Y’all seen Casino, right?
You know, the one with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in Vegas? Anyway — that one.
If you want to know what it’s like to meet Pat Riley, you need to watch that movie.
When I heard that Miami was interested in me this summer, I wasn’t really seeing it at first. Nothing against the Heat, but I didn’t know how I’d fit there.
Then I met Pat Riley.
I walked into his office and … damn. The hair was slicked back, and he was wearing one of those suits of his, you know, real O.G., looking like a million bucks. Behind him, he’s got photos of all his championship teams lining the walls. He’s wearing one of his nine rings.
He’s sitting there looking like De Niro in Casino. He’s looking like the boss. He’s looking like he’s seen it all, because he has.
Purely as a basketball fan, I just want to learn from this man.
So I listened.
I knew right away Pat was a real guy, because he wasn’t even asking me about basketball. He was asking me about life.
Then Pat says, “We’re going to get you in world-class shape. Not good shape. Not great shape. World-class shape.”
I mean, I’m in the NBA. In my mind, I’m already in good shape. But do I eat a Philly steak every now and then when I’m home? You know I do.
So Pat’s looking at me like, “Give us a season, and you’ll see. World-class.”
Even the way this man pronounces world-class is world-class, you know what I mean?
And then he says to me, “Tell me something about Dion that I don’t already know.
Not about basketball. About life.”
Michael J. Le Brecht II/The Players' Tribune
Let me tell you what I told Pat.
People think they got me figured out.
Waiters Island, the GIFs, the Philly Cheese Swag … all that shit, right?
Man, people have been underestimating me my whole life. I remember when I was in ninth grade, I had just transferred over to South Philly High, and I was walking to class the first day when these two security guards came over to me, mean-mugging me like there was a problem.
The one guard was like, “Hey! Young boy! Hey!”
They’re questioning me, like, “Hey, what’re you doing here? What’s your name, son?”
So I pull the basketball roster out of my pocket, and I say, “I’m Dion Waiters. I just transfered.”
The guard says, “Never heard of you.”
So I say, “Man, I’m committed to Syracuse!”
The other guard starts cracking up. He goes, “Son, you’re not committed to Syracuse.”
They’re looking me up and down, like, Nah, you ain’t shit.
So I say, “For real! Google me!”
Now they’re laughing their asses off, right?
The one guard goes, “Ain’t that some shit? Google me! I am gonna Google this kid, too.”
So they take me down to the office, and they Google me.
Maxpreps.com. Dion Waiters. Committed to Syracuse.
The guard goes, “Man, you weren’t lying!”
I’m looking at him like, uh-huh.
From that day on, every time I saw that guard in the hallway, he’d yell out, “What’s up, Google Me?”
That was like my third or fourth nickname.
My first nickname was “Headache.”
We’ll get to that, but that’s not the story I told Pat.
I told Pat about some of the shit I’ve seen, and some of the people I’ve lost. By the time I was 12 years old, both my mom and dad got shot. I’ve had brothers, cousins, uncles and friends get murdered. Too many to count, for real.
You know what the crazy thing about death and violence is? You get numb to it. You really do.
So because of everything I’d seen and lost, I decided from a young age: You know what? I’m just gonna f***ing ball out.
So I just willed myself to be a legend on the Philly playgrounds. By 12 years old … Man, the streets knew who Dion Waiters was. I’d show up at E.M. Stanton or Chew’s Playground and dudes would be yelling, “Here comes Headache.”
These were the days of “And 1” and all those mixtapes. So we all got nicknames. And since I was this cocky little kid who was always calling for the ball, and always dribbling, dudes started saying, “Man, you’re giving me a headache.”
So that was it. I was “Headache.”
My rival was this dude named Rhamik. They called him “Little Giant” because he was small but he played like a big. One day, he showed up on my playground with his little squad, and he challenged me and my little squad. They beat us, and they were talking so much trash afterwards. Oh my God.
I was queasy. I was sick.
I wasn’t gonna let my name get tarnished like that, you know?
So we walked over to his playground and challenged them to a rematch the very next day. Man, I was on some Game 7 NBA Finals shit, for real. I wasn’t gonna lose.
We killed ’em.
Next day, Rhamik and his boys showed back up at our playground.
And I’m like, Damn, is there about to be a problem? In South Philly, you never know. So I walk up to Rhamik, and he’s just like, “Good game, bro.”
After that, we hung out together every day. We did everything together. Everything. I slept at his house, or he slept at my house. Everybody in our hood loved Rhamik. He was just a legendary kid. The thing people knew him for, other than ball, was skating.
See, in Philly, skating was a huge deal. Still is. I’m not talking about, you know, Tony Hawk. I’m talking about roller skating — the brown skates with the four wheels. Every Sunday, we used to have these skating parties run by Ms. Doris. If you were up to no good in school (which I usually was), Ms. Doris would catch you at the door and be like, “Dion! You’re banned from the skating party until you start acting right.”
That was a dagger. You did not wanna be banned from the skating party. That was the spot for meeting girls. If you’re picturing some disco thing, that’s not what it was. This was like 100 Philly kids skating around to Rick Ross, doing the Philly Bop.
And Rhamik was the best skater, period. He could skate his ass off. Before I knew how to skate, I’d just go and watch him and be like, Damn. I gotta learn. This dude is killing it.
So for, like, four years, it was ball and skating, ball and skating, every day. If you were looking for me, there wasn’t no, “Where’s Dion?” It was always, “Yo, where’s Dion and Rhamik?”
So because of everything I’d seen and lost, I decided from a young age: You know what? I’m just gonna f***ing ball out.
When we got to high school, you know how it goes. Things change. You start to face certain realities. Rhamik was a smaller kid. He was still playing ball, of course, but he was taking a little bit of a different path. When I was 15, we got split up, because I had an opportunity to go play ball at this boarding school in Connecticut called South Kent.
Still, at that point, Syracuse seemed really, really far off. When you come from my neighborhood, you live day to day. That’s how you get by. You think too much about the future, and you might get your heart broken, you feel me?
But I remember my mom telling me, “Dion, you gotta get outta Philly for a while. It’ll be good for you.”
So I packed my bags. It was the first time I ever experienced anything outside my neighborhood, and man … I was so homesick it was crazy. South Kent is in the middle of nowhere. They do that on purpose, so you can’t get into any trouble. Isaiah Thomas was actually there with me. He was a fifth-year senior, and he was the same size he is now, for real.
Look, I’m a confident guy. But even back then, I was watching Isaiah like, Yo, this dude is a killer.
He lead the team in scoring and I was No. 2. Ain’t that crazy?
But I was just so bored up there. I mean, I go from rippin’ and runnin’ in the streets of Philly to … well, let me put it this way: the nearest Wal-Mart was like 45 minutes away. On Saturdays, we took a bus to Wal-Mart. That was our big thing for the week. Philly is in my blood, you know? I went up there to escape for a while, but eventually … Well, you can’t escape from life, can you?
I got a phone call. I’ll never forget. I was on my way to a tournament, and my Philly boy called me and said, “Uh … man …”
I’m like, “What’s going on? Say it.”
“… Rhamik got shot.”
After a while, after you hear it so many times, you don’t even need to ask, “Is he dead?” You can tell from the tone of voice.
I was stunned. Numb don’t even describe it … I went on MySpace that night, and everybody had photos of Rhamik as their profile picture, and it hit me so hard. I just broke down. I lost it.
That was my boy. We were the same. Out of all the people I lost … Rhamik? They had to kill Rhamik?
That was probably the last time I even asked myself Why?
Everybody loved this kid. Me and Rhamik used to go to the park at 12, 13 years old to play with the older dudes, and we’d have that thing packed like a Baby Rucker. People used to show up just to watch us ball. I’m talking packed, gate to gate, to watch some middle schoolers ball out.
I think about that shit sometimes and I almost cry. There was no difference between me and him. We were the exact same. Only difference was, I went up to Connecticut at 15, and I got put on a certain path …
And yeah, I messed up a bunch of times, and almost quit, and all that stuff, but it didn’t matter.
I was on a path … And I made it, somehow.
That’s where I’m from. That’s just a slice of the life I’ve lived.
Normally, I don’t like to talk about this stuff. But when somebody real asks me about my life, I tell ’em. So when I walked into Pat Riley’s office last summer, and he asked me, I told him. Now I’m telling you.
You know, it’s hilarious to me. I’m not a big Internet guy, but I see things. I see what people say about me. I see the GIFs and all that.
They say, “He never seen a shot he don’t like.”
“He’s got irrational confidence.”
“He thinks he’s the best player in the NBA.”
Hell yeah I do.
I have to.
Listen, now you know where I’m from. Picture yourself walking into a South Philly playground at 12 years old, with grown-ass men, bleachers packed with people, trying to get a run in.
You think you can survive in Philly without irrational confidence?
You will never in your life hear the words, “I can’t” come out of Dion Waiters’ mouth.
I can. I will. I already did.
And remember, my first five years in the NBA, I played with some of the best in the game. LeBron, KD, Russ. I’d see these guys every day. And you know I wasn’t just playing … I was competing.
When I got to OKC, me and K.D. were together every day. Kev used to think it was funny, because when we got in the gym and played 1-on-1, I was trying to kill him. Straight up.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Go ahead and ask him who won our last game.
Ask him. He’ll tell you.
He won a lot, too. But I got him plenty.
Kev used to talk wild trash to me, too. People don’t know that about him. Of course, you know me. I’m coming at him fully-loaded. But he’d go right back at me. He’d try to post me up, and I’d be on some Philly Baby Rucker shit. I was pulling out every trick. I’d be squeezing his hips, right in the weak spot.
I loved it. I loved that team.
I genuinely thought I was going to be back in OKC this season, and we were going to make another run at it. But things didn’t work out that way, because basketball is a business. When I got a call from Miami, I went down there and walked into the O.G. Pat Riley’s office. It was damn near the best thing that’s happened in my NBA career.
I remember when I made my decision to sign with the Heat, I had to break the news to my son. He’s three.
He said, “We have to leave Oklahoma? No!”
(He loves OKC.)
I said, “Yeah, we don’t got a choice.”
“And we have to move to Miami?”
I’m telling you, I had to sell this kid on it. I’m showing him pictures of swimming pools and everything.
Can I be honest with you, though?
When Pat said “world-class shape,” I thought it sounded cool, but in my head, I was like, Yeah, I got this. I’m in world-class shape. You already know.
So I show up for camp, and after one week, my body is shot. I was damn near throwing up in trash cans like in the movies.
And I realized, You know what? Pat was not just talking that smooth talk. This Heat thing is the real deal.
When I went down with a groin injury in November and missed 20 games, I was seething. We slipped to 11-30, and everybody had given up on us. People were saying we should tank for a pick.
Come on, man.
As long as I’m on the floor, you know what we’re not doing.
Alex Brandon/AP Images
When I came back in January, I was so locked in it was crazy. I kept telling everybody, “All we gotta do is win seven or eight in a row, and we’re right back in it.”
Hell, I remember we played Kev and those boys in Golden State, and I had just come back. I was going at Kev hard that night, but they beat us. We went out to dinner after the game, and I told him, “Bro, we’re about to go on a run.”
He was looking at me like like, Yeah, alright.
I said, “Naw, I’m serious. We’re gonna rip off seven straight.”
He said, “Yeah, but we’re coming to Miami in two weeks.”
I said, “Yeah, that’s a W. Bet.”
He was laughing his ass off.
We got back home and won three straight, and then Kev and those boys came to our building.
We gave ’em everything they could handle. We weren’t scared. I saw right away how Kev was playing me, like he was daring me to shoot the ball. I told him, “Bro, I’m feeling good. You see the last four games? Y’all in for a long night.”
We’re talking trash like we’re playing 1-on-1 back in OKC.
Fourth quarter, 10 seconds left. Tie game. I got the ball in my hands with the game on the line, and I already knew what was gonna happen. F*** an overtime, let’s get up outta here.
What’s the analytics on that?
That’s a W.
Then I hit ’em with the pose.
People ask me all the time, “What’s that mean?”
It don’t mean nothing.
It’s just the Philly in me.
After that, we ripped off 13 straight. Nobody wanted to see us in the first round. Nobody.
Look, I know we fell one game short of the playoffs, and it kills me. If I hadn’t gone down with an injury, I think we all know where we’d be right now. But you know what? The run this season was magical. Our fans sold out the arena every night, even when we were left for dead.
I love Miami. I had a hell of a season here.
My son even got a little girlfriend down here. He’s three. Can you believe that? Miami is like that. She runs right up to him to give him a hug and says, “Hi, boyfriend.” Then she runs away.
It’s mind blowing.
I try to tell him, “Hey, you gotta be careful down here, son.”
He’s not hearing it.
Hopefully, we found a home down here. However it shakes out, this has been a hell of a ride this season, and now that you know a little bit about where I come from, and what I’ve seen, you know I’m being real with you when I say that I’m just thankful.
(I know Kev is reading this right now, like, “Thank God this dude is at home doing articles instead of lurking in the playoffs.”)
You didn’t wanna see us, Kev!