MIAMI (AP) Hassan Whiteside isn't sure what the low point of his overseas life as a ballplayer was.
Maybe it was when he played in China and got chewed by mosquitoes every night because the windows were always open. Maybe it was the time his team gathered for dinner and was served a whole goat, head and all. Maybe it was the time in Lebanon when he missed a ride - a fortuitous twist, since the area where he would have been was the site of a bombing.
Those days are over.
An unknown to many just a few weeks ago, Whiteside is now the starting center for the Miami Heat. He's also one of the few bright spots in what's been a trying first half of the season for the franchise that has been to the NBA Finals five times in the past nine seasons and now finds itself struggling just to keep a playoff spot.
''It feels like I'm living a dream,'' Whiteside said. ''A couple months ago, I couldn't even get anybody to look at me. It's crazy. It's just a dream I never want to wake up from and every day I come to the arena I just feel blessed. Even when I started my first game, I was like `Wow.' You just look up and have to soak it all in.''
He's fast become a fan favorite in Miami, and some of his teammates rave about him as well. Whiteside - currently out with a sprained ankle, though not expected to miss significant time - is averaging 12.1 points and 8 rebounds per game in January, not exactly superstar numbers but far better than any other stretch of his limited time in the league.
''He's big and he plays big,'' Heat guard Dwyane Wade said of the 7-footer who got plenty of attention after a 23-point, 16-rebound game against the Los Angeles Clippers earlier this month in a Miami victory. ''He protects the basket for us, he catches it and he finishes it. If he keeps doing that he will have a long, successful career.''
Whiteside plays with some anger, stemming from how every team in the NBA - some of them multiple times - had passed on the chance to have him.
There's a certain irony that on draft night in 2010, the Heat were the last team that opted not to call his name.
Whiteside was the 33rd pick in that draft, going to Sacramento one spot after Miami selected another big man in Dexter Pittman. Whiteside spent parts of the next two seasons with the Kings, appearing in 19 games and never scoring more than five points in any of them.
Soon, his well-traveled odyssey began: He bounced around the NBA Development League, played for a couple of teams in China, a couple more in Lebanon, all the while constantly hoping for someone at home to even offer a workout. He often wondered if any team was keeping tabs on him.
The Heat were.
''Sometimes it takes the right team, the right opportunity, the right frame of mind, all of it working together,'' Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. ''We'd gotten to know him over the last four years. We'd brought him in enough. I met with him extensively, for an hour, after the workout this year and there was something about how he responded, how he looked me in the eye, that I believed him.''
Whiteside's work ethic, a source of concern in the past, has not been an issue in Miami.
His daily routine essentially consists of waking up, going to the arena, studying film, practicing, working out, then going home. He's worked out with Hakeem Olajuwon in the past, and tries to emulate the game of former Heat star Alonzo Mourning now.
He doesn't have to worry about eating goat or fast food for dinner anymore, either: In Miami, he raves about the Boar's Head barbecue chicken subs from Publix, a regional supermarket chain.
He calls this chapter a fresh start.
''It just doesn't work out with some organizations,'' said Whiteside, who lists his goals as averaging a double-double and becoming one of the NBA's three best shot-blockers. ''Coach Spo, he really gave me a chance, just with the minutes. When they give players a chance, they're really all-in. They're invested.''
So far, it's paying off.