Hasan Ahad needed less than 45 minutes of watching Hassan Whiteside play basketball in Charlotte’s Dowd YMCA gym to realize the 7-foot-tall Gastonia native was going about his pro career all wrong.
China, Whiteside said to Ahad afterward. My goal is to play in China again.
Ahad, a former overseas pro, shook his head and told Whiteside, “Your primary focus should be for your agent to get you in the NBA.”
That was August 2014. On Saturday night, Whiteside comes home to take the floor at Time Warner Cable Arena – a mere six stoplights from the uptown YMCA he was frequenting barely a year and a half ago – with the Miami Heat so far dominating the Charlotte Hornets 2-0 in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.
And Whiteside is a significant reason for the Heat’s success. Twenty-one points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in Game 1. Seventeen points, 13 rebounds and two blocks in Game 2. Of the 19 shots he’s taken, he’s sunk 17.
But the statistics don’t tell the whole story. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve repeatedly seen Charlotte’s defense collapse to try to contain him, which tends to free up his teammates on the perimeter for open shots.
That is to say: Whiteside is so big, so dominant, so absurdly intimidating, he can drive the Hornets crazy without even touching the basketball.
As his friend and former AAU tournament teammate Titus Robinson tells it, this is almost exactly the scenario that used to unfold during pickup games at the Dowd YMCA.
“It’s tough when you play at the YMCA, because you’ve got those players that are always trying to prove themselves against you. So you’ve got to be careful – because they go really hard and can mess around and hurt you,” said Robinson, an East Mecklenburg High School alumnus who is now playing professionally in Lithuania. “So sometimes we stuck to one-on-one games. But when when we did play, it was pretty much feed it into the post, and if he (Whiteside) got triple-teamed, he’d kick it out to one of us for a three, or some easy bucket.”
Robinson was the one who connected Whiteside to Ahad, who leads basketball conditioning classes and trains pros (primarily those who are playing internationally) out of the Dowd as the owner of Intense Training.
In just one session with Whiteside, what Ahad saw amazed him: fluid athleticism, astonishingly long arms, hands that seemed like they were designed in a laboratory specifically to block shots.
“I asked for Hassan to come down and do some low-post work with me and Titus,” Ahad recalled. “We worked on back-to-the-basket moves, face-up jumpers, just a lot of skill work down low. I was highly impressed with what Hassan could do. And after the workout, he basically asked me if I had any connections with going overseas. He mainly wanted to play in China.”
That’s where Whiteside had been just a few months earlier – in the city of Changzhou – following a stretch in Chengdu in 2013 and a couple of stints in Lebanon. Though he has said he grew tired of eating rice in China, he wanted to go back because the average pay for non-Chinese players is so high, at about $500,000. The best players can make more than $1 million.
But Whiteside never went back to China.
Instead, the next time Ahad saw him – just five months later – was on SportsCenter. The virtually unknown 25-year-old was being highlighted for doing something a virtual unknown almost never does, registering double-digits in points, rebounds and blocks while leading the Heat to a win over Chicago in January 2015.
Since then, he hasn’t stopped getting better. He just finished third in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year, and recently was ninth in voting for Most Improved, with an average of 14 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks per game.
And consider this: For the 2015-16 season, Whiteside was paid a shade under a million bucks; this summer, he’ll become a free agent; on the open market, it’s very possible he’ll get a 2,000 percent raise – most prognosticators expect he’ll be offered a contract that could pay him somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million per year.
Could it be the Hornets, and a homecoming? Stranger things have happened. (There’s tension, though: When Whiteside’s agent tried to hook him up with a tryout with Charlotte in 2014, the team passed. So did 28 other NBA teams, but the Hornets’ lack of interest stung him the most.)
But in the meantime, Ahad expects the Heat’s YMCA-to-NBA star will have no mercy.
“I can only imagine what he’s gonna do Saturday,” Ahad said. “Playoffs, Charlotte – he’s gonna really be fired up. He’ll probably have a triple-double: 18 or 19 points, 12 rebounds, about 10 blocks.
“Yeah. He’s gonna set Time Warner Cable Arena on fire.”
From the YMCA to the NBA
Vitals: 26 years old, 7 feet tall, 265 pounds.
Where he played in the first half of 2014: China; Dowd YMCA in uptown Charlotte.
When he stepped onto the court for the Miami Heat for the first time: Dec. 1, 2014.
2015-16 regular-season averages: 14.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game.
2015-16 salary: $981,348.
Projected 2016-17 salary: Most predictions suggest he could earn about $20 million.