Tough Enough

October 5, 2012

Dion WaitersThe Cavaliers of the late-80s and early-90s might have been the most skilled squad in the franchise’s 40-plus years of existence. But if there was one complaint about the Lenny-led Cavs, it was that they lacked toughness – or maybe, more specifically, a tough guy.

An NBA tough guy doesn’t have to cheap-shot opponents or bark at officials. Lonnie Shelton was a for-real tough guy. So was Ben Wallace. But a tough guy doesn’t need to play in the pivot either.

The current Cavaliers do not lack toughness – not with Byron Scott at the helm. The Wine and Gold might not (yet) have a winning record under Coach Scott, but no team ever comes to Cleveland expecting a pushover.

Of course, adding another tough guy to a roster never hurts – especially when that tough guy has better-than-advertised ball-handling skills, a solid shooting touch, can create his own shot and is only 20 years old.

Dion Waiters, drafted No. 4 overall by the Wine and Gold this past June, doesn’t shrink from the title of a tough guy. (What tough guy would?) He comes from an area where – in his own words – “you had to grow up fast.”

Born and raised in rough-and-tumble South Philly, Waiters has seen his share of street life.

“It’s rough, man,” said the quiet rookie. “It’s a hard area to grow up, just because how rough it is and how dangerous it is. I lost three cousins and a best friend in a span of a couple months. It was to the point where every time I get a phonecall, I thought something bad happened.”

Waiters admits that a lot of the friends that he grew up with are either dead or in jail.

“It’s so sad because now when you hear about people dying, it’s regular – you’re used to it,” he continued. “I was born and raised down there and I’ve seen a lot. I’m just fortunate to able to escape that situation.”

Basketball was Waiters escape, then and now.

“When I was younger, like 12, I always wanted to play with the big guys,” recalled the 6-4, 210-pounder who idolized Allen Iverson. “Never could. They’d always send me to the back court. And I just used that for motivation. I just kept grinding. If it was raining real bad outside, I’d just go in the house, put on some shorts, some thermals and gloves on and go outside and shoot in the rain.”

Dion WaitersAt least one Cavalier knew how serious the stocky combo guard from South Philly was.

This offseason, when Kyrie Irving – who battled Waiters several years ago in AAU ball – was asked about his former adversary, he smiled and said: “With Dion, he has a chip on his shoulder. When you interview him or talk to him, there’s no hiding it at all. That’s just who Dion is and it’s what makes him good. He has a chip on his shoulder and he feels like nobody can stop him.”

Waiters recounted some of his AAU duels with the reigning Rookie of the Year.

“It was more of a competitive thing – trying to destroy each other,” said Waiters. “In North Carolina, we beat them. And (Irving) only had, like, nine points. I had 27. Then, he got us back in Orlando. He had 37. I had, like, 25. I remember he went to the line 21 times. He went 20 for 21.”

And when Waiters joined the Cavaliers, he and Irving went right back at it at Cleveland Clinic Courts.

“When (Irving) first got cleared to play (after a hand injury suffered in Vegas), we were going back and forth. Me, him. Alonzo (Gee),” said Waiters, flashing the grin. “I’m a competitor man! At the end of the day, that’s how I am. I won’t let a girl beat me. A baby. I’m a competitor. I hate to lose. HATE to lose!”

Waiters’ game is predicated on using his big frame and ball-handling skills to create (or muscle) his own shot – something the Cavaliers desperately needed. If he brings the same kind of firepower to Cleveland as he did college, he’ll help replace the offseason departures of Anthony Parker (position-wise) and Antawn Jamison (points-wise).

Fans saw some of that this past July in Vegas, when Waiters led the team at 12.3 ppg, despite not shooting the ball very well (30 pct FG, 17 pct from long range) or playing in either of the squad’s final two games.

Waiters was the Big East’s Sixth Man of the Year in 2011-12 at Syracuse. He nearly doubled his point production from his freshman (6.6 ppg) to his sophomore (12.6) seasons in upstate New York under legendary coach Jim Boeheim. And he did it without starting a single one of his 71 games with the Orangemen.

Boeheim didn’t have to work too hard to land Waiters, who says he committed to Syracuse by the eighth grade.

“I mean, actually how it happened was funny,” smiled Waiters, “Because my AAU coach called and said, ‘You want to go to Syracuse?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ But I didn’t know about Syracuse. I wasn’t even watching college basketball then. So, I hung up the phone, because I was at a basketball camp. And 20 minutes later I had, like, 15 calls from scouting services saying, ‘Congratulations on committing to Syracuse!’ And I was like, ‘WHAT?!!’ I was in eighth grade. And I just stayed committed.”

Dion WaitersThe icing on the story is that Waiters didn’t actually talk to Boeheim until 10th grade. “He knew who I was and he came to my games and all that,” said Waiters. “But we didn’t really talk.”

But after two productive campaigns, including a sophomore season in which he finished second on the squad in scoring, Waiters knows he made the right choice. It landed him in the Lottery and eventually in the Wine and Gold’s backcourt.

“Everything worked out fine,” smiled the rookie. “I can’t complain.”

Waiters grew up tough and fast. He’s looking forward to life slowing down in Cleveland – a place he already loves, describing it as “calm and quiet.”

Waiters talked about being 12 years old and wanting his opportunity to play with the big boys. The 20-year-old version is about to get his shot. He admits that he’s anxious. The player he’s anxious to face is LeBron James. The city he’s anxious to see is Miami. He’ll be starting alongside last season’s top rookie and coached by a man with three rings.

Life will not slow down for the Cavs young tough guy. He sounds ready for the challenge.

“You only get one opportunity,” concluded Waiters. “At the end of the day, I want to look at myself in the mirror and say I did what I had to do to be successful. I got the opportunity, now I have to work hard and continue to stay humble and hungry.”