MIAMI — Nearly 10 months after major ankle surgery, nearly a year since he played NBA basketball, and seemingly a lifetime removed from his memorable 2017 season, Dion Waiters received something of a wake-up call. Waiters, in the midst of an arduous rehab process, showed up to the Heat’s training facility in mid-November for what he thought was going to be yet another grueling workout. He was in store for something worse.
“I’m not running things today,” said Miami assistant Anthony Carter. “Coach is.”
From his office emerges Pat Riley, trading his Armani suit for athletic gear from head to toe—black shorts, black shirt, and a pair of trainers. Riley, the 73-year-old executive, had transformed back into the hard-nosed leader notorious for pushing his practices past the two-hour mark.
“You never see Pat dressed like that,” recalls Waiters, with the gravitas of a talking head in a true-crime documentary.
What followed was the most intense rehab workout Waiters had ever completed. High-intensity, full-court drills, from defensive slides to closeouts and everything in between, with Riley barking orders the whole time, pushing Waiters to his outermost limits. After the session ended, Waiters retreated to the locker room with a then-rehabbing James Johnson, with both rendered speechless from the Riley-run, “old-school, hard-as-nails” sweatfest.
“We sat in the locker room for 45 minutes after,” Waiters says, with both needing time for their minds and bodies to relax. “I just looked at him and said, ‘That was crazy.’”
There’s currently an island-sized hole in the NBA, one normally occupied by the tirelessly confident Waiters, who has seen his career take a significant detour as he battles back from an ankle injury.
Down the stretch of the 2016–17 season, Waiters hit his peak, penning memorable essays and hitting ridiculous shots for a surprising Heat squad. That campaign ended early because of a left ankle sprain he suffered while attempting a layup in March, robbing Waiters of an opportunity to help his team make the playoffs. The team announced that night X-rays were negative, but Waiters failed to return as Miami missed the postseason by one game. That summer, Waiters already knew something was wrong. He couldn’t work out at full speed, and remembers his ankle not feeling 100% even before the season. The Heat, despite knowing his ankle was hurt, still offered him a four-year, $52 million deal.
At the start of last season, Waiters looked like a shell of his swaggering self. His game was mired in inefficiency, and the flashpoint moments were occuring fewer and further in between. His ankle wasn’t cooperating. In between games, Waiters at times struggled walking. He couldn’t drive. And he often couldn’t wear shoes on both feet, opting for slippers on his left because the swelling was too severe.
Finally, during a game in Dallas, Waiters landed awkwardly on his ankle and knew he could no longer wait. He sought outside medical opinions and opted for a surgery that took place in January.
“I wanted to fight through it,” Waiters says when explaining why he didn’t have surgery two offseasons ago. “I’ve never been injured like this before, I’ve never had big-time injuries. But playing through it made it a lot worse. I want this to be the last time.”
What started as a sprained ankle turned out to be much more serious. Waiters had been playing through a stress fracture in his foot at the start of last season. The surgery on his ankle lasted seven hours, requiring ligaments to be tightened, two screws to be inserted into his foot, and a scope for good measure. For the next five months, Waiters was largely immobile. When he finally got out of his cast after three months, he was in a walking boot for the next two. It wasn’t until well into the summer when he could even consider stepping onto a basketball court. In the meantime, he needed help navigating the stairs in his own home. He had to shower sitting down, with a plastic bag tied over his ankle. And most regrettably, he wasn’t even on the bench during the postseason, with Miami facing his hometown 76ers, his childhood friend Meek Mill in attendance.
“All of it put him in a dark place,” says Waiters’ closest friend, Rashawn “Bub” Cunningham. “He didn’t go out much. He got a taste of what it would be like to lose the game.”
Waiters endured the process in obscurity, not making public statements as his star faded.
“I was battling stuff within myself,” he says. “Everything was taken away. When this happens, you find out how much you really have to dig to get back.”
Waiters certainly had to dig deep. He will have missed almost a year of basketball by the time he returns to action. Fans and writers alike have begun to question whether he’ll ever return, and why the organization brought him back if his ankle wasn’t fully healthy. Meanwhile, Waiters admits the front office itself at times grew restless. There’s a reason why Riley was running Waiters so hard—he wants to see him back on the court.
“Both sides are mad and frustrated,” Waiters says when asked about tension with the team. “But we both want the same thing.”
From the dark places, Waiters has come through to the other side with a fresh perspective. Bub, whose known Waiters since their playground days in South Philly, says Waiters‘s mentality is closest to what it was back in high school, when he played every single minute with something to prove. Waiters describes the comeback process as humbling, and believes his absence from the court has given him a new hunger and a new opportunity. He promises, however, no matter how quiet he’s been, his signature bravado never wavered.
“My confidence is still there, it has to be,” Waiters says. “Only the strong survive. It’s still Philly Cheese.”
Waiters heard the jokes, by the way. He saw people comment on the weight gain. He saw people say he took the money and ran. He was quiet about it. Until now.
“I don’t do it for the internet,” Waiters says. “F--- it. Some people live for that s---. It’s one big-ass circus. I could’ve been posting pictures this whole time. I won’t be their clown. I don’t play for social media. That’s coward s---.”
While Twitter had a field day with Waiters’s media day photos, he was focused on losing the 15 pounds he gained while he could barely walk. “Rehab f---ing sucks,” Waiters admits, but he still works out two times a day to get himself back in playing shape. He currently has a chef prepare his meals, and Bub is on hand to make sure he doesn’t give in to any cravings.
“The internet is a lose-lose situation,” Waiters explains. “Yeah, I blew up. But people don’t see the other side of it. They don’t talk about how I played on a broken foot. They don’t know about the everyday grind.
“I hate when people say I got paid. F--- the money. I want to play. But I don’t need to tell the entire world. They don’t understand.”
Waiters insists the only reason his comeback has taken so long is that he wants to be fully healthy, and avoid the repeating the situation that led to his current predicament. He‘s dying to get back on the court, both to help his team and to check off a bucket list item by sharing the court with Dwyane Wade. The Saturday after Thanksgiving, at least, he looked to be in shape, much closer to the Dion who was launching game-winners with gleeful aplomb.
“I’m back,” Waiters says with a smile, flexing his left bicep for emphasis.
When Waiters is actually back, what does that mean for Miami?
“I know I’m better than a lot of these guys in the motherf---ing league,” Waiters says when questioned about what he can bring to the Heat. “I only gave y’all a taste. I know I can do more.”
Miami, under .500 for most of the season, could certainly use help, or at least some kind of injection of energy. On paper, it can be hard to see where Waiters fits on a team loaded with players who deserve minutes at his position. Dwyane Wade is in the midst of his retirement tour. Tyler Johnson has his own big contract number. Josh Richardson is blossoming. And Wayne Ellington is the team’s best shooter.
But Waiters believes if Erik Spoelstra gives him the same freedom he did two seasons ago, he can thrive. He believes the Heat can recapture the magic they had when they went 23–5 over the second half of the 2017 season with Waiters in the lineup. That was during the same stretch Miami went 30–11 in its last 41 games, with Waiters at times hitting almost comical game-winners, like the one sparking his infamous pose against the Warriors.
“Let Dion Waiters be him,” Waiters says. “Correct me when I’m wrong but let me make make mistakes. You need a chance to correct yourself, but let me be the best version of me. Spo allowed me to be me and have fun.”
Bub is convinced whenever Waiters returns to the court, he’ll be a better player.
“He can’t wait to play. I saw how down he was, he’s going to be playing for something much more. He’s going to have a whole different energy.”
During his absence, Waiters has remained close with his teammates. He seeks out Wade and Udonis Haslem for advice. He’s excited about the opportunities Richardson has received as the team’s closer. And as far as the organization, he appreciates their tough love, knowing Riley’s hands-on approach to his rehab shows how much the front office cares about him.
“I’m about to be 27, I never thought about what it would be like to not play,” Waiters says. “I’m hungry. I’m anxious.”
The day after Riley first gave him a taste of ‘90s-era basketball, the basketball legend worked out Waiters a couple more times. Bub says the two have a father-son relationship, and are more alike than different, with the cool Riley and outspoken Waiters sharing an undeniable swagger.
Waiters, whose long road back to the court made him question his basketball mortality, has regained all of the F-you attitude he may or may not have momentarily doubted during the dark times. Now, he smiles when he thinks of Riley screaming at him to move faster. He sees the parallels between the legend-led workouts and his months-long rehab process.
“They can never break me,” Waiters says. “If anything, this makes me stronger.”