Years before he started blocking shots and dunking basketballs at AmericanAirlines Arena in a Miami Heat uniform, Hassan Whiteside took some of his first steps on his road to the NBA at East Side High School’s gym in Newark, New Jersey.
Whiteside went back to his roots Thursday night.
And while the nostalgic reunion with his former coaches was special already for Whiteside, seeing his current coach take the time to be there added to the memorable experience.
“It was special,” Whiteside said. “I knew a couple of my teammates were going to show up. More wanted to show up but they had other things they had to take care of. Coach Spo [Erik Spoelstra] surprised me. He came and it meant a lot.”
Whiteside, 28, had his No. 32 jersey retired at the ceremony that was attended by Spoelstra and Heat teammates Goran Dragic, James Johnson, Bam Adebayo and Heat assistant coach Octavio De La Grana. The ceremony took place a night prior to Friday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets.
Whiteside, a North Carolina native, played his junior year of high school at East Side after moving in with his father in Newark. Whiteside played at five high schools in addition to one year at prep school.
Whiteside averaged 18 points, 10 rebounds and 5.5 blocks per game during that season before moving back to North Carolina for his senior season.
“His face when he saw coach Spo was ecstatic,” Johnson said. “It gives you those goose bumps feelings that he really does care so it was just a big night for Hassan and I’m glad I got to be a part of it.
“The ceremony was done well, put on well and something for those kids to look up to. Those inner city kids are out there playing their hearts out to get to see someone like Hassan Whiteside really coming back and show if he can make it out, they can.”
Whiteside spoke with his former coaches and some of the current students and players at the high school.
Whiteside recalled being on the flip side of such an experience, when he had been at the school as former NBA guard Randy Foye, who played at East Side, came to visit his alma mater.
“I still remember I was just blown away by how big Randy Foye was at the time and he was a point guard,” Whiteside said. “When he talked to us and told us how it was being in the NBA, that stayed with me. I was hopeful I could transfer that knowledge.”
Whiteside said the school looked a lot different than he remembered.
“The school looked a lot smaller than it used to. When I was there I was like 6-6. I didn’t really get to 7 feet until later on. It looked a lot smaller than I remember it.”
Spoelstra said he enjoyed the visit and likes learning about players’ backgrounds in such moments.
“I love going to see where players are from. It reminds you of how much they’ve had to overcome to get to where they are now,” Spoelstra said. “It was such small gym and that just takes you back. This is a tough league to make it. And he’s had to overcome quite a bit and the perseverance he’s shown to be able to get to this point is pretty remarkable. It was fun seeing him in that environment and see him in his old gym and talking to his old coaches.”