More mature Hassan Whiteside ready to tackle high expectations
It was supposed to be a moment every basketball player dreams about.
Two years ago, Hassan Whiteside was so giddy about family coming to watch him play back when he struggling to make it in the NBA's Development League playing against teams that had names beginning with Rio Grande and Fort Wayne. The relatives drove a couple hours from New Jersey to Westchester, N.Y., to see him play "professionally."
There was anticipation and excitement.
As the game progressed, the air in the moment deflated. Whiteside played all of 30 seconds — in garbage time — turning a festive occasion into a thud.
"It crushed him," said Hassan Arbubakrr, Whiteside's father. "He was down. He was like, `Dad, y'all drove all the way up here and I didn't get a chance to play."'
Memories such as those remain fresh in Whiteside's mind as the Heat prepare to begin training camp on Tuesday. . Now the Miami Heat's starting center and a player some are calling the team's X-Factor this season, Whiteside is doing everything possible to avoid regressing after last year's breakout.
"He just thinks back to all that stuff that happened to him, and he's not going to blow this opportunity," Arbubakrr said.
By now, we all know the story. Last year Whiteside rose from D-League reject to the talk of the NBA. After being out of the league, he captivated the media by sharing tales of growing tired of eating rice while playing in China and witnessing car-bombings in Lebanon.
He endured these sometimes-uncomfortable experiences abroad, and spent time in Sioux Falls, S.D., and Des Moines, Iowa, before earning another shot in the NBA. And Whiteside took advantage of the Heat's gamble by averaging 11.8 points and 10 rebounds in 48 games.
As he prepares for an encore performance, Whiteside will no longer have the surprise element. No more playful stories about his unlikely path here. No more candid talk about his rating on the NBA 2K video game.
All everyone is focused on is whether he can produce All-Star numbers, a situation Whiteside is comfortable with.
"There's never any pressure on me," Whiteside said. "There were people who never believed in me anyway, so I don't expect you to start believing in me now."
The 7-foot Whiteside sounds as if he's spent the summer listening to uplifting Journey songs on repeat. He expects the success "goes on and on, and on, and on." A year older, his boyish attributes evident when he arrived last December are long gone. His shoulders are less like a clothes hanger and more like Dwight Howard.
Most days, he's worked out twice daily at AmericanAirlines Arena. Some of it is fine-tuning. Some of it is adding new dimensions he hopes will surprise competitors.
Whiteside says he's a better jumpshooter. Those free throws that nearly broke a few backboards last year "are going really well."
"I still think I'm going to surprise," Whiteside said. "There's still going to be some things that people are going to be like, `We didn't know he could do that."'
On the surface, everything about Whiteside screams maturity. Even with reports of a $20 million annual salary when he becomes a free agent next summer, he is still careful about his spending. When his mother, Debbie, totaled her car recently, her son came to rescue by "splurging" on a … Ford Focus.
"I haven't bought too many gifts," Whiteside said. "Just saving money."
Whiteside appears to have grown up on the court, too. He's moved past the incidents that had some referring to him as a bad seed. He was involved in skirmishes with Phoenix Suns center Alex Len and Kelly Olynk of the Boston Celtics in a span of a week, earning a one-game suspension and adding to his nearly $50,000 fine total for the season.
The aggression was partly a product of his upbringing. If a confrontation surfaced, his father, a former NFL defensive end, often gave this advice: "Don't take no s--- from nobody."
The words were once again used after Whiteside body-slammed Len.
"I'm not sure if I should have said that, because the next week he had another incident," said Arbubakrr, who played for the Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "I wasn't too happy with the second incident."
Added Whiteside: "It was a moment. I feel like everybody in basketball has moments in a game where they either get a flagrant foul or get into it with somebody. Nobody is perfect. It happened."
Maturation and a constant grinding in offseason has Whiteside thinking he can be a top-10 center, which could again make the Heat a contender in the Eastern Conference. After working out with the summer league team, he began one-on-one sessions with Chris Bosh and Juwan Howard. He called it a luxury being able to receive tutelage from players who have "been to the mountain top and back."
"I'm excited," said Bosh, who missed the second half of last season because of blood clots in his lungs. "I'm very excited. I mean just with the splash that Hassan made last year, the couple of games that I got to play with him, you could see the possibility for a lot of chemistry."
About the only relaxation for Whiteside the past few months were a nine-day trip to Italy to conduct a basketball clinic with teammate Tyler Johnson and spending a week with family in Gastonia, N.C. Both experiences were mind-blowing for different reasons.
Getting to unwind in a foriegn country was completely different for him, because long flights usually meant he was fighting to hold on to a playing career overseas. This time, there was no uncertainty about his future, expect for how teammates would react to the pair of custom-made Italian shoes he picked up in the city of Vigevano, known as the shoe capital of the world.
"At first, it was kind of tough to get me over there," Whiteside said, laughing. "I never went over there just to lounge. It was always basketball. We had a lot free time. They really took care of me."
The excursion was followed by a visit with family, allowing yet another reminder how life has changed. He was just an hour from the YMCA in Charlotte he played pick-up games while being ignored by NBA personnel.
Unlike then, he had no time to visit his former rec-ball teammates because he was busy being shadowed by a Heat television crew. To his surprise, he was by greeted by several friends and relatives who called him an inspiration.
The highlight was an aspiring rapper, who Whiteside had never met, saying his story was the reason for refusing to give up.
Just like Whiteside.
"Everybody was just talking about how proud they are of me and how they're not giving up on their dreams," Whiteside said. "I'm glad that I inspire a lot of people. It's just a blessing of just a journey I started and want to continue."