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The Misunderstanding of Hassan Whiteside

The Heat center started from the bottom, now he’s here. But where is “here,” exactly? He’s a social media star, a double-double machine, and one of the league’s best big men. But in the last year he’s been benched and hurt, and seen his name in trade rumors. On the eve of a new season, Whiteside sets the record straight, with a little help from Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Hassan Whiteside is a talker. He talks to animals, he talks to sculptures, and he talks to himself. The Miami Heat center trash-talks (ask Joel Embiid), and he sweet-talks (ask his mom, Debbie). He talked Antonio Brown into a game of pickup football, he talked DJ Khaled into joining Snapchat, and last March, Whiteside talked his way into trouble following a game when he was benched in an overtime loss. He thought it was bullshit. And he said it was bullshit, to a room full of reporters. Three days (and one team-imposed fine) later, he must’ve talked his way out of trouble, because Whiteside was back in the starting lineup. (Eighteen points, 12 rebounds, and three blocks against the Atlanta Hawks.) Yet not long into meeting Whiteside at his house in September, he’s stopped talking to me altogether. Now he’s talking to the fish.

We’re crouched down in his front yard in Miami Beach, sweating into a pond of 40 koi fish. “Come here, OGs,” Whiteside says, touching the water. Like him, they’re strikingly oversized, a group of orange and black and white koi all longer than my forearm. His Snapchat followers (who he also talks to, several times a day) know them well. “They’re more famous than me, man,” he says, wiping water off on his worn-in brown tank top. Whiteside’s been in Miami since the Heat signed him in November 2014, but his drawl—the kind that acts as a thickening agent for vowels and turns “man” from one syllable to two—comes from Gastonia, North Carolina, his hometown.

All 40 fish have a name. Whiteside names everything: The planter in the backyard (Man of Ultimate Wisdom), the bust made of Canadian pennies in the living room. Every name has an explanation, and every explanation has deeper meaning. Which he shares with me, one by one. (The bust is Penny. Name. Sure, a penny itself is worthless, but thousands of pennies together aren’t, especially the Canadian penny, because it’s discontinued. Explanation. Isn’t that beautiful? And, Whiteside smiles, what’s more beautiful than the human body? Meaning. Deep.)

So yes, to answer my question, the fish are individuals. Together he calls them the OGs. He knows what I’m thinking, but it’s short for Old Guys. “They can live to be 140. Don’t matter how much shit they swim through,” Whiteside explains as we walk the stairs of his all-white waterfront home, “they keep swimming.”

Five years ago, no one would’ve thought Whiteside would be living down the street from Dwyane Wade. No one was thinking about him at all. After the Sacramento Kings selected him with the 33rd overall pick in the 2010 draft and later waived him, he floated through the beginning of his professional career—from the D-League to overseas. He went to Lebanon in 2013. Two games in, his teammates started a fight with the opposing team and the season was canceled. So Whiteside went to the Chinese NBL, the country’s second-tier basketball league.

In China, he was unable to communicate, and therefore out of his element. A player from another team taught Whiteside how to greet: “Wǒ shì nǐ bàba”—hi, nice to meet you. He said it to everyone at home, on the road, in the gym. There were never any “you, too’s” in return, only blank stares. Well into the season, Whiteside found out from his team’s general manager that he was actually saying “I’m your daddy.” Whiteside immediately recognized the player in the layup line a year later, after he had left for Lebanon again, then returned back to China. He wishes he had dunked on him. Wǒ shì nǐ bàba.

Whiteside returned stateside after his second stint in China. He was waived a couple of more times in the NBA, then returned to the D-League, lather, rinse, repeat. His early career was a started-from-the-bottom starter kit.

Now he’s the starting center for the Miami Heat, except when he’s not. Whiteside is one of the franchise’s cornerstones, though he still finds his name in trade rumors. He’s capable of putting up the kind of gaudy numbers big men used to have in the pre–Splash Brothers era, but is often accused of having empty stats. He led the league in blocks in 2016 and led the league in rebounds per game in 2017, but his last season was upended by injuries, limited minutes, trade whispers, and benchings. He was willing to talk it out, but with the wrong people.

That postgame presser in March was a lowlight, and there’s a reel of similar appearances from the 2018 season—bad games, bad body language. When he addressed the media in March he was talking about being out of the rotation against the Nets, but it was bigger than that. “It’s really bullshit, man … There’s a lot of teams that could use a center. Shit.”

It was a hell of a comedown from the 2016-17 season, which started on a high when the Heat signed Whiteside to a four-year, $98 million maximum contract. His story was a fan favorite back then. The name and the narrative couldn’t be separated: The wanderer had found a home, and the franchise of Zo and Shaq finally had its center.

That progress stalled in the 2017-18 season. And it felt impossible to get in gear from the sidelines. “Especially,” Whiteside says, “when you can see a game and you know you can help.” We’re settled inside now, sitting in leather chairs made for 7-footers. Last season’s body language experts would be picking him apart: slumped shoulders, looking in the distance as he’s talking. “Maybe our record would have been different. We would have been a whole different seed in the playoffs.” He knows he was sluggish after missing so much time—28 games total, nine in March. Less agile, slower, and trying to catch up on Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra’s schemes.

I ask if he feared being forgotten again. “I can avoid that,” he says.

Avoid what?

“Falling back to people not knowing.”

“Try sitting in this chair,” Whiteside tells me, pointing to the white lawn furniture on his white travertine patio behind his white house. I’ll later ask why all three of his cars are white. “Because I’m Whiteside!” he yells, with the enthusiasm and readiness of a joke he’s told before. His mom, friends, former coaches, and even Pat Riley all told me Whiteside is an unabashed people-pleaser. They were all underselling it.

When we move on from the chair, he wants to know: Do I want to play pool? Or feed the fish? How about sit in the Jeep? I just have to sit in the Jeep. Honk the horn! Come on, that’s weak! Am I thirsty? Take this water—it’s infused. Totally cool if I want to touch the art. And spin the sculpture. How do I like my steak cooked? Let’s go bowling!

Whiteside’s home is what childhood playdate dreams are made of. A Jeep for off-roading is out front; Jet Skis are docked and ready out back. The place is wired as a smart house, not entirely unlike the Disney Channel movie. I mention how, in Smart House, the technology turns on its owners in the end. “Yeah,” Whiteside says, “but my house loves me. I be making it laugh.” Making everybody laugh is his M.O. Entire blog posts are written about his Snapchat stories—10-second clips of him roasting teammates or doing mini-documentaries about animals.

The theater room is particularly well-lit. There’s a neon “Whiteside” sign, a gift from the Heat, propped up in the back corner. It matches the rotating basketball in the fish tank downstairs painted with letters “MH” for Miami Heat. Or, depending how it’s rotating: “HW.” The ceiling is black except for tiny flickering LEDs that mimic the night sky. (He’s thrilled when, after two minutes of looking up, I finally see a shooting star.) Whiteside is sitting in the second row, his seat reclined as far as it can go. He lights up, too, when it occurs to him: He hasn’t Snapchatted yet today.

A couple of years ago, no one was following Whiteside. His professional career wasn’t Wikipedia-worthy past his stint with Sacramento. He had declared for the draft in 2010 after his freshman year at Marshall University during a time when one-and-dones mostly came from big-time programs and most highly touted prospects had been scouted since youth. Whiteside drew interest from schools on Kentucky’s level only in his senior year of high school. And once he was at Marshall, he came off the bench for the first 11 games of the season.

Former Marshall assistant Darren Tillis likes to say Whiteside microwaved his one season of college ball. He broke the school’s record for the most blocks in a season, and he did the same with Conference USA. Whiteside led the nation in blocked shots in 2009-10, finishing with 182—more than any freshman in NCAA history at the time (Anthony Davis would break the record two years later). In 2015, he’d microwave again with Miami. Between those years, his stats mattered less than his reputation. Scouts told Tillis that Whiteside was out of shape, lazy, and not good enough in the D-League. “I’m going, ‘Good enough?’” Tillis says over the phone. “The kid’s almost a freak of nature!” The book on Whiteside was that he’s immature. It was a vague critique, but almost fatal.

“I didn’t hear that word until I entered the draft,” Whiteside says. He’s looking at the theater’s big screen. Muted ESPN talking heads are breaking down tape of last year’s Los Angeles Lakers. He gestures to them. “Draft night. I was projected top-10 by ESPN, and then it was like, ‘All right, Hughes,’”—“Hughes” is the name Whiteside uses for a generic TV pundit—“‘I feel like he’s immature.’ I’m just like, ‘Did my interview not go well?’”

Miami had the 32nd pick in the 2010 draft, one slot before Sacramento. That spring, Whiteside went through a closed-door workout with the Heat, but they passed on him for another center, Dexter Pittman. Reports later said that Whiteside walked out mid-workout without reason. I ask him what happened that day. “We just had a regular workout,” he says, nonchalantly, watching the screen. “It was pretty good.”

There were stories that you walked out of the gym.

Whiteside sits up. It’s been a long day. And we’re not laughing anymore.

“No,” he says. His head shakes. “That’s crazy. I don’t even think I worked out for the Heat on draft night.” The first time Whiteside ever heard that story was just three days before. He was in this very same theater, playing NBA 2K as his real-life character when the pre-programmed broadcast said it: Hassan Whiteside walked out on the Heat during a pre-draft workout. A video game programmer somewhere knew a Whiteside anecdote that Whiteside didn’t.

“I said, ‘Walked out of the workout? What?’ The video game announcer was saying that. The only workout I didn’t finish on the Heat is when I had to get stitches. Why would I just walk out? First of all, that don’t make no sense to me. Why would I walk out? Was I tired? I need to hear more information. Was I tired?”

Whiteside shrugs, points to nothing in particular, scoffs, and shrugs again. He’s animated now, but tired. More tired than before.

“What’s the reason for me walking out of the thing I worked my whole life for?”

You just were upset or tired.

“And I just was like, ‘All right. I’m gonna go home.’”

Yeah.

He’s not quite sure how to explain. Or even what he’s explaining. Spoelstra confirmed to me that, yes, Whiteside did have a draft workout. He worked out for the Heat three times, in fact: first before the draft, then before going overseas, and a third time in 2014. And he did walk out of the pre-draft one—because he needed stitches. “There were a lot of different stories to that,” Spoelstra recalled over the phone, “But he got hit, so he was hurt. We didn’t judge him on that. There’s been a lot of things that have been totally misconstrued.”

It was a misunderstanding. There are a lot of those. Draft night was another one. Whiteside’s mom, Debbie, told me that declaring for the draft was more about circumstance than it was a choice. Assuming their star center would be leaving for the NBA, the Marshall coaching staff that recruited him decided to leave for the University of Central Florida. “So,” Debbie says, “Hassan was like, ‘Mom, might as well just go in it.’” Members of the Marshall staff told me that Whiteside’s initial failure in the NBA was a lack of guidance more than anything else. Spoelstra and Heat president Pat Riley said his frustration last season was more about passion than immaturity. Whiteside has been labeled difficult, but just because you give something a name doesn’t mean you always get the right explanation. Or the meaning.

“The thing about Hassan,” Spoelstra says, “that probably everybody gets wrong is, first of all, we developed a very good relationship over the years. Secondly, Hassan is an extremely likable guy. When he’s frustrated or things aren’t necessarily going his way, he’s like a lot of us when we’re frustrated and things aren’t going the way we want them to.” They talk about narrative often. “I’m still there for him,” he says, “and I’m in the same trench with him to try to get this thing right.” A couple of years ago, Spoelstra gave Whiteside Daring Greatly, a book on the power of vulnerability by psychologist Brené Brown. It was on Whiteside’s kitchen counter now, after a season that forced him to understand that he was being misunderstood.

“There are a lot of urban legends about Hassan,” Spoelstra says. “I just wanted him to be vulnerable enough to see himself in the lens that a lot of other people had seen him.”

But for now, Whiteside wants to set this workout story straight. Stitches. That’s why he left the Heat workout early. “J-Bol [Miami trainer Jay Sabol] stitched me up,” he says, leaning back in his chair again. “We still joke about it to this day.”

No one else was in on that one.

Two days after I leave Miami, Debbie calls me. She’s eager and less contemplative than the last time we spoke, a Hey-how-you-doing-I’m-here-with-Hassan coming out in a breath. Pause. “He has a story to tell you.”

Whiteside wants to talk about a workout that he does remember. He wants to talk about Pat Riley.

This is a story about Whiteside’s third workout for the Heat, the one with the happy ending. It happened in November 2014. The way Whiteside remembers it, the only people on the American Airlines Arena court were Riley and a trainer. He was playing to 21,000 empty seats, but Whiteside had the audience he needed.

Riley can rattle off the list of elite centers he’s coached like it’s grace before dinner. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Shaquille O’Neal, through “Christ, our Lord amen.” He could watch Whiteside from the sidelines for only so long. A Heat staffer told Whiteside afterward that in his 16 years working for Miami, he could count on one hand how many times he’d seen Riley work out a player. “I knew,” Riley told me over the phone, “the kind of workout that I wanted to put a center through.”

According to Whiteside, Riley excused the trainer after a couple of drills. If Whiteside was going to break, he’d break there, going through notorious Miami Heat conditioning. Riley wanted him to sprint the floor. Again, and again, and again. Not quite my tempo.

“He was throwing it in the post to me,” Whiteside says. “You see how he dress. Slacks, a collared shirt, his ring, hair slicked, watch, shirt rolled up. … He had me touch as high as I can on the backboard, like lick my hand and see how high I could touch.” That went on 10 times. Maybe. No, 15.

Riley remembers the workout slightly different. There were more trainers on the court in his version, and some five-on-five was played. The story is the same, even if the cast of characters is larger. “We did everything that we could do to test his conditioning,” Riley says, “test his endurance, and then once he got fatigued, to test him a little bit, his mental focus during fatigue, ask him questions.” Whiteside kept up. “We were fortunate, I think,” Riley says, “to get Hassan at a time when he had been through a lot of adversity.”

Riley has an institutional knowledge of a different NBA era, one when body language mattered only when an enforcer was coming your way, when shit-talking didn’t stop just because the whistle blew. But there wasn’t Twitter to tweet about it, iPhones to record it, blogs to blog it. So Riley wasn’t as upset with Whiteside’s “It’s bullshit” press conference.

“I’ve been in this for 51 years,” Riley says, “and I’ve coached for 30, and what I thought he did was almost academic compared with some of the things that I’ve gone through with other players. But today it’s blown out of proportion.

“One of the reasons why I don’t give a lot of interviews or do social media is because somebody can take one comment and it becomes viral, and it’s misinterpreted and taken out of context. Now you’ve got something that you gotta explain away.”

Whiteside knows adversity, but he knows it in the dark. His success with the Heat—with people watching him again—wasn’t gradual like it is for other players. He microwaved. By the time people were introduced to him, Whiteside was a nightly double-double. Last season, he was dissected.

“How are you when you walk off the court,” Riley asks. “When you get substituted for and go back to the bench? People are always looking at body language.”

Everyone was watching Whiteside this past offseason. His stock was low, as was the value of traditional centers leaguewide. As the NBA shifts toward positionless basketball, sticking the tall guy under the basket isn’t enough anymore. Teams are experimenting with players who are smaller and offer a more diverse skill set. There’s little use for 7-footers who’ve had an electronic dog fence zapping them their entire career when they step out of the paint. Centers have to shoot 3s, and guard the perimeter on switches. This is not the game Whiteside grew up playing, though Riley argues the more things change ...

“I think you can’t live in this world without both today,” he says. “When I coached Kareem and substituted for him, we played a lot of small ball. We would always have Michael Cooper, Byron Scott, Magic Johnson, and James Worthy and we could play Larry Spriggs, or we could play Jim Brewer, or just guys that’s 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-8 … Draymond Green–type of players. … It was a very effective lineup.”

Size still has currency in this league, but we won’t be returning to the era when elite traditional centers were the most important roster spot for a contending team any time soon. Miami has been searching for a top-15 player since 2014, when LeBron James left, and because of its cap situation, it’ll have to get that player in a trade. Whenever an All-NBA-level player hits the rumor mill, the Heat get mentioned, as does Whiteside. It happened during my visit in Miami, when the news that Jimmy Butler asked for a trade from Minnesota dropped. (A week later, the Heat would be reported as the closest to a deal with the Timberwolves, but Whiteside’s name wasn’t in the package.)

At one point, in Whiteside’s Rolls-Royce (yes, also white), money comes up. We are on the way to the bowling alley where he and his girlfriend, Ashly, had their first date. It’s the first time Whiteside has brought up contracts. His was criticized last season as being overvalued—something that Riley thinks is wrong, because Whiteside created his own market in 2016 when he re-signed. “That devalues him and dismisses him,” Riley says. “But that’s the world you live in, Hassan.”

Whiteside turns on his blinker. He’s not sure how the Timberwolves could’ve afforded to pay Butler his presumed maximum contract next season, anyway. The NBA’s cap rules are a long, miserable collection of amendments. Fans, analysts, and bloggers who have criticized Whiteside’s contract seem to know it intricately, detail to detail, exception to exception. He doesn’t. We talk about Bird Rights (a rule that incentivizes players to re-sign with their current teams) and how, in theory, Butler could sign a new deal with the Wolves. “I didn’t know that,” Whiteside says, turning the radio back up, and I realize that conversation was the only boring two minutes I’d had with Whiteside.

He merges. “Switch all three lanes. Mario Kart!”

On my second day in Miami with Whiteside, he’s listening. We’re in the theater room with NBA 2K Live playing over the surround sound. He’s in a good mood, according to his trainer. Miami’s annual fitness test was that morning, and Whiteside passed. But he’s silent when I come in, still in gamer mode with his headset on and controller in hand. The virtual Whiteside is getting mobbed by other gamers on the screen. They have headsets on, too, and are talking to each other.

“That’s Hassan Whiteside!”

“Who’s that?”

“The NBA player.”

“Hassan Whiteside, from the Heat. He’s ’bout to have a big year.”

“Nah.”

“He’s gonna come up!”

We sit in silence, listening to the back and forth. Whiteside eventually switches off the game. I ask if the other players know that the 7-footer in the game was being operated by the original player. They do, and it confuses them. “They like, ‘What are you doing just playing with us?’” he says. “‘We’re just regular people.’ I’m like, ‘Man, I like playing a game. I don’t mind playing with y’all.’”

I’d been to Whiteside’s house twice now, so I get it: He likes to entertain people. So I shouldn’t be surprised that he wants to play basketball with people pretending to be him in a video game. But I was, maybe because Whiteside could’ve been an NBA 2K character nearly a decade earlier if the narrative around him was different.

We talk about perception for some time, about if he believes in controlling his own destiny, and if he regrets how the season ended. Destiny, yes. Regrets, no. There’s another season ahead. He’s swam this river before.

The bosses sympathize. “The highest form of sanity, I think,” Riley says, “in this world, for any person to realize is, when things don’t go their way is that change has to come ... And so if you need help with change, then we’re here.”

I begin to ask Whiteside about those conversations again, but I see a hand signaling behind him. Our time is up. There’s a team barbecue today, and Whiteside wants to be on time. He apologizes for cutting our interview short—we had gone over—and starts to leave the house with me still in it. I’m welcome to hang out, if I want, he says. “I don’t want to be the guy who shows up late,” Whiteside says. He hopes I can understand.

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