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Ritesh Gupta: The FSU grad behind the viral Dwyane Wade video

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As his Dwyane Wade tribute video racks up millions upon millions of views this week, Ritesh Gupta reflects fondly on his early days at FSU and working as a journalist in Tallahassee.
As his Dwyane Wade tribute video racks up millions upon millions of views this week, Ritesh Gupta reflects fondly on his early days at FSU and working as a journalist in Tallahassee. (Courtesy of Ritesh Gupta)

Ritesh Gupta has always had an eye for greatness.

While still a student at Florida State back in the late-1990s, he picked up a side gig announcing North Florida Christian high school football games and was blown away by one of the youngest players on the field. When he found out the player's parents were both former athletes at Florida State, Gupta couldn't wait to tell legendary head coach Bobby Bowden about the phenom he had witnessed.

"He's the greatest high school football player I've ever seen," Gupta remembers telling Bowden the following Monday, "and he's in the eighth grade."

The player, of course, was future FSU and NFL star Ernie Sims.

And in the 16 years since he left Tallahassee -- first for a job in MTV's news and documentary department and later as a filmmaker and content manager -- Gupta has reached back through his FSU contacts and helped numerous aspiring journalists and filmmakers find their first opportunities in the business. He has reviewed their work, helped with their resumes and, when impressed by their talent and skills, recommended them for openings.

It was partly for those efforts that Gupta was inducted two years ago into the FSU Alumni Association's Circle of Gold.

Yet as he sat and reviewed the final edits for his latest creation -- a four-minute video tribute to retiring Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade -- not even Gupta grasped how much of an impact it would have nationally and internationally.

"I think I had just been in the edit room too long," Gupta said with a laugh. "I didn't know it would be this big. I knew people would like it. But to see the response has been unbelievable."

Odds are you've probably seen the video. Judging by the tens of millions of views on YouTube and social media, it seems like almost everyone has seen the video.

It begins with images of the jerseys Wade has received from other NBA superstars during his final season of professional basketball -- from LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki to Chris Paul and Paul George

It then moves to a series of emotional vignettes, during which Wade is thanked by various people he has inspired over the past two decades. But instead of game-worn jerseys, each person presents Wade with a personal token of his or her appreciation.

There's a sister of a Parkland shooting victim, who idolized the basketball star and was buried in a replica of one of Wade's Heat jerseys. Wade later embraced the teenager's family, invited them to games and wrote his name, Joaquin Oliver, on his sneakers.

There's a mother who was devastated when her family lost their home and possessions in a tragic fire, only to have Wade lift their spirits by taking them on a shopping spree.

A young man, Danny Arzu, explains how Wade's encouraging words over a decade ago inspired to him get off the streets of Miami, pursue his college education at Florida State and embark upon a productive career.

And another young woman thanks Wade for providing a full scholarship for her to attend college.

Finally, Wade's own mother, Jolinda Wade, shares her painful story of addiction and incarceration during his youth, and reflects on how he provided her with unconditional love during her darkest days.

"I am more proud of the man you have become than the basketball player," Jolinda Wade says in the final moments of the four-minute video. "You are bigger than basketball."

The piece, which was sponsored by Budweiser, was released Tuesday morning, about 12 hours before Wade would play his final home game inside AmericanAirlines Arena. Later that day, it was the No. 3 trending video on YouTube.

The original Twitter post by Budweiser has been viewed 20 million times, and the piece has been watched tens of millions of times elsewhere.

Gupta, who is now based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is senior vice president and head of content for Vayner Productions, served as the film's director and was part of the creative team that crafted the concept.

"We didn't want to tell the story of a guy who impacted the game of basketball by winning three NBA titles in 16 years," said Gupta, who attended Wade's final two games this week, in Miami and Brooklyn. "We wanted to tell the story of a guy who had changed over 1,000 lives. So when we pitched that to Budweiser, they were 100 percent in."

That pitch meeting, on March 11, incredibly took place just four weeks before the video was complete.

"It was a less-than-one-month whirlwind to make it happen," Gupta said.

The last 20 years have actually been a whirlwind for the FSU graduate, even if his career took a little while to get going. Gupta vividly remembers sending out more than 70 resumes for television jobs after his 1998 graduation and receiving zero responses.

It wasn't until a friend helped him get in the door at WCTV, the CBS affiliate in Tallahassee, that Gupta's storytelling journey really began. He served as a sports reporter and anchor at the station from 2000-03 before landing the gig at MTV News in New York. And it was during his time there, while reporting on celebrities like Britney Spears and also covering breaking news events, that Gupta really began honing his craft as a filmmaker.

"That was the foundation -- still being a storyteller and still being a journalist," Gupta said. "I just sort of discovered what I really loved doing. I love telling stories. And I learned how to get people to connect with your subject from a video and documentary standpoint."

Ironically, his first big story at MTV actually involved Wade.

The United States and its allies had just invaded Iraq, and March Madness was the top story in the sports world. Gupta wondered if any players in the NCAA Tournament might also have relatives going off to war, and he eventually profiled Marquette guard Travis Diener.

The first person Gupta interviewed for that story was Diener's teammate, Wade.

"Sixteen years later, I'm standing on the court with him in Miami directing this spot," Gupta said.

While this Wade film likely will end up being Gupta's most-viewed piece, it's not the first time one of his creations has gone viral. After the Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series, he smashed a home run with the tribute piece, "Harry Caray's Last Call." He also has teamed with Budweiser on popular videos to celebrate Derek Jeter's retirement from the New York Yankees and NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s last race.

Through partnerships with companies like Budweiser and Comcast, Gupta said he's been able to marry two of his primary passions -- telling people's stories and making films. And the fact that many of his most successful projects have involved sports is likely not an accident.

An avid Florida State fan, Gupta said he attends at least one game every football season and keeps up with the team by reading Warchant and other outlets. He still reflects fondly of his days covering the Seminoles for the student newspaper, FSView, and later WCTV.

But even though many of his projects have featured sports icons, Gupta doesn't believe their athletic ability is what has generated so much interest. He said it's their human connection, and their uplifting messages.

"People like stories on real people. They like truth and authenticity," he said. "And sometimes, it feels like all we read about is doom and gloom and darkness. So if you can show people that there's hope, goodness and light out there in the world -- and I think we did that through Dwyane's story -- that's how you have impact."

If Gupta didn't realize how significant his Wade piece would be on first sight, he figured it out quickly.

First, his cell phone started vibrating early Tuesday with scores of text messages, emails and calls from friends. Then he saw how much it was being shared on social media. And then he read the comments from Wade's wife, actress Gabrielle Union, and spoke with Wade's family members.

They all said it brought them to tears.

"When they have that reaction," he said, "it's so satisfying, because you know you did the story justice. And you know you did your subject justice. It's just the best feeling."


Talk about this story with other Florida State football fans in the Tribal Council