This story appeared in the Greater Philly edition of the December ESPN RISE Magazine.
The memories are painful to recount. Before trying, Dion Waiters pauses to gather his thoughts, then takes a deep breath and begins speaking in a solemn tone.
"That was the hardest time in my life," Waiters says. "I lost three cousins and a best friend, and they all came at the wrong time. Everyone told me to be strong and that they were in a better place. But I didn't want to hear that. They were gone and I will never see them again."
Waiters thinks back to better times, the days when he and his cousins spent afternoons gazing at a future where Waiters would become a basketball legend, or when he and his friend walked through the rough Philadelphia streets where they lived to go play basketball.
The ball would be Waiters' ticket out of the street, and he wanted his loved ones to be there with him. The ticket is now stamped, but tragedy has marred the voyage. The senior at Life Center Academy (Burlington, N.J.) has led a life filled with heartbreak, hard luck and misfortune. Yet Waiters remains on the path to superstardom.
Waiters is the No. 14 recruit in the ESPNU 100, a two-time Boost Mobile Elite 24 selection and a strong candidate to be a McDonald's All-American in 2010. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound guard is a street legend in the South Philly neighborhood where he grew up, even though nationally he might not yet be a household name.
"He's one of the elite guards in the country," says Lamont Peterson, Waiters' trainer who also works with NBA players like Sacramento Kings guard Tyreke Evans. "Nationally, I think he's a bit underrated. I don't know if the name Dion Waiters rings bells on the national stage. But in Philadelphia, he's a legend."
The legend started when Waiters committed to Syracuse during the summer after his freshman year despite not having played a minute of high school ball. He had transferred from Bartram to Southern four months into his freshman year -- he was having issues with a group of guys at Bartram -- and didn't play basketball for either school. But Waiters caught the eye of the 'Cuse staff with his ankle-breaking moves, explosiveness and ability to score off the dribble playing against older players. A week after the scholarship offer was made, he accepted.
While Waiters' basketball life was blooming, his personal life was in turmoil. His older cousin Antose Brown, whom Waiters spent nearly every day of his early life with, was shot to death in 2006. A year later, his cousin Isiah Brown and best friend Rhamik Thomas were gunned down on the street less than three months apart.
And even now, Waiters still deals with loss. This past summer, his cousin Carl Brown was killed in a motorcycle accident. Waiters says that was the hardest loss to deal with because it brought back memories of the previous deaths, but he adds, "I'm just happy I got the chance to say I love him before he passed."
"The last three or four years have been hard with the losses," Waiters says. "I can't even explain how hard it's been. I'll never get over it."
Waiters makes a concerted effort to keep them alive in his mind. When he's practicing his jump shot or lifting weights or running sprints, he thinks of his cousins and best friend. They were, after all, the ones who pushed Waiters the most on the basketball court.
"Dion has constantly had to deal with a lot of death and a lot of false promises," says Chris Clayton, Dion's closest mentor who is also producing a documentary on Waiters' life. "There have been times (after the deaths) where I've seen him challenge himself on the court and there have been times when I've seen him just break down and cry. He deals with a lot of disappointment and just takes it out on the basketball court."
Even on the court it hasn't been smooth sailing for Waiters. After sitting out his freshman year, he transferred to his third school in a year, South Kent Prep (South Kent, Conn.). But his one-year stay there ended when head coach Raphael Chillious resigned. When Waiters tried to transfer into Philadelphia basketball powerhouse Roman Catholic, he was denied admittance because he was two credits shy of the requirements.
Refusing to let yet another disappointment derail his dreams, Waiters put all of his effort toward getting prepared for his junior season at Life Center, where he would play against the best teams and players in the country. But after leading the team with 17 points, seven assists and four steals per game through seven contests, Waiters broke his left ankle in the eighth game of the season and didn't play another minute of his junior year.
"It killed me being on the bench and watching my teammates play," Waiters says. "I wanted to be out there helping them win. But that gave me more motivation. I couldn't wait for the summer to get here."
With a healthy body and mind, Waiters exploded this summer, showing off all the skills that earned him a reputation for being a relentlessly aggressive offensive force. He was named MVP of the Bob Gibbons Tournament of Champions after leading his AAU team, Team Final, to the championship. Waiters was also selected to play in the Boost Mobile Elite 24 game in New York City.
"His overpowering offensive ability is showing every time he's on the court," Life Center coach Wilson Arroyo says. "He's had some tragedy, and I think that's what's pushing him to try and get to the next level for his mom and his family. But he's already one of the top players in the country."
And he's overcome a lifetime's worth of sorrow to get there.