It’s barely past 24 hours since the NBA world was told that Chris Bosh was hospitalized with blood clots in his lungs and Hassan Whiteside, the first-year Heat center, is sitting in front of his locker at Madison Square Garden speaking in a subdued tone about the loss of the mentor who’s taken him under his wing since his return to the NBA from Lebanon and China.
“It’s been tough,” says Whiteside. “Regardless of what takes place in the future, he’s a great friend and my condolences goes out to him. I was praying for him. I heard about it probably the same time ya’ll [media] heard about it. I just sent him a text message and told him that he’s in my prayers, and that I hope he gets well soon and has a speedy recovery.”
Since being signed by the Miami Heat last November, Whiteside has averaged 10 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, in just under 20 minutes of action on the hardwood each night. With each game, the 7’0, 265 pound center further establishes himself as a key element of head coach Erik Spoelstra’s rotation. The kid first came to national prominence in late January in a game at Chicago when he notched a triple-double with 14 points, 13 rebounds and 12 blocks. The impressive part wasn’t his numbers, but the fact that he did it in less than 25 minutes off the bench, becoming the first player in league history to do so.
He also leads the Heat in shooting percentage and blocks this season.
Whiteside’s rise from journeyman – he bounced around after being drafted in the second-round by the Sacramento Kings in 2010 to the D-League, and then to Lebanon and China for two tours of duty in each country – to NBA feelgood story is one of those reasons why basketball fans will always root for the underdog. The hard worker who isn’t handed anything and has to battle for everything he gets in the big league. His current residence in Miami is a far cry from arenas in Lebanon where, sometimes, the team would need military protection just to play a game.
“They had the SWAT team out there [in Lebanon], it was a real hostile crowd so I pretty much knew I wasn’t in America anymore,” Whiteside says as he reflects on his time overseas. “It was a lot different.
“Towards the end I didn’t [feel uncomfortable], I mean the SWAT team and the military was there so it kept us pretty safe,” he says with a laugh.
Lebanon is a world removed from the comforts and luxuries that Whiteside currently enjoys in the NBA, a country known more for always teetering on the brink of civil war than its basketball culture. The years spent there were anything but easy for the Gastonia, North Carolina native, but Whiteside persisted with his basketball schooling, confident that his time there would fine tune the skills he needed to sharpen with an eye to returning to the world’s best league.
“It was different, you know,” he says about his time in Lebanon. “It was more Americanized than China was. It was humbling. It was a learning experience.”
In 16 games with Al Mouttahed Tripoli in 2013-14, Whiteside averaged 20.6 points and 14.8 rebounds. When he wasn’t dominating on-court, he was working on his game, making improvements. New York streetball legend, and Al Mouttahed teammate, Corey ‘Homicide’ Williams, saw something special in Whiteside’s work ethic.
“This young brother is talented,” asserts Williams. “He will work hard. He hasn’t yet scratched the surface.”
Throughout all his time in Lebanon and China, Whiteside never doubted that he’d make it back to the NBA to show he belonged; to prove he could compete and play his game with the best in the world.
“I was always confident, you know,” states Whiteside. “I felt like my performance in Lebanon was really good. I felt like the numbers I was putting up was making a statement that I was an NBA player. I never really lost hope in myself or my ability. It was just a matter of win, and I’ll get back to the NBA.”
And that’s exactly what he did. On the court, Whiteside’s length and ability to clean the glass changes the dynamic of Miami’s defensive schemes. He’s a presence for a team that hasn’t really played with a traditional center since pre-LeBron James.
“We’re playing a lot more center basketball than we ever have,” explains Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “He gives us a great presence at the rim, protecting the rim.”
Whiteside’s 12 blocks against Chicago set a new Heat franchise record, and on Jan. 30 his pulled down 24 rebounds, tying the second-most in franchise history. In just 26 games he’s already developed a synergy with his teammates who know exactly where and when to throw the ball up for the long arms of Whiteside to finish.
“He and Dwyane [Wade] already have a great connection going on pick-and-roll where you have to play him all the way to the rim,” continues Spoelstra.
Wade, too, has been impressed with what he’s seen of the young center so far this season.
“His ability to come in – he hasn’t played a lot of NBA games, he’s still pretty young, too – but just the impact he makes every night.”
In fact, the impact that he’s made while on-court has been quite evident. In January, he shot 67 percent from the field for the month (63-94), the second-highest number during a single calender month in Heat history (behind Shaquille O’Neal). He posted six double-doubles and averaged 14.6 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.6 blocks in five games off the bench. According to Elias, he became the first player in NBA history (since blocks became a stat in 1973) to average at least 10 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks as a reserve in five consecutive games.
“He has it all,” says former teammate Williams. “I had him everyday [in practice], there aren’t many true centers left in the game and, simply, you’re not getting a layup with him in the game.
“He’s controlling the paint.”
This summer will be crucial for Whiteside. Not content to rest on what he’s already accomplished, he will be back in the lab working on adding to his offensive repertoire as he aims to be one of the best big men in the league within the next three-to-five years.
“I think I can get more post moves, I can shoot a lot better, too [but] this team don’t really need too much of that,” he says. “I’ll just stick to rebounding and dunks.”
Whiteside is locked into a veteran-minimum, non-guaranteed contract for next season, but continued improvement will certainly mean an increased pay-check come unrestricted free-agency in 2016 when the salary cap is expected to spike under the new national T.V. deal.
“I think this summer’s a big summer for him,” states Wade. “To see how he comes back next year, what he worked on his game. Understand that he can be one of the dominant players in the league night in and night out – if he understands that, his ceiling is unlimited.”