Waiters’ talent and growing reputation earned him a scholarship to Syracuse before playing a single high school game, but not everything came easy. He bounced around high schools across three states until finally finding a fit at Burlington Life Center in South Jersey. Back home, two of his cousins and his best friend were gunned down. He would lose another cousin in a motorcycle accident several years later.
While dealing with these tragedies, Dion grew determined to honor his lost loved ones with his own success.
“There’s times where you get tired. You get exhausted. And you tell yourself, ‘All right, let’s stop,’” he says. “And right then, you have to think about the people who missed that chance at trying to be something in life, like my best friend and my cousins.
“I know they’re watching over me. And I know they want me to continue doing what I’m doing. If they were here, they’d be pushing me. And that’s one of the reasons I play the way I do.”
South Philly presents a paradox: The neighborhood has caused him much pain, but its courts hardened him into a versatile, explosive scorer and facilitator, and one of the best perimeter defenders in college basketball last season. According to Pomeroy statistics, Waiters finished 15th in the country in steal percentage for Syracuse, which ranked fifth as a team.
Does anyone intimidate him?
“No. Nobody,” Waiters says. “I mean, I’m from Philly, man. Honestly, I don’t think there’s a tougher city than this. Growing up, I saw a lot. At the end of the day, we’re all the same. We all bleed the same. We all breathe the same. So when it comes down to it, I fear no one.”
He’s loyal to South Philly, and eager to help kids in the same situation he once was. He’s already started the DW Foundation, which recently staged a roller skating party – Waiters loves roller skating – to benefit his elementary school.
Still, for someone who’s worked his whole life for a ticket out, Dion Waiters is nonetheless in no rush to leave his past behind.
“I’d probably buy a house down here in the future,” Waiters says. “You know, this is what made me. Philly made me. I think it’s only right that I try and do as much as I can for the community, and the kids, to show them if you have a dream, don’t let nobody tell you different.”
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Dion and his boys spot a familiar face on their walk down South Street to get lunch. “What up, L-Train?” Waiters calls out. Sure enough, another native son, Lionel Simmons – the No. 7 overall pick in 1990 out of La Salle and a veteran of seven years for the Kings – was just hanging on the corner. Waiters took a couple minutes to consult with Simmons, whose path he hopes to follow.
When you walk around with him, you realize that in Philly, everyone knows Dion. If Waiters wanted to run for Mayor, he’d have a shot against Michael Nutter. People in line for a cheesesteak, getting water ices and chatting at outdoor cafes pointed and murmured when he passed, while others called his name from the windows of passing cars.
Surrounded by friends, Waiters ordered a quesadilla at the South Street Diner. The crew – which now included photographer Michael Lewis, doing a documentary on Waiters’ journey – held court for a couple hours talking Air Jordans, the Phillies, Meek Mill and Floyd Mayweather (A month later, Dion would visit Mayweather at his gym and attend his fight against Miguel Cotto.).
They would eventually be joined in the booth by another neighborhood baller, Villanova guard Maalik Wayns, who had also recently declared for the draft.
“It’s a Philly connection, you know?” Waiters said. “Before Syracuse and Villanova, I knew Maalik in seventh grade, before anyone knew he’d blow up and become the person and player he is today. He was chubby back then.”
Dion laughed, then admitted, “And I was chubby too. And we’ve always just had a connection.
“You love to see someone else do good coming from the same circumstances you come from.”