his new team. “The coaching staff doesn’t really need to say much,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson told reporters last week, “because every time I turn around, D-Wade is stopping the play and cursing guys out.” Wade didn’t see it quite that way. “Haha,” he tweeted, “That sounds kinda harsh. I like the term coaching guys or holding them accountable.” Union, who likes to coach her husband and hold him accountable (the support is nice, he told ESPN’s Champion, but “the rest is just gibberish”) said that her husband can be an effective NBA player for a while longer, and that his game has settled into a new, different gear.

The same could be said for both of them as a pair: As they grow into middle age, and as their boys grow into men, it’s clear that both Wade and Union are confronting their legacies and impact. And they’re doing so in a way that feels organic and deeply personal, that is less “power couple” and more powerful. Sometimes, these past few months have shown, the best way of standing on your platform involves first stepping off your pedestal.

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