In Anticipation of Saint Weirdo

September 25th, 2012 by Colin McGowan

I’ve spent the last few hours scouring the interwebs for articles about and interviews with Dion Waiters to get a sense of who he is—where he comes from, his demeanor, what those squabbles with Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim were all about, which Macaulay Culkin vehicles are in his DVD collection. I’m doing this because I anticipate Waiters—whose name is an anagram for Saint Weirdo, which is just terrific—is going to be my favorite Cavalier.

Kyrie Irving will be the genius of the Cavs’ offense, no doubt, but he’s blankly perfect as a public figure and will, once the national media gets ahold of him, ascend to the mantle of Kevin Durantian hyper-talented amicability he’s destined to occupy. As the Cavs get better over the next few years and land more frequently on ESPN and TNT, we’ll become inundated with commentators and pundits fawning over Irving’s humility and team-first attitude. He will deserve as much, obviously. Irving has been nothing but a gentleman in his year-plus with the Cavs, and it bodes well for the future of the organization that their best player going forward is also a self-assured leader at the age of twenty.

But there’s no real subtext boiling beneath Kyrie Irving. One isn’t compelled to ask what made him the way he is because we know how the most interesting thing about him—his dazzling ability—was forged. He spent hours upon hours in the gym fashioning his innate talent into something that’s going to put him on multiple all-star squads. Irving is great, but he doesn’t confound you in any way.

Dion Waiters is more a brooder. Because he just entered the league and isn’t named Anthony Davis, he doesn’t have a thick media dossier, but I think this interview with Comcast Sportnet’s Danny Pommels and this New York Times piece by Pete Thamel are the best glimpses into his character. The first line of Thamel’s piece contains an awesome senes of foreboding: “Everything should come easily for Syracuse guard Dion Waiters.” But it never does. [A flash of lightning reveals a siren in a red dress bleeding out on a hotel room floor.]

If you need some context on what type of players I gravitate toward, I watched at least 20 Kings games last season for the sheer pleasure of watching DeMarcus Cousins vacillate between inspired low post play and sulky petulance. I’m sure a team of MIT grad students are trying to figure out the complex relationship between the light patterns produced by Andromeda and Rajon Rondo triple-doubles, and when they release that study to the public I will devour it. I like weirdos and headcases and temperamental artist types. I’m happier than all eight Hawks fans that Josh Smith finally seemed to have figured out during the 2009-10 season that he shouldn’t shoot three-pointers, but I’m perversely delighted that he has gone right back to chucking threes in defiance of statistics, his teammates, and common sense.

Now the Cavs have Dion Waiters, who arrived at Syracuse University with a slightly protruding gut and a preternatural gift for slicing through the lane. If we’re to believe Jim Boeheim, he didn’t work hard in practice and pouted when Boeheim stuck him on the bench. He wanted to transfer after his freshman season, and his coach’s reaction was basically, “Sure, go ahead. A change of scenery might be good for you.” Then, with his bluff called, Waiters got his act together, embraced his role as a sixth man and crunch-time scorer, and eventually led Syracuse to the Elite Eight, flexing his muscles after and-ones and converting difficult late-game buckets.

It’s not like Waiters is inscrutable, and he’s not crazy on a Stephen Jacksonian scale. (Full disclosure: I also love Captain Jack.) He’s a hardheaded kid who survived what sounds like a hellish upbringing in an impoverished region of South Philadelphia. But he’s volatile in the way players with large, fragile egos are. His brashness strikes me as a defense mechanism—it’s what allows him the single-mindedness that makes him great at basketball—and when it’s punctured, he retreats inward. I think that’s what happened at SU: Boeheim shouted him down a few times, and Waiters didn’t initially respond well because he felt naked and embarrassed. I wonder if the same thing will happen with Byron Scott or if Waiters has learned to treat criticism as a tool rather than an affront.

Regardless, I’m already in Waiters’s thrall. There’s an authoritarianism in sports—it’s less prevalent in the NBA than in, say, the NFL, but it’s still present—that transforms most players into dutiful cogs. I’m not complaining about this so much as remarking upon it; some players need outside structure and discipline in order to fulfill their potential, and the basketball equivalent of a Peter Brotzmann record would be unwatchable. But there’s something thrilling about when a player wriggles free of the constraints imposed upon him by the structure of organized sports. I think one of the reasons most fans don’t particularly like the Spurs (I adore the Spurs, so I’m trying to leap into the head of someone else here) is because there’s something antiseptic to the way they play the game. They operate as a seamless unit rather than a crew of individuals; watching them run their offense is like bearing witness to a ballet of math.

What most compelling teams have (OKC, Miami, Boston, the Lakers) is a chaos element (Westbrook, LeBron, Rondo, Kobe) upon which their success often hinges. I think Dion Waiters can be the Cavaliers’ chaos element. He will shoot the team in and out of games. He will preen and sulk and clash with authority. He won’t always be what Byron Scott, his teammates, or the fans want him to be. As the song goes, “No one in the world ever gets what they want, and that is beautiful.” Dion Waiters can embody that sentiment; be strange and frustrating like Madge Gill, Gucci Mane, Robert Downey Sr. and lots of other people worth loving. He’ll take the circuitous route to greatness or failure or J.R. Smith-like purgatory. Our very own Saint Weirdo. Welcome to Cleveland, Dion.

Note: All praises due to Pete Beatty AKA @nocoastoffense for pointing out the whole Dion Waiters/Saint Weirdo thing the morning after the Cavs drafted him.