On the Cusp of Major Payday, Dion Waiters Reflects on His Darkest Moments

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 28, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 12: Dion Waiters #11 of the Miami Heat looks on against the Indiana Pacers during a game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 12, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Pacers defeated the Heat 102-98. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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MIAMI — The sounds pierced the night like a dozen fireworks

Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!

But South Philadelphia residents knew better. These were gunshots. And they were tearing through a car carrying five women returning from a night of partying at a local skating rink.

"Drive!" Monique Brown yelled at her cousin at the wheel. "Just drive!"

The car raced away from the shooters. At least a dozen bullets struck.

The shooters were working off bad information. They thought the car contained family members of their rivals. 

As the car approached a red light, Brown first felt the burning sensation above her right knee.

"Oh my god," she screamed. "I'm shot!"

Dion Waiters, now well-positioned for a lottery-sized payout after a breakout effort with the Miami Heat, couldn't forget the details if he tried.

Sure, he might have a life-changing contract coming his way once the 2017 NBA free-agency market officially opens July 6. One summer removed from settling on a two-year, $6 million pact with a player option, Waiters could now fetch a four-year, $60 million deal, according to CBS Sports' Jack Maloney.

But the money can't blur his memories. He knows he wouldn't be in this position without his mother, the woman he nearly lost that night.

He was awake at home. He always stayed up and waited for her to return. 

She'd been his rock ever since giving birth as a teenager. She protected him from the dangers that existed beyond their doorstep.

In the summers, they'd go to the beach of Wildwood, New Jersey. She worked long hours as a nurse to buy video games: the annual edition of Madden, whatever was hot at the moment. She shared her bed with him—and sometimes his girlfriend and the family dog—to watch Lifetime movies.

"You find a lot of good movies on there," Waiters told Bleacher Report. "My mom normally finds the best ones."

The longer he waited up for her that night, the more he worried.

The phone rang.

His mom had been shot, the caller said. That was all they could tell him.

His first reaction was to cry. His next was to act, blowing up her phone to find out something—anything—for himself. She didn't answer.

"So I'm thinking, you know, you think worst-case scenario," Waiters said. "You hear somebody was shot, you're going to think somebody died."

MIAMI, FL - NOVEMBER 17:  Dion Waiters #11 of the Miami Heat looks on during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on November 17, 2016 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading
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Waiters says the words as if everyone can relate to the experience. In his world, everyone can.

From the year he was born, 1991, to the year he left for college, 2010, there were 7,307 homicides committed in Philadelphia, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Lower-income areas such as the Graduate Hospital neighborhood where he grew up were disproportionately affected by the violence.

Fortunately, Waiters' mother survived. The only lasting physical damage from the shooting is a scar above her right knee.

"Being that it went through the door, the door actually slowed the bullet down," Brown recalled.


Both Waiters and Brown recall the harrowing tale with vague nonchalance. By now, there are worse stories, but 2017 brought a distraction from the pain.

The former No. 4 pick—twice discarded by NBA franchises—found freedom last season, his first with the Heat. He showed why he was often compared to Dwyane Wade and did so in the same place the future Hall of Famer built his legend.

For the better part of three months, Miami was the league's surprise powerhouse, resurrecting from an 11-30 start to finish with a 30-11 push that fell a tie-breaker shy of a playoff berth. Waiters was the surprise catalyst—Miami won 58.7 percent of its games with him and only 38.9 percent without.

The season fascinated for reasons beyond basketball. Death has been an unwelcome, persistent backdrop of Waiters' life. Less than four hours after he entered the world on Dec. 10, 1991, Eleanor R. Brown, Monique's grandmother and the woman who raised her, died.

By age eight, Waiters had witnessed a shootout, narrowly avoiding a catastrophic end to an otherwise mundane mother-son trip to the park. At 12, he had a gun put to his head during a police raid.

Before Waiters' 15th birthday, his cousin Antose "Tose" Brown was shot and killed. 

"He was like the real big brother," Waiters said. "I used to always be with him."

The following year, 2007, Waiters lost another cousin, Isiah Brown. Three months later his best friend, Rhamik Thomas, died, another victim of gun violence.

"[Thomas] played with so much heart, they used to call him, 'The Small Giant,'" said Chris Clayton, Waiters' longtime mentor and business manager. "This guy was really little, but he would kind of punk you, kind of take your heart."

Thomas was 16 at the time of his death. He was shot at least 11 times.

"They were pretty much around each other every day, all day. Just that particular day, Dion was not with Rhamik," Brown said. "He was devastated."

In 2009, Waiters' cousin Karl Brown died in a motorcycle accident. Waiters' younger brother, Demetrius "Zique" Pinckney, was shot to death in March 2016 after an argument and a chase on bikes.

"Each one of those guys has a special place in my heart," Waiters said. "I don't really like to speak on those situations, you know? They're touchy situations, but I'll do whatever it takes to keep their names alive."

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 17: Dion Waiters #11 of the Miami Heat handles the ball during the game against the Houston Rockets on January 17, 2017 at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by download
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There's a lifetime of pain inside Waiters, but he tries to keep it hidden.

"Coming from where we came from, you're not going to just open up to anybody," Brown said. "You're not going to do that."

That leaves others to draw their own conclusions. They see the scowl cemented by the South Philly streets. They combine it with his pleas for touches and deem him a disgruntled malcontent. Then come the stories to fit that narrative. That he thinks he's better than everyone. That he's incapable of sharing the spotlight. Even that he fought a teammate.

He could take control of his press clippings, but only if he cared enough to do so. He has bigger worries in life, many of which he's still learning how to address.

Waiters is getting better at channeling his emotions. The process took a healthier turn during his season-plus tenure with the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he found solace in discussing his situation with a team staffer.

But the biggest pivot in this transformation came June 7, 2013, when his girlfriend gave birth to his son, Dion Rhamik Waiters.

"That was probably the biggest thing that happened to him in his life," Brown said. "As far as him going from a boy to a man, it was when his son was born. He knew responsibility had kicked in."

He recalls the birth as "nasty" but still "beautiful" and "amazing." The NBA life hasn't gotten him out of middle-of-the-night diaper changes and sink baths.

Waiters dotes on his son—spoiling, he says, would be "an understatement." Little Dion already has a collection of kicks any sneakerhead would envy, a flat-screen TV in his room, every toy on the market.

"Going through what I went through as a kid—my father not always being around—I always told myself I was going to be the best dad I could be, best father I could be for my child," Waiters said. "I think that's one of the most beautiful things that you can go through as a parent, just being able to see their everyday life experiences, see the changes, the adaptations they make every day."

Fatherhood has moved at rapid speed. "He went from Pampers to wearing boxers; it's crazy." He also provided an unlikely relief for Waiters' grief. 

When Brown's mother died last June, Waiters' son asked questions almost immediately. "He would say, 'Dad, is Mom-Mom up there?'" Waiters said. "'Is she sleeping? Did she go in the sky?' He really asked me this on his own.

"I'm like, 'God damn, this is crazy. He's three years old, and he knows what death is.' It's scary, man. It's scary these kids know so much at a young age." 


Waiters could exit his childhood home and be on the court outside E.M. Stanton Elementary in five steps. That's where he survived.

In a very real way, the court protected him.

"When you see—even the toughest tough guys—when they see guys trying to do something with their lives, you get somewhat of a pass," Clayton said. "Everybody in the community embraces you."

Waiters still counts football as his first sports love, but he was a natural at basketball.

He had a scholarship to Syracuse before playing a second of high school hoops, appearing on the program's radar by dominating at camps and in pickup games with Orange commits.

He didn't play during his freshman year, which he split between John Bartram High School and South Philadelphia High School. He spent his sophomore season at South Kent (Connecticut) Prep, but his head coach, Raphael Chillious (now the associate head coach at UConn), left for a job with Nike.

Despite the travel, Waiters still left his last of four prep stops—Life Center Academy in Burlington, New Jersey—as a top-30 recruit.

Gerry Broome/Associated Press

"He let you know he knew he was a good player," said Dylan Talley, a Life Center teammate. "He didn't have to say it; he just played like it."

But Waiters struggled to find serenity inside the lines. His higher-profile teammates took the bulk of the credit for team success, while his name was most often mentioned during rough patches.

"I think sometimes when you're on teams that are that good, people have to find an excuse," Waiters said. "And I was always the excuse for some reason. When things were going good or things were going bad, it was Dion."

The talking heads mocked his supreme belief in his ability. The internet laughed at his unrequited calls for the ball.

Waiters has what Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra calls "irrational confidence." Waiters prefers "Philly cheese swag."

It's a detriment in the eyes of those who view his appetite for touches as me-first tendencies. For others, it's an asset that allows him to throw knockout punches late in games, like this flex-worthy finish to knock off the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in January.

To Waiters, it's simple: He's seen life-or-death situations. The final seconds of a basketball game don't compare.

"People say, 'Why's your confidence like that?' Because I've beat some of the harshest things anybody can ever go through," he said. "I'm not scared to take the big shot, because there's only two things that can happen—you're going to miss it, or you're going to make it.

"That's why my confidence is like that. It has nothing to do with me just being this cocky guy out of Philly. Nah, I've just been through so much that—man, basketball's the easy part.

"That's the answer to everybody's question right there when they ask, 'Where do you get this irrational confidence?' Man, if you've been through what I've been through, you'd just be happy to be alive."

Before a sprained ankle sidelined him for Miami's final 13 games, Waiters had been playing the best basketball of his career.

He collected his first-ever Conference Player of the Week award and helped key Miami's first double-digit winning streak of the post-Big Three era. Over his final 25 outings—21 of them wins—he averaged 18.4 points on 46.7 percent shooting (44.5 percent from three) and 4.8 assists.

The Heat allowed him to play his game and discovered how much reality can differ from perception.

Goran Dragic called him "the opposite" of a bad teammate. Hassan Whiteside said Waiters has "been nothing but good for us." Spoelstra credited Waiters for "embracing our culture" and "meeting us more than halfway."

Waiters, in turn, thanked the Heat for "believing in me" and "not holding me back," and the impending free agent has envisioned Miami as a long-term home.

"I think it's perfect for me," Waiters said. "My son loves it. Just the way things operate around here, it's special."

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 28: Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat coaches Dion Waiters #11 of the Miami Heat during the game against the Detroit Pistons on January 28, 2017 at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
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His hot stretch could prove to be a contract-year mirage. He's never been the most efficient player, as he's yet to post a player efficiency rating of 15.0, the league-average mark. Maybe he'll always have the hot and cold swings of a gunner.

But Waiters says this is "only the first step" to having the type of career he always knew he could.

Maybe he's right. He's 25 years old, lightning-quick off the dribble and athletic enough to handle multiple defensive assignments. It feels foolish to think he's incapable of evolving.

"I wouldn't change anything about anything I've been through," he said. "Sometimes you wish, 'Damn, what if they were here to witness everything that's going on?' Just being at a game, seeing me live my dream out. That's the only thing I think about." 

       

All quotes obtained firsthand. Stats used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com. Recruit information courtesy of Scout.com.

Zach Buckley covers the Miami Heat for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.