Dion Waiters was sitting in Pat Riley’s office last summer, listening to the NBA legend pitch him on why he should sign with the Heat.
Most of the money in that summer’s crazy free-agent market was long spent, and Miami—after the departure of Dwyane Wade—was filling out its roster with a group of veteran journeymen on one-year deals. Waiters wasn’t expecting to be a free agent, but the Thunder rescinded his rights after Kevin Durant elected to jump ship.
Riley had always liked Waiters, telling him that he wished the organization had him in his system earlier in his career. Riley, calm, cool and collected, sitting amongst photos of all his championship teams, hair “slicked back like Pacino,” was telling Waiters his vision for how the the shooting guard would fit into Miami’s vaunted culture. Riley then presented Waiters with a challenge.
“What are you going to do? What are you going to do when there’s four minutes left, and we need you to score, and we need you to lead the team?” Riley asked Waiters.
“I know what I’m going to do,” Waited responded immediately, “I know I haven’t had the opportunity yet. But I was born to destroy.”
“I love it.”
The Dion Waiters of the Internet is a loud-mouthed, shot-taking, teammate-disregarding, sneering caricature of a basketball player. There’s seemingly no shot Waiters won’t take, and his faith in his own abilities is rivaled by none. But the real-life version of Waiters is quiet, soft-spoken, and willing to listen. He’s a loyal friend and devoted father. When Waiters is challenged, his irrational confidence-bordering-on-arrogance comes out. And it just so happens that Waiters’s life has been filled with challenges, from Philadelphia to Miami and everywhere in between.
Before Waiters was swaggering his way through the NBA, he was a menace on the courts of South Philly. From childhood through high school, he walked all over the city looking for games to play. You could find him at the local YMCA, a short walk from where he attended classes at E.M. Stanton Middle School. You could find him on the outdoor courts at the Marian Anderson Rec Center, the same park where future baseball star Mo’ne Davis was discovered throwing spirals as a football player. Or you could find him at the Chew, a playground and South Philly institution that served as a hub for Waiters and his friends.
When Waiters was growing up, South Philly was rougher around the edges. His childhood, like many around him, was filled with gun violence. Waiters lost two cousins to shootings. His best friend, Rhamik Thomas, was shot and killed when Waiters was a sophomore in high school. His mother, Monique Brown, was struck by a stray bullet one night when she was driving home from a skating rink. After the crying stopped, basketball was a respite, and before he was a prized recruit, Waiters grew confident simply from staying alive.
“No matter what happened, the next day I could always find him at the Chew,” says Brown.
The Chew was a popular hang for local athletes. Waiters played at the park almost daily, frequently joined by his friends Rhamik, Scoop Jardine, Rashawn “Bub” Cunningham, and Bub’s older brother Tabby.
It wasn’t uncommon for any members of the group to spend all night at the Chew. Waiters was often with Rhamik, as the latter lived a stone’s throw from the court. To cool off on hot summer nights, the kids would hop the fence behind one of the hoops and take dips in the pool. (Waiters claims he would jump off the fence straight into the pool. A claim that, unfortunately, is still unverified.) The pool hours meant nothing to Waiters and his friends. One night, a pitbull was left in the water to scare the boys from taking their illicit swim.
“I wasn’t scared of no goddamn dog,” Waiters recalls defiantly.
Among the group, Jardine and Tabby were the oldest, and Waiters particularly looked up to Jardine, three years his senior, and someone who would commit to Syracuse when he was only in the 10th grade. Though Waiters looked up to Jardine, the elder immediately realized the younger was a unique player.
“I always wanted him to be on my team, and that’s when he was only 12 or 13,” Jardine says. “I was always one of the baddest kids in the neighborhood, but he was insane. And when we weren’t on the same team, he was trying to rip my head off.”
Aside from South Philly, the boys were all connected through AAU. Tabby, then Scoop, then Dion and Bub—under the tutelage of head coach Aaron Abbott—all played for Team Final in high school.
Abbott is a South Philly lifer. He waves to everyone around town. If you mention a street name, he can tell you who grew up on it. If you haven’t been to the Mitchell & Ness store, he’ll offer you a ride. He knows everything about South Philly, especially when it comes to basketball. Abbott coached Waiters from when he was 11 years old through his senior year of high school, and realized early Waiters was a special kid—and not only because of his on-court talents.
“He was a mature, studious kid,” Abbott said. “He was never in trouble. He was loyal to a fault. And he was always a great teammate.”
Waiters was always one of Abbott’s most trusted players. On road trips, Waiters would sit in the front seat and navigate due to his uncanny ability to spot the proper exit from far away. Waiters was also the team DJ, hyping up the team with tracks from South Philly’s own The Bloodhoundz, featuring Dion’s childhood friend, Meek Mill. On one road trip in middle school, Abbott recalled Waiters bringing along his six-year-old cousin, who he was often in charge of looking after as a 13-year-old. Waiters was asked to do a lot, but that’s not to say he never did anything mischievous.
“On road trips, we’d always go to the mall and I’d give the kids some money to spend, usually on one of those massage chairs so they could loosen up their bodies between games,” Abbott recalls. “One time, Dion just disappears. Now, we didn’t eat between games because it would make you sluggish. And because the kids couldn’t eat, I wouldn’t eat either. One time, Dion disappears and comes back with a platter of Chinese food. He’s got rice, chicken, some broccoli. I was so mad at him. He said, ‘Coach, don’t worry, I got this.’”
Waiters didn’t have it. His team lost after Waiters filled himself on fast-food Chinese.
“But even then, he took it upon himself to apologize to his teammates after the game. He owned up.”
Waiters was never only talk. He always did his best to back himself up on the court. One night around 9 p.m., after a long day of workouts, Abbott was driving Tabby home when they saw Waiters and Thomas playing full-court one-on-one at the Chew. Abbott parked his car as he and Tabby watched Waiters, shirtless, drenched in sweat on a hot, summer night, work on his game. Tabby eventually got out of the car to give Waiters some slight ribbing about his skills.
“Yo Loc,” Tabby called, referencing one of Dion’s many nicknames. (Loc is actually a derivative of D-Loco.) “Loc, your floater is broke,” Tabby said to a 13-year-old, pre-dunking Waiters. Dion shrugged off the criticism. The next morning, Abbott was taking Tabby to their 6 a.m. workout when they drove past Chew. There was Waiters, on the same court, wearing the same shorts he was in nine hours earlier, shooting floaters over and over and over.
“‘I’m better than them.’ That was always his favorite thing to say,” Abbott says about Dion, who could have been talking about his friends, his opponents at the Chew, or whoever scouts ranked ahead of him on the AAU circuit. And more often than not, he was better.
Consistently playing with older competition improved both Waiters’s game and confidence. After middle school, he would immediately head over to Neumann Goretti High, where he would play with Scoop after he finished practice. One day, then-Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins was in town to scout Earl Pettis, another South Philly product who would eventually play at Rutgers and La Salle. After the high schoolers scrimmaged, Waiters changed out of his middle school uniform and played Scoop one-on-one.
“There was only one white guy in the gym, so I knew it had to be a scout,” Waiters remembers.
Hopkins couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“I was like, ‘OMG’ or whatever you want to call it,” Hopkins recalls about the first time he saw Waiters play. “I thought he might be a freshman. He owned the court. I remember just seeing the toughness and the swagger that he had, the confidence in himself. You knew he was born to hoop. We knew we had to get him before everyone else found out about him.”
By the summer after his freshman year of high school, Waiters—with Hopkins and Jardine in his ear—had already committed to play for Syracuse. Waiters bounced around a bit in high school, attending Bartram High and South Philly High before going to South Kent in Connecticut his sophomore year. Waiters admits the time in Connecticut matured him, but he yearned to be closer to home, so he attended Life Center Academy in New Jersey for his junior and senior seasons. Hopkins would check in periodically with Wilson Arroyo, Dion’s coach, to make sure his prized recruit was staying on track.