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 Waiters wasn’t expecting to be a free agent, but the Thunder rescinded his rights after Kevin Durant elected to jump ship.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.
“I would call Wilson up and ask about Dion. One time, he says, ‘Dion is doing great, but the kid is up until 3 in the morning every night Skyping some rapper named Meek Mill,’” Hopkins remembers.
“I was like, who the heck is Meek Mill? When I visited I talked to Dion and told him not to do this, you're wasting your time, focus on basketball. As a coach, you just want him to focus. Dion just had that mean mug on me, and he told me, ‘Coach Hop, stop preaching.’”
Years later, Waiters would sign a $52 million contract the same month his longtime friend had a studio album debut at No. 3 on the Billboard 200.
Waiters’s tenure at Syracuse was at times tumultuous but ultimately rewarding. He clashed with Jim Boeheim, who chose to bring Waiters off the bench during both his years on campus. Waiters was undeniably talented, but Boeheim’s tough love approach was yet another challenge that bred more confidence.
At one point during his freshman season, Waiters had a sit-down with Boeheim, telling the legendary coach he would consider a transfer if he didn’t get more playing time. Boeheim was unfazed, and told Waiters he was free to leave. Waiters threatened to leave Syracuse “four, five or six times,” according to Hopkins.
“I knew they had to play me, so I didn’t pay it no mind,” Waiters says. “But I felt like I was lied to.”
Hopkins became “the George Washington Bridge,” serving as an intermediary between Boeheim and Waiters, trying to close the gap between two dedicated competitors. After his freshman year, Waiters committed to getting in the best shape possible, and expected a starting spot after embracing his role off the bench. But Boeheim still wanted him to play backup to Jardine and Brandon Triche.
“You’re not better than Brandon and Scoop,” Hopkins remembers Boeheim telling Waiters at the start of his sophomore year.
“Yes I am,” Dion shot back.
“Not right now.”
“Yes I am!”
“Can you just understand what coach is saying?” Hopkins pleaded.
“Coach Hop, are you even listening to him?” Dion said incredulously. “He’s saying I’m not better than Brandon and Scoop!”
“Here was one of the legendary coaches in basketball,” Hopkins says with a hint of exasperation creeping back into his voice. “And Dion is looking at him like he has no idea what he’s talking about.”
“It could be President Obama, and Dion would still voice his opinion,” says Bub with a smile.
Waiters never doubted his talents at Syracuse. In May 2016, it was reported he even gave himself the nickname “Kobe Wade” while at college. Waiters says the nickname was never serious, and actually something he came up with as a rhyme for one of his Facebook freestyles. Still, the stories began to form about Waiters’s confidence, which bordered on arrogance for many.
“Dion was always known to have that growl look on his face like he's mad at the world,” Hopkins says. “He had this swagger and toughness. But you have to remember where he comes from. If he shows any type of weakness, he's marked. It’s just his survival mechanism. But deep down, he's such a beautiful kid.”
Waiters ultimately accepted his sixth man role. He and Jardine, with the chemistry they formed at the Chew, helped lead the Orange to the Elite Eight. After getting bounced from the tournament by Ohio State, Waiters gave up the chance to be the unquestioned man for Syracuse his junior year, and instead called Bub a few hours after the game to let him know he was declaring for the NBA.
Heading into the 2012 draft, Waiters wasn’t expected to be a top-five pick. He did get a promise from the Suns at No. 13, while Portland (who selected Damian Lillard) was also rumored to be interested at No. 6. The Cavaliers surprised everyone when they selected Waiters at No. 4.
Immediately, questions were raised about how Dion would fit with 2011 No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving. The two, however, had actually known each other for years, dating back to their AAU and summer camp days.
Their friendship stretched onto the court even though their fit often proved awkward during their first two seasons. After their first year together, there were reports of Waiters accusing the Cavs of coddling Irving. To this day Waiters, and those close to him, insist there was never any beef.
At the very least, Waiters believed in their collective talent. When Wizards guard Bradley Beal suggested him and John Wall were the best backcourt in the NBA, Waiters called it “nonsense,” eventually tweeting out his own highlight video from a game against the Wizards with the memorable phrase, “men lie women lie BUCKETS DNT.”
“I came up with that right on the spot,” Waiters says proudly.
In his second year with the Cavs, Waiters began to show why he was selected so highly. Though the team struggled, it performed better both offensively and defensively with Waiters on the court. The same couldn’t be said for Irving, whose personal net rating was significantly worse than Dion’s. Waiters was seemingly coming into his own when everything changed the summer of 2014. LeBron James was coming home.
“I was actually driving with Dion when he was on the phone with Rich Paul,” Bub recalls. Waiters had been friends with Paul for years, and was asking the agent what was going to happen with LeBron.
“Rich says ‘Hang on,’ then ten seconds later I heard LeBron’s voice on the phone. I was starstruck, I’d never heard his voice before. He just told Dion, ‘Be ready.’”
Waiters compares his few months as LeBron’s teammate to walking on eggshells. Overnight, the Cavs went from rebuilding to championship contender, with Kevin Love also joining James on what was clearly a win-now team. Waiters had to adjust his game, and had to learn how to make his infrequent touches productive. For the first time in his NBA career, he had to sacrifice.
On the court, it still appeared Waiters only wanted to shoot, much to the ire of his teammates. It didn’t help Waiters’s case that YouTube was filled with videos of him pleading for the ball on the wing while James attempted to run the offense.
Off the court, Waiters grew close with James, someone who he remains friends with to this day. Waiters and James worked out together, and Waiters would also tag along for meals, spending as much time as he could learning from James.
“He was one of my favorite players when I entered the league,” Waiters says. “He taught so much about being a professional. About sacrifice. He really took me under his wing.”
Still, the Cavs were struggling early in the season, and Waiters became an easy scapegoat. Months after he looked like a franchise building block, another challenge popped up. On January 5, 2015, a night when Waiters was supposed to start in front of over 100 family and friends in Philly, Cavs Director of Player Administration Raja Bell told Waiters he had just been traded to the Thunder.
“Can I play and we talk about this after?” Waiters asked. Bell told him it didn’t work like that. Angry that he couldn’t play in front of his hometown fans, Waiters packed up his gear and left the arena. He went to a Philly hotel where he found support from his old friend Meek. Waiters and Meek hung out in the studio, eating pizza and listening to new tracks before putting on rollerskates and gliding around the hotel. (“Meek can skate. He don’t skate like I skate, but he can skate,” Waiters says.)
By the time he got off the plane to Oklahoma City, Waiters had texts from Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Kendrick Perkins welcoming him to the team. Waiters was about to play for his fourth coach in three seasons. Everywhere Waiters went, instability followed. All while he lacked the long-term security of his superstar teammates. As the challenges mounted, Waiters continued to respond with confidence. Sometimes that meant hoisting ill-advised shots, but with the Thunder, it also led to him hitting his stride. He found a role as a bench scorer, and he grew extremely close with Durant.
While cameras would sometimes catch Durant and Waiters cursing each other out after a broken play, they wouldn’t see all the time the two spent together outside the arena. For all the talk of Waiters’s inability to fit within a team concept, he always grew tight with his superstar peers. He calls Russ and KD his big brothers.
In the 2016 playoffs, Waiters was his best self. He was a microwave off the bench, and he flashed some individual skills on defense that had previously gone unrecognized. When the Thunder eventually lost to the Warriors in the conference finals, Waiters was ready to run everything back.
“We should have shocked the world,” Waiters says. “I didn’t want to mess up a good thing.”
But the decision was out of Waiters’s hands. Not long after the Finals, Durant announced he would be signing with the Warriors. Waiters wanted to come back to OKC, but he yearned for a bigger role in the void that Durant left behind. The Thunder had other plans. Assistant GM Troy Weaver called Waiters to let him know his one-year qualifying offer would be rescinded, turning him into an unrestricted free agent. By then, most big deals had already been signed. Miami, which was rounding out its roster after losing Wade, quickly called Waiters after he became available.
Waiters initially balked at the Heat’s offer. In his heart, he knew he wanted to play in Miami after meeting with Riley and Erik Spoelstra. But after holding out for a bigger role in OKC, the Heat were offering even less money than the Thunder’s qualifying offer. Waiters wrestled with the decision in his head, knowing Miami offered a great opportunity.
“I cared about what everyone was going to say if I signed that deal,” Waiters says. “I knew I wanted to be there, but I cared about the hell what people would say. But then I thought, fuck ‘em. They doubted me before. They thought I was a joke before. But now my back was against the wall. I had to man up.
“I knew people were talking crazy. Saying I had one foot in, one foot out. Saying I was close to being out of the league. That’s when I came up with that jawn—I’m going to bet on myself and then double down.”
Foe Waiters, betting on himself was his biggest challenge yet.
“I was so locked in. At one point I remember thinking, I’m not going to be a father, boyfriend, friend, whatever. I’m here to play,” Waiters says. “Obviously I was able to take care of those things, but I was so locked in.”
Waiters’s gamble didn’t always look like it was going to pay off. The Heat started terribly last season, as injuries and roster turnover led to a mismatched team.
“After training camp, nobody was even really talking to each other,” Spoelstra recalls. “Guys didn’t know each other or what to expect. It was a slow developing process.”
It was also a process for Spo to get to know Waiters, who can be his guarded and quiet self until you’ve earned his trust. Spoelstra recalled a preseason film session in which Waiters was spotted on the bench, towel around his head, leaning back in his chair.
“It looked like he was sleeping,” Spoelstra says. “I asked him in front of the team, ‘Are you not entertained? Do you want us to put on some clown suits? How can we make it look like you care?’”
Waiters insisted that was simply how he sat, and soon Spo began to understand what made Dion tick. The two grew close over the season, with Waiters even meeting Spo for one-on-one dinners periodically throughout the year. Spoelstra learned to appreciate Waiters’s backstory, which explained his quixotic attitude. Like Coach Hop at Cuse, Spoelstra realized underneath the scowl was a likeable, loyal player who was more than just a hired gun. “Let’s see that smile more often,” Spo would say if Dion was looking particularly mean.
Their relationship wasn’t always daisy. At the start of the season, Waiters struggled to meet the Heat’s strict weight standards, and he grew frustrated with Spo’s demands.
“What do they want me to do, get lipo?” Waiters told a close friend after one early season dinner. “I’m just big boned. There’s nothing I can do.”
Eventually, Waiters weight would drop. He cut out the french fries and potato chips from his diet. On trips to Philly, he would skip his favorite meal at South Street’s Ishkabibbles. And results soon followed. As Waiters dropped from 234 pounds to 218, he started playing better. And when he and most of the team became fully healthy for the second half of the season, the Heat started to put it together.
“Dion, like a lot of the guys in that locker room, he brings an edginess,” Spoelstra says. “I called it an irrational confidence, a bravado to his game. He has so much confidence in his own abilities that it becomes contagious to the rest of the team.”
Whatever Dion brought to his teammates last season was welcome. The Heat, after an 11–30 start, finished last season 30–11, including a 23–5 mark with Waiters in the lineup. And for the first time in his career, Dion had become a closer. With Wade gone, Spoelstra was searching for someone who could make the big play at the end of the game. And just like he had told Riley before the season, Waiters gleefully sought out end-of-game opportunities. And like all other challenges he had faced—surviving in South Philly, the benching at Syracuse, the diminished role with the Cavs, the Thunder letting him walk—Waiters responded the only way he knew how: By showing out on the court.
In March, he hit a three right in the eye of Kemba Walker to ice a game against the Hornets. A couple months earlier, he clinched another game with a pull-up three against the Nets. Of course, the shot everyone remembers is his pull-up, three-point game-winner against Durant the Warriors in late January.
“As he’s coming up the court, I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god, OK, he’s not going to pass at this point. He’s going on his own,’” Spoelstra recalled.
Waiters remembers the shot, a three over Klay Thompson, vividly.
“Klay let me get in my rhythm, and I felt like I was back at Chew. You know how you count down to yourself in your head? Five, four, three, two, one. I used to do that all the time at the Chew. I took myself back to that place. And I finally got the opportunity. The whole time I’m saying in my head, ‘This is what you wanted. Now go for it.’ And all the emotion I had built up to that moment came out as the pose.”
As his legend as a big-shot maker grew, Waiters finally began to earn respect beyond that of an Internet meme. He had a positive impact on the Heat, buying into the organizational culture, and, according to Spoelstra, making the right plays beyond simply taking the final shot. Like his second year in Cleveland, Miami was better offensively and defensively with Waiters on the court.
Waiters also penned a memorable essay for The Players’ Tribune, in which he gave a detailed look into his childhood in South Philly, explaining how he earned his infinite confidence after experiencing a series of personal tragedies.
“They got to put that in the hall of fame!” Dion says of his one-off blog, without a hint of humor. “They got to put that article in the hall of fame!”
Which hall of fame?
“The Players’ Tribune hall of fame!”
Despite their furious finish to the season, the Heat would miss the playoffs, thanks in large part to a sprained ankle that ended Waiters’s season prematurely. Waiters opted out of the second year of his contract and entered free agency yet again. And for the second year in a row, Waiters had to wait on someone else to make their decision, as the Heat were in a holding pattern as they chased Gordon Hayward.
After Hayward chose Boston, Miami circled back to Dion, eventually signing the 25-year-old to a four-year, $52 million contract. A year after Waiters was concerned about what his peers would say about signing a small deal, messages of congratulations poured in. John Wall reached out. So did Westbrook. His big brother KD was one of the first to congratulate, though he couldn’t help but get in a slight dig.
“You still ain’t got my type of bread bro, but congrats. You deserve all of that,” Durant texted Waiters.
For the first time in his career, Waiters will play for the same coach for a second straight season. After he was turned away multiple times, an organization has finally put its trust in him for the long term.
“He likes to say he bet on himself, but he also bet on the organization,” Spoelstra says. “We bet on him as well. We’re not only about reclamation projects. We wanted to develop a relationship that would last longer than a year.”
Waiters still has more challenges ahead of him. Spoelstra said he wants more of everything. And Waiters will be a starter on a team that’s now asking him to build off the success he flashed at the end of last season.
Waiters will also have a daughter—her name will be Dior—later this fall. He currently has his hands full with his one son, also named Dion, a rambunctious four-year-old who is as hard-headed as his old man. (For example, during one particularly challenging online game of Madden, little Dion kept climbing around his father’s neck despite repeated requests to stop. “Dion, bro, you’re drunk! Please go to your room and watch cartoons,” his father pleaded with exasperation.)
Earlier this summer, Waiters went back to South Philly, holding multiple events to give back to his community. At the Chew, he handed out backpacks to over 300 kids, then got inside a Mister Softee truck and took ice cream orders before handing out perfectly swirled cones. (“I used to run up on these, now I’m in the truck!”) The next day, he held a free basketball camp, and took one-on-one challenges from most of the older kids.
At that point in the summer, the reality of his new-found security had yet to set in.
“I still haven’t really sat back and thought about it,” Waiters said of his four-year contract. “But I’m forever blessed, forever grateful.
“Everything I’ve been through. Coming from this city, I’ve had to face a lot of tough obstacles. I lost four cousins, best friends. The stuff I’ve seen and lived and survived. Gun to my head, cops coming to your house. I had the confidence of telling myself that I’m going to make it. Everything I’ve been through, I could’ve had a mental breakdown, but I kept it together. If I didn’t have that confidence I wouldn’t have made it. That confidence has nothing to do with basketball.”
That confidence fuels Waiters to meet every challenge head-on.