This piece was originally published in Dime #70. Check national newsstands now for the issue to see the feature in its entirety…
Somehow in the span of one year, Dion Waiters went from a Sixth Man at Syracuse to the No. 4 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, becoming one of the fastest-rising future stars in the game. But if you knew anything about him, you’d know the Philadelphia product believed in himself all along.
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It was a little past noon on the first Friday in April, about 10 days after Dion Waiters had declared for the NBA Draft. He’d soon head to Las Vegas to work out in the desert heat alongside other draft hopefuls at the Impact Basketball training camp. But for now, he was firmly in his element, working on his game in the city where he’s basically a brand name.
“I like to work out at the Y so the kids can see me,” Dion said as he approached the Christian Street YMCA in his hometown of Philadelphia. “They watch you on television, so it amazes them to see you working out in the same gym they work out at.
“I want to show them, if you put your mind to it, and you set goals, and really dedicate yourself, you can do absolutely anything.”
Waiter’s workout punctuated his words. His game is street poetry – more staccato than smooth, more Beanie Sigel than Jay-Z – and it drove him to average 12.6 points on nearly 48 percent shooting last season for one of the best teams in college basketball. Wearing Syracuse-hued Nike Zoom Kobe VI’s – “hungry” on the left tongue, “humble” on the right – Dion shared the court with a friend, Niagara forward Scooter Gillette. It was pretty standard: come off a curl, pump fake an imaginary defender, then drive the lane or pop a midrange jumper.
And yet, Waiters was visibly in the zone. He practices the way he plays: intense, powerful, like nothing else matters.
“Once a kid has that chip on his shoulder, you can tone it down,” his AAU coach, Aaron Abbott, said during a rare water break. “But we definitely don’t want to take it away.”
At one point, Waiters missed three corner triples and hissed “Come on” under his breath at himself. A group of kids from the Y watched intently as he locked in on his next shot.
He connected on that one, and then hit the next three.
“People don’t understand the standard of excellence he has for himself,” Chris Clayton, Dion’s friend and longtime mentor, observed from the sidelines. “If he misses two shots in a workout, where most people would just keep it moving, it literally irritates him. When he was younger, if he missed four shots, he might just throw the ball.
“It’s like every shot he takes is supposed to go in.”
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As a kid, Waiters estimates he’d spend “23 of 24 hours” at the playground. It’s hyperbole, but not by much. Dion would consistently hold the court for four or five hours against older players. When he got tired, he’d nap on the bench.
Philly legend has it that out of respect, nobody would go near him while he slept. Oh word, that’s Dion? Leave him alone.
Growing up, Dion actually preferred football to basketball, and also played baseball and soccer. But in what he cites as a key moment, Monique Brown, his mom – Dion calls her “My backbone throughout my entire life” – insisted that he focus only on hoops, which she correctly assessed was his best option.
Dion was naturally gifted, but reaching his goals required a ton of hard work, and all around him was the easy way out – “The streets,” he says with a grim nod. But with no desire to live that lifestyle, Dion passed by the fork in the road and went straight.
“Honestly, if I wasn’t on the court, I was hanging out with my family,” he said. “Just trying to stay out of trouble.”