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McGRATH: Dwyane Wade’s former Richards coach still watching over him

Jack Fitzgerald was first channel talents Dwyane Wade shown flying toward hoop Game 1 NBA Finals against Spurs Thursday night.

Jack Fitzgerald was the first to channel the talents of Dwyane Wade, shown flying toward the hoop in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Spurs on Thursday night.  | Mike Segar~AP

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Updated: July 10, 2013 6:38AM

It’s not much fun watching a friend suffer.

‘‘This is way harder than playing or coaching,’’ Jack Fitzgerald was saying in a South Side pub Thursday night as we watched the Miami Heat play the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on the only TV not showing the Blackhawks.

Fitz hardly qualifies as a neutral observer; he was Dwyane Wade’s coach at Richards in Oak Lawn, and they remain almost father-son close. Fitz, in fact, works for the Heat as a Midwest college scout, having retired last month after 39 years as a classroom teacher.

‘‘Playing or coaching, you had some control,’’ he says. ‘‘Here, all you can do is watch . . . and hope.’’

Wade’s 10th NBA season has in some ways been his most difficult. His propensity for throwing his body around on fearless drives to the basket seems to have affected his health. He played through a sore knee all year and was not at his airborne best for puzzling stretches of the Eastern Conference finals as the Indiana Pacers extended the Heat to seven gritty games.

‘‘That’s more like it,’’ Fitz says when Wade produces the game’s first bucket with an acrobatic dunk. Later, there’s a hint of a smile when his protege feathers in an 18-foot jumper.

‘‘That will be good for his confidence,’’ Fitz says. ‘‘He hasn’t hit a perimeter shot in a while.’’

Fitzgerald knows Wade’s game as well as anyone and became fortuitously aware of it before Wade enrolled at Richards. Demetris McDaniel, a forward on one of Fitz’s early Richards teams, showed up at practice one day accompanied by his step-brother, a moon-faced little guy.

‘‘Demetris says their mom got called into work, so he had to watch his brother,’’ Fitz recalls. ‘‘I kind of rolled my eyes — ‘This is basketball practice, not daycare.’ I gave the kid a ball and he went off to shoot at a side basket. Then we were short a man for a scrimmage, and Demetris says, ‘What about my brother?’ He was the smallest kid on the floor, but he went right through us — nobody could stay in front of him.

‘‘I said, ‘Hey, Demetris, you got any more brothers at home?’ ’’

Wade didn’t make the varsity until his junior year. Fitz still hears about it from his coaching friends.

‘‘I thought he could use the time to develop and do his thing,’’ he says. ‘‘His game has always been about attacking, and he might not have wanted to do that as a sophomore on a really good team of juniors and seniors. By the time he got to the varsity, he was ready to go.’’

Wade’s highly decorated Richards career featured a 90-point day in the St. Xavier University holiday tournament.

‘‘We lost in the first round because Dwyane was too unselfish, trying to get everybody else involved,’’ Fitz says. ‘‘I told him we were not running an equal-opportunity offense.

‘‘In the consolation round the next day, he got 48 points in the morning game and 42 in the evening. I guess he took the message to heart.’’

Fitz was incredulous when Wade fell just short of the NCAA’s qualifying standard on his ACT exam: ‘‘Stupid rule. He went to class, did his work, got good grades . . . his teachers loved him.’’

So did Marquette, which admitted Wade as a non-qualifier. After sitting out his freshman year, he evolved into a consensus All-American and took the Golden Eagles to the Final Four in 2003.

‘‘The year off turned out to be good for him,’’ Fitz says now. ‘‘He ate at the training table instead of McDonald’s and got in the weight room.’’

The Heat took Wade with the fifth pick in 2003 — LeBron James, Darko Milicic, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh were the first four choices — and he has been basketball royalty ever since.

The Spurs gradually get the better of it on this night as their Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili outperforms Wade, James and Bosh, taking over in a 92-88 victory. The Heat fades in the fourth quarter, hitting just five of 18 shots and committing five turnovers.

The basketball purist in Fitz is conflicted: ‘‘San Antonio is tough, smart and talented. There isn’t a guy on that team I don’t respect. And Gregg Popovich is a great coach.’’

Besides, he has been through worse.

‘‘I’ve been a Cub fan all my life, and they’ve let me down every year,’’ Fitz says. ‘‘Dwyane has never let me down once in all the time I’ve known him.’’

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