A Rose That Grew From Concrete

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.

Four. Five.

“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.”

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.”

“You know, you can’t believe everything you read,” Waiters said, answering a question I hadn’t asked.

We sat on a landing that stretched out over the Delaware River separating Philly from New Jersey and beyond. He looked over at Maalik, Chris and the rest of his crew, joking around and messing with their phones as we talked.

“People see me sometimes and maybe I’m not smiling, and they form ideas. But they don’t know what I’m thinking about, whether there’s something I’m working through.”

It was well publicized that Dion had issues during his freshman year at Syracuse, and with that came unfounded reports he would transfer. People developed opinions without taking into consideration the personal tragedies still weighing heavily on a teenager’s mind. And virtually nobody knew, except those closest to him, that one of his best friends had come on hard times and lost his home, and that Waiters was doing what he could to help him get back on his feet.

“When he gets quiet or stays to himself, Dion could be thinking about one of his friends who got murdered. He could be thinking about his friend having to live on the street and where he’s going to sleep that night,” Clayton said later. “I honestly think he plays so hard and so passionately because that’s when he has clarity, on the court.”

Waiters’ mom bolstered his confidence during that first difficult year with frequent calls to tell him to stay strong, to “never let anybody win.” His relationship with his father, a strict disciplinarian, grew stronger than ever. The summer after his freshman year, Waiters worked out like a demon, returning in the fall with a completely overhauled body and mentality.

One thing hadn’t changed: Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim insisted on using Waiters as the sixth man, despite being arguably the Orange’s best player. As a freshman, coming off the bench had been difficult to accept. Waiters grew up accustomed to handling his own business, and he never wants to come out of games. But as a sophomore, Dion says, he stopped questioning his coach and let the game come to him. The two bonded. And after the season-ending loss to Ohio St. in the Elite 8, Boeheim personally told Waiters he thought he was ready to go pro.

“It’s just a great feeling, getting ready like this for things you’ve lived your whole life for,” Dion said. “But it doesn’t stop here. This is just the beginning, just another chapter in life. I’m going to continue to work extremely hard at the next level. Because I know sometimes, there are times you have to wait your turn.”

He knows there are people who still don’t know the real Dion, but he’s come to learn to always stay true to himself, both on and off the court, and things will work themselves out.

“I have a really nice smile. I just need to use it more,” Waiters says with a grin.

He pauses for a moment.

“I want to show people you can’t judge a book by its cover until you open it up and read it.”

Does Waiters have a shot at Rookie of the Year?

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