Dion Waiters doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.
His trainer, Chuck Ellis, has just arrived at a Philadelphia portrait studio with custom-made T-shirts, hastily printed the night before, because Waiters forgot his in Miami. Waiters' best friends, Quardeer Finch and Rashawn Cunningham, are frantically pressing the wrinkles out. Finch holds a T-shirt up inside-out, so as not to damage the image of Waiters' famed pose. Cunningham goes over it with a garment steamer.
Waiters, dressed in a white shirt and sweatshorts, wonders: Can't they just photoshop the wrinkles out after the shoot?
The shirts are larges—one size too big for Dion. His publicist, Erika Sykes, suggests pulling them back into his shorts to fit his 6'4" frame. "I ain't doing none of that," Waiters says.
Forget the pressing. Forget the shirt-tucking. With Dion Waiters, you either take him or leave him—wrinkles and all.
Waiters entered the league five years ago with that same attitude, with the sense that he didn't need to explain himself to anyone. It hurt his reputation, but to hear him tell it, it sustained his self-belief. If he cared about his public image, "it would have eventually broke me down."
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During his career, Waiters has been the subject of ridicule, viewed as an inhabitant of an imaginary Waiters Island, dwindling in population every time he clanked another ill-advised shot. He's been a sixth man, a pariah, an underpaid shot-maker, a multimillionaire, a meme and an aspirational brand. He is also, by his assessment, a top-15 player in the NBA.
"I can one-on-one, mano-a-mano, BBQ chicken, I don't care. That's what it is," Waiters tells B/R Mag. "I like my chances."
Pat Riley does, too. The Miami Heat president convinced Waiters to sign a two-year, $5.9 million deal in 2016. When the two first met, Riley asked Waiters what he would do if Miami put the ball in his hands for a game-winning shot.
"I was born," he replied, "to destroy."
One year later, the 25-year-old, who nailed a game-winning three in January against the Golden State Warriors, stepped into that same office and inked a four-year, $52 million extension.
It's Aug. 4 in the Crystal Tea Room, an upscale ballroom in downtown Philadelphia, with sparkling chandeliers suspended from a coffered white-and-gold columned ceiling. The building typically hosts high-end wedding receptions. But this day, it has been transformed—with smoke machines and multicolor LED lights—into the site of Waiters' fourth annual Made in Philly night, a suit-and-tie affair celebrating the Philadelphia's finest.
Standing on a crowded stage flanked by carved wooden pillars, Waiters is clad in a shiny Tom Ford suit jacket with waves of different shades of blue, white and black, a white button-up and a black bow tie. He's rocking out with an open bottle of pink moscato in his hands.
"That's more like something my girl would drink," cracks Wayne Ellington, who came along with Heat teammates Tyler Johnson and James Johnson. Ribbing be damned, pink moscato, Waiters insists, is the only thing he needs. He says he hasn't had a drop of hard liquor since his freshman year at Syracuse.
Between swigs, Waiters raps along with his friend of over a decade, Meek Mill, to the certified banger "We Ball."
Any weapon formed against me shall not prosper.
Used to pray them Ramen noodles turned to lobster.
The celebration is happening steps away from City Hall—a 15-minute drive from South Philadelphia, where Waiters grew up. His father was in jail when he was born. His mother, Monique Brown, whom Waiters considers his hero, worked full-time at the Kimmel Center. To make ends meet, she dealt drugs on the side. Waiters was eight years old, playing at the park, when a bullet flew inches from his head. When he was 15, his best friend, Rhamik Thomas, was shot and killed. Last year, his brother, Demetrius Pinckney, was also gunned down mere blocks from where they grew up.
"Everybody from my childhood growing up had to have that confidence, that self-will," Waiters says. "Go out there and do something, be something, prove that you're gonna be more than this. My mom got shot. My dad got shot. Some of the craziest stuff. All that happened to me. I lost my best friend, three cousins. My little brother, last year."
And yet, here he is. "Like, you can't tell me nothing."
Unless, of course, you're Pat Riley.
It's Feb. 5, and the Heat are practicing at the AmericanAirlines Arena after making quick work of the 76ers the night before, extending their winning streak to 10 games. Still, in a season marred by injuries and close losses, that only leaves them at 21-30.
Waiters has been sizzling, averaging 21.5 points per game over that stretch. But after tweaking his leg against the 76ers, he shows up to practice without his uniform on and plans to sit out. Riley, seeing this, is irate. "I have a thing about the uniform," Riley explains. "It's your armor. If you don't wear it every day in practice, you wear it in a game and it doesn't feel comfortable."
He orders the team to line up against the wall, and goes on a profanity-laced tirade that singles Waiters out.
Riley is a firm believer in accountability. He expects promises to be kept.
For Waiters, that meant slimming down and chiseling up. The Heat's dedication to world-class fitness is well-known—with horror stories about hours-long practices, guys throwing up in garbage cans—dating back to the Alonzo Mourning era. In Riley's mind, it's the law, a holdover from his playing days.
"I was challenged about my body weight to such a point that it made the difference between me making the team and not making the team," Riley says. "If we can't get you there, we can't get out of you what you can give us."
According to Ellington, Riley felt that Waiters' injury problems were a result of his laissez-faire attitude toward conditioning. Riley wanted Waiters to cut his weight to 220 pounds and 6.0 percent body fat. To Waiters' credit, he dropped to a lean 222 pounds, down from 234, with 7.5 percent body fat in April. Good, but not impeccable.
For all the progress Waiters made last season, Riley still wonders: How can a player with such an unbelievable stroke shoot only 65 percent from the free-throw line? Meaningful improvement, to Riley, is achieved through the pursuit of perfection. Nothing less will suffice.
The message behind the madness, in Waiters' eyes: "We're on a seven-game win streak. He's cussing me out. It means, 'Get your shit together.' You gotta be a leader, even if you are beat up."
The chance to be a leader was, after all, why he signed on the dotted line in the first place.
In the summer of 2016, when Waiters first stepped into Riley's office, he immediately felt the gravity of the room. It was all there: the championship trophies, the framed photographs of Riley's accomplishments, the table on which Riley infamously threw down his championship rings and convinced LeBron James to sign on the dotted line. And there was, of course, the man himself. "Smooth, hair slicked back, laid-back," Waiters remembers.
Riley and head coach Erik Spoelstra were drawn to what Spoelstra now refers to as Waiters' "irrational confidence."
"Something you can't teach. It's borderline. If you're too far over on one side, you're not confident. If you're too far on the other side, you're unrealistic. He toes that line," Spoelstra says.
They came away from Waiters' and the Thunder's 2016 playoff run impressed with his ability to create scoring chances in high-intensity situations.
"He thinks he's one of the best," Riley says. "Very defiant, and we like that."
After talking to Waiters' former coaches, they agreed that what Waiters lacked, he could find in a disciplined regime.
Miami parlayed the discount offer, $5.9 million over two years, with the promise that Waiters would be given the opportunity to be the team's go-to scorer, so long as he bought into the program. It was understood that if Waiters were willing to take the deal, he would be joining a team run by a no-nonsense president and coached by a tactical genius.
Eventually, Waiters was convinced. The Heat saw him as he saw himself: born to destroy. Nothing else mattered. His self-belief, as always, was mammoth. Of course he could accomplish what the Heat were asking of him.
"I had to lock in. I had to put my back against the wall. I had to put the house on the line. I had to bet on myself and double down," he says, echoing the line on his T-shirt.
After he roars into the camera for a few shots in the Philly studio, it's time to change shirts. Waiters puts on a white one with a logo imprinted of the man himself the moment he became the myth.
It is practically lore now: On Jan. 23 against the Golden State Warriors, nine games after returning from a groin injury, with the game tied and 11 seconds left on the clock, Waiters calmly dribbled the ball up the floor and nailed a straight-on game-winning three at the buzzer. He crossed his arms, wrinkled his brow and unleashed the meanest mug in NBA history.
"That's how he became Philly cheese. 'I told you—give me the ball, get out the way, I told you.' That's how he talks," says Ellington.
"When that moment came, that's why I was so crazy," Waiters says. "Everything [Riley and I] sat down and talked about that summer, everything happened the way we talked about."
In the following game against the Nets, Waiters scored 14 fourth-quarter points, including a dagger trey that put the Heat ahead by four points with six seconds left. From then on until Waiters' season ended with an ankle injury in mid-March, he averaged 17.1 points on 40.7 percent shooting from the three-point line and dished out five assists per game.
It was all part of a 30-11 run that started on Jan. 17 and fell just short of the playoffs. It made for an awkward script, but one perfectly befitting the man who, even after an 11-30 start, constantly told teammates they were within striking distance of the playoffs. Waiters was particularly thrilled, Johnson recalls, when Miami knocked off the Nuggets and Jazz in what has long been considered the toughest road back-to-back in the NBA, without him.
"A team has a different attitude when they're 10-31 or 11-30," Riley says. "For those first 40 games, they were depressed as a team, but they were still fighting."
Spoelstra was the engineer, Goran Dragic the engine and Hassan Whiteside the hammer, but Waiters fueled their self-belief. Behind his energy, the Heat became the ultimate proprietors of the fake-it-until-you-make-it ethic, and as every win piled up, their confidence felt less and less irrational.
"We had everything, top to bottom. No weaknesses," Waiters says. "We had a top-five defense. We would have given [the Cavs or Celtics] a run for their money."
According to Waiters, the Heat will do exactly that this season. He has Miami pegged as a top team in the East—and he doesn't care if you disagree.
"Playoffs, no question. Top five, top four...shit, top two," Waiters pauses. "Don't ask me."
It's worth noting that, after bouncing from Cleveland to Oklahoma City, this is the first time in Waiters' career that he can comfortably speculate about the future of his team. In Miami, returning to the same system and coaching staff, he plans to build off a steady foundation. Off the court, he is doing much more: building a home.
Looking back at the past few months, Waiters reflects. "By far, my best summer,'' he says. "It's not even about the contract. That's a bonus.'' The contract was an ancillary effect, it turns out, to all the changes he had to make to earn it. To lock down on the court, naturally, Waiters was forced to lock down off it.
No more trying to force it, like he did in Cleveland. He would, if he could go back now, "shut the hell up and just enjoy the moment." No more Philly cheesesteaks. His circle is exclusive to "the ones who," in Riley's words, "give him the honest reality." No more running around in Philadelphia, accepting every invite that comes his way. Not when his son, Dion Waiters Jr., is watching his every move.
For Dion, his latest gift is being a witness to his own internal growth, developing the ability, as he puts it, to "know yourself."
Lately, Waiters has been taking his son and his eight-months-pregnant fiancee, Brandi Hill, down to the pier to rent a boat for the day. The excursions often take them to Haulover Sandbar, a shallow bank where the water is knee-level, miles away from the bustle of South Beach. At low tide, the water recedes into the ocean, revealing a stretch of sand. The boats are, for a brief time, grounded.
Peering out into the Atlantic, surrounded by water and the people who will love him regardless of the box score, he is on Waiters Island, population three. Just the way he likes it.
Seerat Sohi is a freelance writer who has been published at ESPN, Sports on Earth and the Triangle Offense. Follow her on Twitter @DamianTrillard.