Dwyane Wade has been a parent for 18 years now, but that doesn’t mean he has fatherhood completely figured out.
The NBA legend, 38, spoke with PEOPLE ahead of the premiere of his documentary D. Wade: Life Unexpected, where he opened up about, among other aspects of his life, how his perspective of parenthood has changed since he welcomed his first child, now-18-year-old son Zaire.
Admitting he’s “always scared” as a parent, Wade — who’s also dad to Kaavia James, 15 months, Xavier Zechariah, 6, and Zaya, 12, as well as the guardian of nephew Dahveon Morris, 18 — says he’s “scared in a different way now” than when he became a first-time father at barely 20 years old.
“Now he’s 18 and I’m like, ‘He’s about to go to college’ — I’m even more scared,” Wade says. “When a kid is born, they don’t come out with a pamphlet that’s like, ‘Okay, these are the directions for this kid.’ So you just figure it out and try to help raise someone who’s good and kind, and just characteristics that you want your kids to hopefully have. And that’s in you already.”
“You’re afraid because you don’t want to mess up; you don’t want anything to happen to them,” he continues. “But I think, ultimately, we all have it inside of us to help lead someone, whether that’s your kids, godson or goddaughter, niece or nephew, coworker — we all have it in us to lead. It’s no different when you have a kid.”
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Despite the difficulties of being a dad to a newly minted adult, Wade is dedicated to being Zaire’s biggest support system in all areas of life, and tells PEOPLE he’s “in the passenger’s seat” as opposed to the backseat as far as his oldest child’s basketball-related future is concerned.
“He’s in the driver’s seat,” the athlete says of Zaire, who plays basketball on the same high school team as LeBron James‘ 15-year-old son LeBron Raymone Jr., a.k.a. Bronny. “He has a dream, like I had a dream and like we all have dreams. And his dream is to play professional basketball in the NBA. But also [I am] letting him know that his path just may not be the same as people around him.”
“So if basketball is the ultimate goal, then I’m just trying to help him along the way, understanding there’s so many different ways to get to this goal,” Wade says. “It’s not just one way — it’s not go through high school, be a superstar. [Get] into college, be a superstar. Get drafted No. 1 and now you’re there.”
“There’s so many different ways to get to the NBA or to get that path,” he adds. “So [I’m] just trying to help him navigate through expectations that the world has put on him, and that he puts on himself, because of his last name.”
The former Miami Heat player, who retired from professional basketball in 2019 after 16 years with the NBA, says that he and Zaire don’t have what many might call a typical parent-child dynamic, in which the younger is embarrassed by the older.
“He’s definitely not embarrassed by me. When it’s time, he knows how to lean into, ‘Hey, that’s my dad,’ ” Wade says.
But that doesn’t mean Wade doesn’t like to tease his son once in a while: “There’s moments where I embarrass him sometimes on purpose, and sometimes just because I’m older and I’m not as cool as I used to be.”
D. Wade: Life Unexpected premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.
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