Brash, overconfident, trigger-happy: three descriptors that consistently hound Miami Heat sharpshooter Dion Waiters, ringing in his ears each time he prepares to launch an ill-advised three-pointer. Waiters’ six-year stint in the NBA has been plagued by injuries and inconsistency. Drafted in 2012 by a LeBron-less Cavaliers team desperate for an offensive spark, the Syracuse University alum proceeded to play 60 games and shoot just north of 40% from the floor. Despite this uninspiring number, Waiters developed a reputation for catching fire out of nowhere and rattling off series after series of jaw-dropping circus shots. These occasional bursts of brilliance, coupled with Waiters’ unmitigated belief that he was the NBA’s best player, prompted sportswriter Zach Lowe to coin the phrase “Waiters Island”—a mythical stretch of land populated by zealots who believed that Waiters did, in fact, possess the tools to become an elite basketball talent.
The phrase stuck. Memes depicting Waiters sunbathing on a patch of sand flooded the internet almost overnight, and sports analysts ridiculed those pundits foolish enough to “lease property” on a site as precarious as Waiters Island. In the span of a single season, the sporting world transformed Waiters from a talented prospect and potent offensive presence to the butt of a joke.
Waiters remained on the Cavs for two more unremarkable seasons, after which he was shipped off to Oklahoma City and instructed to play the Robin to Russell Westbrook’s Batman. Though he averaged under 10 points per game during the 2015-16 season, Waiters came within 12 minutes of facing his former team in the 2016 NBA Finals. Instead, heartbreak ensued. A historic collapse by the Thunder in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals handed the Golden State Warriors a trip to the finals and dashed Waiters’ hopes of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy.
The Fall of 2016 saw Waiters basking in the warmth of South Beach, having just signed a contract with a young and hungry Heat team. To say the season began as a disaster would do both the players and coaching staff a generosity. Waiters was sidelined for 20 games due to a groin injury, and the Heat dropped to a league-worst 11-30 record as the All-Star break loomed nearer.
But Waiters’ fiercely competitive spirit—a quality which had caused the sporting world to dismiss him as reckless and, worse, as a source of amusement—never wavered, even as basketball analysts were clamoring for the Heat to deliberately sabotage the rest of their season in order to secure a high lottery pick. Fueled by Waiters’ fiery presence on and off the court, the upstart Heat surged to 13 consecutive victories and finished the season on a remarkable 30-11 run. Though a surprising last-minute lurch by an enigmatic Chicago Bulls squad ousted Miami from the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, the Heat would have been a dangerous team to face in the first round of the postseason.
No member of the sports media expressed this uncomfortable truth better than Waiters himself. In a Players’ Tribune article brazenly dubbed “The NBA is Lucky I’m Home Doing Damn Articles, ” the Miami guard unleashes a delicious diatribe against his critics, claiming shameless bravado and supreme overconfidence are prerequisites when competing on South Philly’s playgrounds—let alone on basketball’s biggest stage.
“You think you can survive in Philly without irrational confidence?” Waiters challenges in a section of the article that chronicles the guard’s dramatic journey from the South Philadelphia projects to Syracuse and eventually the NBA. “You will never hear the words ‘I can’t’ come out of Dion Waiters’ mouth. I can. I will. I already did.”
Waiters’ words capture the essence of the NBA today more vividly than any highlight reel. More than that, they illustrate why Adam Silver’s product has outstripped the NFL, MLB, and NHL in terms of substance and thrill. Where baseball players are discouraged from flipping bats or losing their composure, and members of the NFL are flagged at the faintest sign of a celebratory gesture, Waiters’ personality practically leaps off the page from the first braggadocious sentence of his article.
In brutally candid terms, the Heat guard describes a difficult upbringing characterized by loss, as well as his diasporic journey from the streets of Philadelphia to prep school in rural Connecticut. Jumping ahead a decade, Waiters discusses his close but nonetheless competitive relationship with former teammate Kevin Durant, urging the reader to ask Durant who won their last game of one-on-one should he or she cross paths with the eight-time all-star.
In the final paragraphs, Waiters meditates on how his three-year-old son is adjusting to his new life in Miami, concluding that both he and the rest of his family feel completely at home in the tropical heat.
Waiters’ Players’ Tribune piece provides more than a glimpse into the mind and past of a dynamic yet polarizing NBA player. It reveals the extent to which Silver has allowed his millionaire employees to fly their true colors and refrain from reigning in their passions, even as other professional sports leagues muzzle their players with heavy fines and threats of expulsion.