His mother always told him that he was made for something special, and it seems that Hassan Whiteside has been waiting ever since, if not particularly patiently, for everyone to agree. For the world to stop — as he likes to say — “playing itself.” For the masses to see him as, in the words of wise mentor DJ Khaled, a “major key.”
So this day, this first day of July, had special significance, from its very first minutes. Whiteside was wanted in a way that he has never been, a way he wasn’t when Pat Riley and the Heat — desperate in the doomed season after LeBron James dumped them — took a flier on the 7-1 center who had been hoarding hummus in Lebanon, when he wasn’t barnstorming for the Bighorns and Blue Whales.
“Everybody knew who he was,” Riley told me late in the 2014-15 season. “We were just the first ones to say yes.”
He quickly went from novelty to necessity in his first Heat season and — after replicating his per-36 minute numbers with a heavier workload in his second season — apparently became irreplaceable to Riley, the Arison family and the Heat going forward. That’s the only way to explain Miami moving off of its original offer, closer to $80 million over four years, to grant the full maximum of $98 million. Whiteside did make one compromise hat will endear him to Heat fans who still question his commitment, agreeing to sacrifice some salary if the Heat somehow lands Kevin Durant in a scheduled meeting in the Hamptons on Sunday.
Still, the Heat made the greater concession here, after months of hemming and hawing — publicly and privately — about whether Whiteside was really a maximum-salary player, and whether he could be counted upon to continue his diligence and development once his salary soared by 2000 percent.
Basically, Whiteside winked — at Dallas primarily, but also Portland.
Naturally, the Heat blinked.
Naturally, because there really wasn’t much choice. The Heat had too much on the line, related to its past, present and future.
Coach Erik Spoelstra had already invested unprecedented personal time in Whiteside, with the player “forcing me to become a better coach”; the results had started to show, whether improved free-throw shooting or his sharper attention to defensive assignments other than shot-swatting. Riley had already called Whiteside “a game-changer” and “the Heat’s No. 1 priority” and — while he has gone back on that sort of word before — he had never been able to resist the intoxicating scent of skilled size.
Plus, Miami, optimistic but not definitive about Chris Bosh’s status, couldn’t really risk entering the season so short on tall men.
Yes, the Heat could have pursued another free agent center, but it was clear early that the price for any functional pivot would be exorbitant, from the minute Timofey Mozgov, who couldn’t crack Cleveland’s playoff rotation, copped a comical $64 million over four years from the Lakers. So, if not Whiteside, who? Dwight Howard, four years older with a balky back? He later got $70 million over three years from Atlanta. Al Horford is appealing, but will be even more expensive. Pau Gasol is 35.
So Whiteside it was, even though it creates more problems in slicing the salary cap pie with the increasingly irritated Dwyane Wade, and even though it’s understandable to worry if Whiteside will work as hard when South Florida wealthy as he did when trying to escape Asian and American outposts. The Heat isn’t stressing the length of the deal, because his contract can still someday command suitors in the trade market. Still, Miami will want him to work smarter, for his team rather than his stat line, in order to remain a mainstay.
Not only was Whiteside’s willingness to accept a little less for Durant a positive sign, but so was his desire to stay with coaches and teammates who had taken a tough-love approach. He has been validated now, like never before, with various NBA veterans expressing interest in playing with him, and Riley — more experienced with exceptional big men than any other NBA executive — deciding he was worth every bit of the effort and expense. Riley’s trust, according to several sources, was meaningful to Whiteside, who reveres the Heat president more than the average modern player.
But it’s about to get tougher for Whiteside. Now that he’s a made man, he’s also a marked man, by opponents and the media. His friends and associates believe his drive will not diminish, that he will still find slights and snubs to anger and inspire him, that he wants to be an All-Star, a franchise face, as much as he wanted to raise his NBA2K rating.
“I wish everything went perfect, you know,” Whiteside said during his first Heat season. “Everybody wants to be the No. 1 pick, go to the NBA and just kill from that rookie year on. But I didn’t have that path. I had a lot tougher path. Who knows if it would have come out better or not. I just know it’s turning out to be good.”
It turned out he was made for something special, like Friday morning. No longer overlooked or undervalued, now he must show he’s made for even more.