The first voice that Hassan Whiteside hears every morning has a comforting feel. It’s unmistakably Southern. Familiar. It asks the same question at the same time every day.
“What are you grateful for?” the voice says. “Three things. Let’s go.”
Whiteside starts counting his blessings, reciting them one by one.
He often names his mother Debbie, who raised him and his six other siblings in the countryside of Gastonia, North Carolina. (Whiteside’s father, Hasson Arbubakrr, a former NFL defensive end, and Debbie separated, and he moved to New Jersey when Whiteside was two years old.) Whiteside also brings up something else.
Editor's note: Opportunity next to LeBron. A crown for the taking. A max contract that needs to be lived up to. Welcome to "Time Is Now"—our look at the three players feeling the urgency in 2018-19.
Yes, the legs. When he was a child, a mishap—Whiteside kicked a trophy glass case—resulted in him getting 68 stitches. A three-inch scar remains. He once needed 27 stitches to stitch his ankle back together after nearly slicing his Achilles tendon in half while roughhousing. This past season, he suffered a bone bruise in his left knee during the Heat’s first game and it never got right, causing him to miss a chunk of games. Then there’s the 12-inch strip of his right shin that is numb to the touch—a reminder of the time Whiteside, just 10 years old and walking to the store in Gastonia, was hit by a Toyota Camry going 55 mph.
The ambulance rushed Whiteside’s gangly body to the Gaston Memorial Hospital where he struggled to maintain consciousness and slipped into a state of shock. His mangled leg was broken in three places to boot—“My leg,” Whiteside says looking back, “looked like a banana”—and after doctors surgically repaired it they needed a defibrillator to wake him up.
“My mom said I stopped breathing,” Whiteside says.
So, yeah, the legs. This was all news to the voice listening on.
Gabe Blair, who has been Whiteside’s skills trainer since 2014, reciprocates with a list of his own: He starts with the gratitude he has for his wife Analicia for taking care of their eight-year-old daughter and baby son back home in Gastonia, North Carolina, a satellite city outside Charlotte where Blair and Whiteside grew up. He finishes his list, but there’s always more to be thankful for, especially if you’re Hassan Whiteside or someone close to him, which is why Blair started this ritual in the first place.
Less than five years ago, Whiteside was unemployed at the Dowd YMCA in Charlotte and couldn’t score a workout with the Hornets down the street. With persistence, he would not only make an NBA team but emerge a phenomenon, “Hassanity,” which swept through the league in 2014-15 with the Miami Heat. He led the league in blocks in 2015-16 and earned a spot on the All-Defensive team. When he signed his four-year, $98 million contract in 2016, he became the first player in NBA history to go from a veteran’s minimum contract one season to a maximum contract the next. With the contract and block title in hand, he led the NBA in rebounds in 2016-17.
Teams have turned him down so many times that, at this point, it’s hard to keep track.
Whiteside has gone through extreme lengths to prove he belongs in the NBA. He’s bounced around from NBA team to NBA team. He’s played pro ball in Lebanon, twice, where guards flanked the arenas with AK-47s. He played for China’s equivalent of the G League not once, but twice. By the time he signed with Miami in November 2014, he had played for 12 different pro teams. Besides the Heat’s Erik Spoelstra, Whiteside had never been with a coach for more than one season in his life. Officials with the Heat organization recently did the math and discovered that Spoelstra was his 19th coach in 10 years (since Whiteside started playing in high school).
“The book on him,” says one longtime league executive, “is easily the most widely read piece of literature in the NBA.”
True, but the ritual of expressing gratitude is a reminder that there is something more. Pages unseen—an epilogue or a foreword, depending on your view of Whiteside’s career. There’s more even the most careful reader might not know. The story arc, Whiteside says, is turning upward at precisely the right time.
Even before he was drafted, there was something a bit off with Whiteside, something difficult to pin down. After a predraft workout with the Miami Heat, in which Whiteside got so exhausted that he just sat in the middle of the floor and refused to continue conditioning drills led by Keith Askins, the Sacramento Kings selected him 33rd overall in the 2011 NBA draft. Almost immediately, the team sent him to the D-League to play for the Reno Bighorns, coached by Eric Musselman, the former Kings head coach.
That 2010-11 Bighorns team was the stuff of D-League legend, if there ever were such a thing. Danny Green, Jeremy Lin and Steve Novak all played with Whiteside that year under Musselman (whose staff also included former Golden State Warriors wunderkind Sammy Gelfand). Green would go on to score 27 points in a Finals game less than two years after leaving Reno; Linsanity would take over Madison Square Garden; Novak would become the NBA’s three-point shooting leader. They were all driven, focused.
Meanwhile, Whiteside’s motor was more of a question mark.
“At that time, nobody wanted to be in the D-League,” says Musselman. “Everybody wants to be in the NBA. There are guys that would be in the D-League and not want to be there but were extremely motivated to get out. They came with a purpose, a mission. Stayed before practice, after practice. Jeremy Lin was constantly asking, ‘How do I get better? How do I play pick-and-roll? Will you watch film with me?’
“And then you have Hassan. He was just kind of there.”
As time passed in Reno, Whiteside’s attitude soured. The Kings front office grew concerned, worrying that Whiteside’s “just kind of there” posture might start to rub off negatively on GMs and scouts, who would come to see the team at a D-League Showcase. So, then-GM Geoff Petrie yanked Whiteside back to Sacramento.
Yes, a D-League demotion up to the NBA. The first of its kind, league sources say. The Kings waived Whiteside five months later, kicking off a worldwide odyssey that saw him on four different D-League (now G League) teams, a summer league with Toronto and a training camp in Memphis.
He would end up in Miami, in 2014, with something to prove.
“Those other D-League stints that he had, I’m sure, from a maturity standpoint and from a motivation standpoint,” Musselman said, “were probably different than when we had him.”
As Whiteside has bounced around, so, too, have theories about what’s driving his behavior. Many believe he is immature. His antics, both on and off the court, suggest this as a possibility, but they also suggest that there may be some sort of complicating factor as well. Something not readily apparent. A few of his greatest hits: After a breakout game in 2014-15, he famously said in the postgame interview that he was “just trying to really get my 2K rating up.” That season, he was also ejected for decking an opposing big man on two separate occasions. That summer, he got into it on Twitter with the Warriors’ Draymond Green, who was fresh off a championship.
Some, like his loyal Snapchat audience, find his antics endearing. Others call them childish. Perception, in part, depends on Whiteside’s on-court behavior.
For Dwyane Wade, it was Whiteside’s third altercation in less than a year that put him over the edge. It was a live, nationally broadcasted game in February 2016, when Whiteside elbowed Boban Marjanovic’s chin. Whiteside received a one-game suspension for the hit. The Heat immediately sent him home. In the locker room, Wade didn’t hold back.
“It’s on him,” Wade said. “The one thing with Hassan is sometimes he goes quiet. He goes to himself a lot. So as his teammates, sometimes it’s hard to know what he’s thinking.”
Bosh, whose locker was next to Whiteside’s, didn’t mince words either. “We’ve been talking to him all summer and the preseason and during the season. It’s to the point we don’t have to tell him what we expect of him. We’re adults.”
Wade suspected something was wrong. The wild elbow seemed out of the ordinary. So he staged an intervention. He invited Whiteside over to his house for lunch, seeking to get to the bottom of this festering rage.
“I wanted to know where the anger came from,” Wade recalls now. He asked Whiteside: “What triggered you so fast to do those things?”
The big man came clean. Animosity had overtaken him during his journey, from Lebanon to China and back to the NBA. Whiteside admitted to Wade that, after being waived by the Kings, he couldn’t bring himself to watch the NBA for two years because of the hatred he held in his heart for the league.
“When I came into the NBA, I was really angry,” Whiteside says now, looking back at the meeting. “I feel like I never got a fair shot. I was just really mad at the NBA. I was mad at people. I was getting overlooked every summer league, all the workouts. The team would say I had a great workout. There would be workouts where I didn’t miss a shot, a perfect workout. And then they’d get some guy that wasn’t even good.
“It was just a really frustrating part of my life and I came in so mad at all the GMs, so mad at everybody playing for them GMs,” Whiteside adds.
“When I came into the NBA, I was really angry. ... I feel like I never got a fair shot. I was just really mad at the NBA."
Hearing Whiteside’s struggles affected Wade. He saw him differently. He realized that his teammate was just misunderstood and required a different approach to get through to him.
“When Hassan first came in, we treated him like Shaq [Shaquille O'Neal] or Zo [Alonzo Mourning] how you try to motivate him,” Wade says now. “Over time, you realize he’s different. You have to approach him differently.”
Two weeks before the Marjanovic suspension, Whiteside had been removed from the starting lineup in favor for Amar’e Stoudemire, who was in his final season in the NBA. Bosh’s blood clots returned during the All-Star break, ending his season. Without Bosh by his side, Whiteside put his head down and still came off the bench behind Stoudemire and ended up earning the second-team All-Defense award despite playing half the season in a reserve role.
“He has such a big heart,” Spoelstra says of Whiteside. “Sometimes that guy is hidden from view on social media.”
Whiteside would sign a four-year, $98 million contract on July 1. Bosh, a central figure in Whiteside's life, has been gone since the big payday, due to recurring blood clots.
“Bosh helped me a lot,” Whiteside says now. “I really need to reach out to him; I know he’s going through a lot. I don’t know if he’ll hear this, but I miss him. I miss him a whole lot.”
For his entire pro career, Whiteside has somewhat begrudgingly played the role of a defensive-minded, alley-oop savant despite the fact that, in college, he had a much more versatile skill set. At Marshall, he could knock down jumpers. His DraftExpress profile noted his versatility: “His ability to score from the outside at his height is incredible.” Twenty-six percent of his shots for the Thundering Herd were jump shots, per Synergy Sports tracking, which was the most for any center in DraftExpress’ pool of prospects. But since the Sacramento Kings told him he needs to be Tyson Chandler, he has been just that: Chandler-esque.
That style of big has fallen more and more out of fashion as Whiteside’s career has unfolded. Now, guys like the Sixers’ Joel Embiid, the Warriors’ DeMarcus Cousins and the Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns are the mold. In the faster, three-happy NBA, Whiteside appears more like a big man of the past—out of place and out of time when compared to the “unicorns” of our current era.
Whiteside has never proved that he is a viable multidimensional offensive threat—in part, because of the way he has been used. In four seasons in Miami, Whiteside has never ranked in the top 50 in the NBA in real plus-minus, ESPN’s all-in-one metric that estimates a player’s impact on winning. That’s because he’s plagued with a strongly negative offensive rating. His best offensive season came in his “rookie” season with the Heat, according to RPM’s leaderboard, when he ranked 17th—among centers. Last season, his overall RPM rating checked in at 22nd among 56 centers.
Whiteside’s statistical dashboard is a study in extremes. For his career, Whiteside averages 21.7 rebounds per 100 possessions, which is better than that of Dennis Rodman, Moses Malone or Dikembe Mutombo—or any player in the modern era that came before him (Andre Drummond is his only superior in this category). But he’s also proved to be one of the largest black holes offensively, dishing out one assist every 49 minutes in his career, making it difficult to anchor a modern “pace-and-space” offense.
How much of that is due to Hassan and how much is due to how he has been utilized? The Heat want him to “play to his strengths,” as Spoelstra calls it. Defend the rim, dominate the rim. Whiteside ranks among the top-10 shooters in the restricted area. That’s his strength—playing like a more imposing Rudy Gobert or Clint Capela.
In Whiteside’s mind, he’s dutifully fulfilling a role but feels like he’s more dynamic than a Gobert-type. More offensively multidimensional. Closer to a Joel Embiid, who can mix it up inside and out. These days, if you’re not shooting threes, you’re on the outside looking in. Of the 45 total 7-footers that played in the NBA last season, 35 of them launched at least one three-pointer, per Basketball Reference tracking. Overall, 7-footers took 4,028 three-pointers as a group. Six seasons ago, that total was just 736, meaning that 7-footers are shooting three-pointers five times as often as they did in 2012-13.
“It’s like, all right, let’s go back to showcasing the skilled big,” Whiteside says now. “I want to be able to go coast-to-coast and do that a little more often. I did it a couple times last year, but I want to do it at least one or two times a game, if I get the opportunity.”
Getting the green light to shoot has become a sore spot in his relationship with Spoelstra. For years, Whiteside has campaigned to shoot more three-pointers in the Heat’s offense. During the 2016-17 preseason, Whiteside walked over to Spoelstra after a three-point shooting session at practice. “I’m 9-for-11, just so you know.”
“I want to be able to go coast-to-coast and do that a little more often. I did it a couple times last year, but I want to do it at least one or two times a game.”
Stanley Remy, a Miami-based skills coach who works with Whiteside and others like Wade, Andre Drummond and John Wall, thinks Whiteside deserves the opportunity to show more of himself on the floor.
“This is just my opinion, but you should throw him a bone here and there,” said Remy. “He’s working on the main things and why he got his max and understanding what the main focus is. But also in his spare time, he’s been expanding his game. In my opinion, throw him a bone. Let him shoot a couple jumpers here and there.”
After signing the max contract, Whiteside has shown glimpses of what he can do. He set a new Heat record for games with double-digit rebounds in a season and finished as the NBA’s leading rebounder in the 2016-17 campaign.
The 2017-18 season was a different story. He suffered a bone bruise in his left knee in the season opener, and the treatment for it became a point of contention throughout the season. According to sources close to the situation, Whiteside at first refused to wear a knee brace in games because it was uncomfortable and limiting. So, the Heat gave him an ultimatum: Wear the brace or don’t play. He didn’t play. Whiteside missed 13 games in November and December and teammates began to question his commitment to the team. In late December, he removed the brace during a game against Orlando, much to the team’s chagrin.
“He’s going to wear it,” Spoelstra said. “That’s non-negotiable.”
Whiteside caved and wore the brace, but he wasn’t himself—on or off the court. He routinely complained about playing time and touches last season. Whiteside grew distant from the team as the season pressed on. He stewed around the locker room and eventually implied that he wanted to be traded after sitting the fourth quarter and overtime against the Brooklyn Nets in March (“It’s bullshit. It’s really bullshit, man. There’s a lot of teams that could use a center,” he told reporters after the game).
After the profanity-laced rant that included a pseudo-trade demand, the team fined him for conduct detrimental to the team. He finished the season averaging a double-double and increased his assist percentage for a fourth straight season. But he also took (and made) only two three-pointers the entire season. (One in his first game and another in his second.) According to Basketball Reference, he shot 40.4 percent from 16 feet to the 3-point line, an above-average rate. This September, ESPN and Sports Illustrated left Whiteside’s name out of their top-100 player rankings. (He ranked No. 41 and No. 34 respectively a year ago, making Whiteside the only big man ranked top 50 in either poll in 2017 to fall out of the top 100 completely. Five of his current teammates appeared on a top-100 list.)
Fans and NBA insiders questioned if the money had gotten to him. One high-ranking executive, from a team who had interest in signing Whiteside in 2016 free agency but has since put that desire firmly on ice, put it this way: “We questioned how money would change him. That question was answered.”
When the playoffs rolled around, the Heat were bounced by the Embiid-led Sixers, and Whiteside was nearly unplayable, shooting 0-of-4 with three fouls in just 10 minutes in the final game of the series. After the season, former NBA coach Byron Scott, who played nine seasons for Pat Riley, delivered a message to Whiteside on ESPN’s The Jump: “You’ve got to grow up, man. You’re in the NBA. To me, that stands for No Boys Allowed. So, grow up and be a man.” In exit interviews with media in April, Riley didn’t hold back, saying, “I don’t think he was ready. … He wasn’t fully conditioned for a playoff battle mentally.”
“We questioned how money would change him. That question was answered.”
—a high-ranking NBA executive
A week after the Heat’s playoffs ended, Whiteside, in an act of passive-aggression, liked a tweet that was critical of Spoelstra’s handling of Whiteside. Three weeks later, after a workout at the Northside Christian gym in West Charlotte, he appeared to take another shot at the Heat. Standing with a ball by half court, he told his buddy to grab his phone and start filming.
“If you know know me—which 95 percent of y’all don’t—you don’t know I got that jumper,” Whiteside said on his Instagram Story.
Whiteside pulled up from about 25 feet and launched a three-pointer. He turned and walked away with the ball in mid-flight. Swish. And then, he looked into the camera and delivered a not-so-subtle message.
“There’s a difference between, ‘You can’t shoot’ and not allowed [to shoot],” Whiteside said.
Most took it as a joke. Others took it as a hint of truth. In any event, Whiteside’s inconsistent game and his listless attitude were torpedoing his value in the NBA. The Miami Herald reported that there was “strong support” inside the Heat to trade Whiteside.
In June, Spoelstra had seen enough. He called for a meeting with Whiteside in a hotel suite in Miami. They met for five hours, talking about life and the value of being a good teammate. And how this, the line of communication, needed to stay open. Both sides.
Spoelstra then told Whiteside a story he hoped might resonate, an anecdote from the first season of the Big Three era with LeBron James, Bosh and Wade. Spoelstra saw his team struggling to get on the same page. The Heat were down 91-75 on their home floor against the Indiana Pacers when he called a timeout to gather them.
At that moment, the hometown fans clamored in unison: “We Want Pat! We Want Pat!”
Spoelstra tried to keep it together on the sidelines. The chants all but paralyzed him. He turned solemnly to his top two assistants, David Fizdale and Ronnie Rothstein, looking for something, anything. A pep talk? A pat on the back? Instead, the two stomped their feet to their own chant:
“Spo Sucks! Spo Sucks!”
Overcome by comic relief, the coach nearly collapsed right there in the huddle. He needed that support system to get him through the adversity. He needed that anchor.
Spoelstra then turned to Whiteside with a lesson. “Be ready for it,” he said to his star center. “Because if you don’t turn things around, it will happen to you. It happened to me. How will you respond if the fans turn against you?”
Spoelstra paused and looked at him dead in the eye.
“We’re in this together,” the coach said.
Whiteside nodded. Things would change.
His first call went to Blair. But not long after Whiteside started reaching out to mend fences with others. Take training more seriously. He worked with Remy five days a week in July, alternating between him and Blair. He spent August at DBC Fitness, the same gym that helped transform Victor Oladipo two summers ago. Whiteside also brought in other types of reinforcements. One day, Whiteside reached out to all of his teammates, including Dwyane Wade, via group chat, telling them that he had scheduled a South Beach workout the next morning with celebrity fitness guru Tony Thomas. Saturday morning at 8. In Miami. In the September sun. In the sand. Whiteside got the idea from a previous workout he endured with Pittsburgh Steelers star wide receiver and Miami native Antonio Brown.
So, Whiteside texted, who’s in?
For over an hour, no one responded to Whiteside’s text. Not one teammate.
“I was like, ‘fuck,’” Wade says now looking back a few weeks later.
Wade didn’t want to let “lil bro” down—especially if it’s Whiteside looking for a group workout.
Wade texted back: “Yo I’ll be there.”
The next morning, when Whiteside showed up early with Blair at 7:45, Wade was already there, ready to go at Ninth and Collins. Heat guard Rodney McGruder arrived shortly thereafter. And so the four of them went to work. Push-ups. Bear crawls. Agility drills. Sprints. Core workouts. The works.
“It was tough; it was definitely the last thing I wanted to do,” Wade says now, laughing. “But definitely glad I did it. I made sure I was there. I wanted him to know I’ll be there for him.”
Wade’s presence made an imprint on Whiteside.
“That’s what a leader does,” Blair says. “The little things that doesn’t show up in the box score but means way more than any statistic.”
The Heat are seeing returns on what they call The Village—Whiteside’s support system that includes, among others, Riley, Heat assistant coach Juwan Howard and trainer Jay Sabol. Howard has never seen Whiteside this focused on winning.
“No BS-ing you, he hasn’t a bad day [since Spoelstra’s meeting],” Howard said. “Everyone has helped him. Pat [Riley], [Heat owner] Micky Arison, Spo, Alonzo Mourning, U.D. [Udonis Haslem], [Heat shooting coach] Rob Fodor. We want to raise the trophy with him.”
Blair, the latest member of The Village, is right there with them.
“I’m looking for signs of growth,” Blair adds. “And he’s growing.”
Whiteside is still a bit of a class clown. He’s a regular on DJ Khaled’s Snapchat feed and can often be seen getting a massage by the pool or hanging in the hot tub with the hip-hop mogul. When Whiteside makes free throws in the gym, he’ll sometimes celebrate by uttering Khaled’s trademark “another one” call-out. He’s still a jokester (he once launched a mock CSI investigation on his Snapchat after a dead parrot turned up on his doorstep).
Whether Whiteside will diverge from who he has been on the court and become a prolific three-point-shooting big man is left to be determined. At media day, he revealed that he has worked with the Heat coaching staff on corner three-pointers after practice. “I’d love to shoot threes and get out there,” Whiteside said. “They’ve let me practice it. I haven’t done that in the last four years I’ve been here.” But before a recent preseason game against Charlotte, Spoelstra bristled at a reporter’s question about whether Whiteside should be incorporating three-pointers into his game.
“This is probably a longer discussion than what I have time to get into here,” Spoelstra said. “It really is a 45-minute discussion—the misnomers and misconceptions and, I guess, the misguided narrative about where the league is going. If you have bigs that can punish teams in the paint at the rim, there’s still a great value for that.”
“Part of our culture and part of our player development program is to expand their game,” he said. “I’m all for that. But our strengths are our strengths.”
One thing is for certain: Whiteside’s development will take a village—everyone from Spoelstra to Wade to Remy. “He’s somebody that you have to … I don’t want to use the word ‘baby,’ but you just need to make sure he’s engaged,” Remy says. “You can’t just say, ‘You’re an adult and you’re supposed to be engaged, we pay you $100 million.’ You’re right, but you’re also wrong. You have to understand how to deal with him.”
Wade keeps up his regular meals with Whiteside to stay on the same page. (The latter usually initiates.) “If you reach him on a personal level, you got him,” Wade says. “You can motivate him as a basketball player.”
That motivation is palpable. Whiteside is ready for his redemption tour. The 2018-19 All-Star Game is in Charlotte, after all. And he fully intends to be there as a first-time All-Star. Where it all started.
“Back home,” Whiteside says. “It would mean the world to me. Just working out at the Dowd down the street. Being an All-Star…”
Whiteside trails off and looks up.
“It would be like a movie.”
Tom Haberstroh has covered the NBA full-time since 2010, joining B/R Mag after seven years with ESPN as an NBA insider and analytics expert. Haberstroh is also a co-founder of the Count the Dings podcast network and regularly hosts the Back to Back podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @tomhaberstroh.