Justin, 12, and Kaylee, 11, were chomping on cotton candy and cheering so loudly when their uncle’s name was called, the customized jerseys he had made for them (reading: Whiteside’s Nephew, Whiteside’s Niece) almost flew off their shoulders.
Hassan Whiteside, the Heat’s new-year sensation, isn’t used to so many friendly faces. A career as nomadic as his will do that.
“This is the first time they are getting to see him play,” said Anthony Holman, Whiteside’s older half brother and the children’s father, from his seat in Section 109, where 11 of Whiteside’s relatives were on hand to witness his AmericanAirlines Arena debut as a starter.
To say Whiteside bounced around after leaving college early in 2010 is an understatement. The 7-foot center spent the next four years playing for eight organizations across three countries, before breaking out unexpectedly over the past three weeks. After torching mostly Western Conference opponents for 12.43 points and 8.8 rebounds over the previous seven games, Whiteside earned his third consecutive start Tuesday against Oklahoma City. The ever-expanding Whiteside cheering section grew as he scored 10 first-quarter points, including eight of the Heat’s first 13, albeit this time with a family flavor. How ironic, after all this time away and abroad, that Whiteside was welcomed to his new home by a piece of his old one?
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“He was trying so much to get back into the league,” Holman said. “Pat Riley believing in him is really giving him confidence. The feedback Pat Riley gave him, he took it to heart. He wants to play his hardest now that he has the opportunity.”
The rest of Whiteside’s family, back in Gastonia, North Carolina, was planning on seeing him play via the much more manageable trip to Charlotte, where the Heat plays Wednesday. But coach Erik Spoelstra said the center probably wouldn’t travel after spraining his ankle in the Heat’s 94-86 loss to the Thunder, leaving in the second quarter never to return.
“It’s disappointing,” Whiteside said. “That would have been awesome. Hopefully, I’ll be in this league for a long time and go through Charlotte again.”
Still, there were darker days after darker games, in China, Lebanon, Iowa or Nevada — all far from hoops hot spots — where family existed only on Whiteside’s smartphone screen. Having a professional basketball player in the family requires a lot of long-distance counseling. Many journeys are simply too far to make.
It was often Holman on the other side of the text message telling his younger brother to stick with it, to believe in himself, to persevere. Holman and Whiteside have the same mother and different fathers, but grew up together as part of a seven-sibling dynamic.
Holman remembers a 6-year-old Whiteside competing on the basketball court with his brother’s 11-year-old friends, and then the same kid blossoming into a star at local Lineberger Park.
And for the first time in so long Tuesday, that mentor wasn’t just on the other end of the phone. When Holman called Whiteside after the game, it was to tell him family was, finally, near.
“You’re in the parking lot?” Whiteside asked. “Give me three minutes.”
Not even five. Then he joked, like a Hassan sighting wasn’t the highlight of the Holman family vacation.
“I haven’t seen him since August so I’m going to get out there and go talk to them, hopefully hang out a little bit,” Whiteside said. “They just came from Disney World, so …”