An autographed poster of Hassan Whiteside is taped inside a lobby window at Gastonia’s Phillips Center.
“He made it and so can YOU!,” reads the bottom of the poster at the rec center where Whiteside used to play as a teenager.
But the 7-foot Miami Heat center is still wrestling with who he is and who he wants to become. Whiteside is one of the NBA’s greatest finds since Jeremy Lin introduced the world to Linsanity three years ago, but the personality traits that kept Whiteside out of the league for two years have at times resurfaced.
Since signing with the Heat just before Thanksgiving, Whiteside has established himself as one of the most athletic centers in the NBA, averaging 11.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. And his defense is so good that Hall of Fame guard Bob Cousy recently compared him to Bill Russell, the former Celtics big man who is considered one of the best defenders in the game’s history.
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In just 43 games this season, Whiteside has secured most of the franchise’s single-season rebounds records. Whiteside recorded a triple-double in points, rebounds and blocks in less than 25 minutes against the Bulls in January. He blocks more shots per game than everyone in the NBA except New Orleans’ Anthony Davis.
Last week after missing three games, he returned from a freak injury that left him with 10 stitches in his shooting hand.
“I’m used to my life being up and down,” Whiteside said, looking down at his mangled right hand, an injury suffered attempting to block a shot the week before. “I knew I was having too many ups, so I had to get a couple downs.”
It was just last fall that he was still trying to break back into the NBA, opting to train in Charlotte and run pick-up games at the Dowd YMCA. Now, Whiteside still combines his rare talent with the occasional outburst. He’s been ejected from games twice this season and given the league nearly $40,000 in fines from technical and flagrant fouls, and ejections.
“He can be as good as he wants; as good as he sees fit; as good as his attitude and work ethic will let him be and take him,” said Heat teammate Michael Beasley, himself no stranger to character concerns. “A guy like that – he’s 7 feet and only 25 years old with a (311/2-inch) vertical. With the right head, a lot of people would pay a lot of money for that.”
Roots in Gastonia
Last week after a practice in Miami, Whiteside wondered if much of Gastonia even knew of his existence before he joined the Heat.
If his name isn’t in Gastonia lore like Ashbrook’s James Worthy or Hunter Huss’ Sleepy Floyd who met in both the 1979 state championship and the 1982 NCAA title game, it’s because Whiteside never played varsity basketball in Gastonia. He went from Ashbrook to Hunter Huss to Forestview in his first two years trying to find the right fit without ever seeing the court.
Richard Carsner, then Ashbrook’s JV coach, remembers Whiteside didn’t have the proper paperwork to even make the team his freshman year, but he can hardly remember Whiteside trying out at all.
“This guy has blossomed since high school, because I don’t remember him being more than 6 foot,” Carsner said. “If you’re looking for a (Michael Jordan) getting cut his freshman year story, that wasn’t it. I was going back through looking at signup sheets and I never even saw him on there. I don’t have memories of him really.”
Whiteside moved in with his father in New Jersey for his junior season before coming back to North Carolina to attend the Patterson School, a Lenoir prep school that, like many other basketball-first prep schools, is now defunct. After one year at Marshall University, where he led the NCAA in blocked shots for the 2009-10 season, Whiteside declared for the NBA draft.
Nearly 7-feet tall and 225 pounds, Whiteside didn’t have the body or the offensive game to make an immediate impact in the pros. Predictions for where he would go varied from lottery pick to second round. Several reports mentioned his immaturity as a red flag for NBA teams.
Skip Youngblood, director of the Phillips Center, said Whiteside was always quiet and respectful when he was playing ball at the center as a teen, so the news that he was not coachable initially came as a surprise. Youngblood, who played at Ashbrook and Old Dominion before playing professionally overseas, surmised that the player he used to teach post moves to as a teen had let the hype of being a potential lottery pick get to his head.
“Most freshmen coming in were more coachable,” said Donnie Jones, Central Florida’s coach who recruited and coached Whiteside at Marshall. “A lot of things were easy because of his talent that sometimes his focus and consistency weren’t where they should be. I embraced the process. I knew he was a work in progress. It was really hard for him to handle all that success early on, like a lot of guys.
“I think sometimes Hassan is misunderstood. He says things that may seem out of line, or he takes things personally, or it sounds like he’s being arrogant or better than everyone else. But he has a confidence about him. He says what he thinks sometimes. He’s got to learn to know when to say that.”
Cut by the Kings
The Sacramento Kings finally selected Whiteside in the second round with the 33rd overall pick, signing him to a four-year deal worth $3.8 million with the first two years guaranteed.
He tore a tendon in his left knee during his rookie year and played just one game. But that didn’t do him in with the Kings. Those close to Whiteside say his time in Sacramento was doomed by questionable work ethic and a bad attitude.
It proved a toxic combination when the Kings, in the first round of that year’s draft, had already selected DeMarcus Cousins, who came to the NBA with similar attributes.
“He got drafted with DeMarcus Cousins, and DeMarcus had a bad rap at that time and he kind of rubbed off on him as well,” said Gabe Blair, who trained Whiteside this past summer. “But DeMarcus was averaging 20 (points) and 10 (rebounds) a game, so you can deal with a player who has a bad attitude that has 20 and 10 a game. But if you got a player who’s not playing as well, you’re not going to take as much from him.
“That’s why he didn’t stay in the league when he got there.”
The Kings cut Whiteside less than 25 months after signing him. Back he went to the D-League, where he had been previously to rehab, before eventually trying his luck overseas.
“The basketball window is a small window, and that’s what I tell him,” Youngblood said. “The window closes very fast. And a lot of times it closes without warning. A lot of guys are in and out of the league after year two or three and you never hear from them again.
“Most of the time when you fall off the map, you’re just off.”
Life experiences overseas
Without a spot in the NBA, Whiteside went overseas to Lebanon and then China to play pro ball in 2013. He says he heard a car bomb explode in Lebanon and even saw a dead body lying in the street.
Whiteside earned the Chinese league final’s MVP award while leading the Sichuan Blue Whales to the 2013 title. He continued dominating overseas before coming back to participate with the Toronto Raptors’ summer league team this past summer.
During the summer he worked with Blair, a former standout at a Gastonia private school who played collegiately at Wichita State as well as professionally overseas, at Blair’s 2xSalt training facility in Charlotte.
Whiteside worked on his lateral quickness, as well as being smarter in one-on-one defense and realizing he sometimes doesn’t have to leave the floor when his 7-foot-7 wingspan can adjust a shot.
He signed with the Grizzlies but didn’t play and was eventually cut. He moved back to Charlotte where he stayed in shape by playing at the Dowd YMCA.
Sean Kennedy, Whiteside’s agent, said he contacted all 30 teams multiple times in the past two years about working out Whiteside. Only the Lakers, Raptors, Grizzlies and Heat accepted. Through a spokesman, Hornets general manager Rich Cho said he was not contacted by Whiteside’s agent this past summer and fall.
Whiteside eventually signed with the Heat on Nov. 24. But he still can’t understand why he wasn’t getting many responses. Was his reputation really that bad that teams would turn down an athletic 7-footer for a workout?
“I was down the street from the Charlotte Hornets. I lived on 7th St. about two blocks away and I couldn’t even get a workout for them,” Whiteside said. “I could have walked to the arena.”
Fresh start in Miami
The Heat has a history of signing overlooked or discarded players, from Beasley to Udonis Haslem to Chris “Birdman” Andersen. So when Heat coach Erik Spoelstra met with Whiteside in November, the conversation was similar to one he had before with players.
“It was all about a commitment to our culture, to player development, to working every single day to improve,” Spoelstra said. “And it was not about minutes, shots or opportunities. And we’ll see where the chips would fall after that. But to committing yourself every day to your craft and this team, and he’s been very consistent with that.”
Whiteside modeled that behavior in his first three months. He became the first player in NBA history to record a triple-double in less than 25 minutes of play when he posted 14 points, 13 rebounds and 12 blocks against the Bulls in January.
In his limited time this season he ranks sixth in the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating, and he’s behind five players who have either won the NBA MVP award in a previous season or are in contention for it this season.
But in March, Whiteside fell back into those old traps, as Youngblood called them. First he got tangled up with Suns center Alex Len, and that led to Whiteside tackling Len to the ground. Both players were ejected.
One week later against the Celtics, Whiteside barreled into Kelly Olynyk’s back, knocking him to the ground. Another ejection followed, and after the game teammate Dwyane Wade said Whiteside is “not reliable.”
Around that time, the Heat re-signed Beasley, a former No. 2 overall pick who has been in and out of the league because of attitude problems and drug-related issues. Beasley decided to take on a mentor role for Whiteside.
“I’ve been through hell and back, and I know what the other side looks like,” Beasley said. “I’ve seen what can happen to you when you’re tagged ‘bad attitude’ or anything of that nature.
“The greatest thing in the world can be taken from you, and I’m a testament to that. So be a wise man, don’t be a smart man. I’m still fighting and clawing to get to where I want to be, but I’m here.”
Teammates, Spoelstra and Heat president Pat Riley talked to Whiteside about his behavior. But an encounter with a man at Miami’s Jackson’s Soul Food restaurant gave Whiteside a different perspective, he said. The man told Whiteside he used him as an example of perseverance for his 17-year-old son who’s 6-11.
For the first time in Whiteside’s life, he says he realized he could be a role model.
“I came up and reflected on my life and everything I did to get here,” Whiteside said. “I did a lot to get here. I didn’t want to just give my dream up.”
Teammates say since the ejections, Whiteside doesn’t get as upset when he’s called for a foul. Last week Juwan Howard, a 19-year NBA veteran who signed the league’s first $100 million contract, was regularly beside Whiteside on the practice floor and in the huddles.
Whiteside returned to game action with his right hand heavily wrapped in Tuesday’s loss to the Spurs. He scored 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting and grabbed six rebounds in 23 minutes. His play included a steal and pass ahead for a fast-break layup, getting humbled by Tim Duncan’s defense and a postgame meeting with the media repeatedly mentioning how the Spurs went after his right hand.
In today’s NBA, there aren’t many true centers remaining. Beasley estimated there are seven at most, and no one is younger or more athletic than Whiteside, whose two-year, $1.75 million contract is guaranteed only through this season.
Now, if he can just get it all together.
“He’s a force,” Beasley said. “There are a lot of things that he does that you can’t teach. That’s scary because once you start polishing those things up and teach him what he needs to know, I’m sorry for everybody else.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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