The Unlikely Return of Hassan Whiteside

Hassan Whiteside has done the near-impossible: leave the NBA as a failure and return as its new star.

Hassan Whiteside reflects often on a day in 1999: He was 10 years old and nearly killed. He and his sister were crossing a street, when a car came out of nowhere. Whiteside panicked and ran the wrong way. The car broke his leg in three places, requiring pins in his knee. “I’ve thought about it a lot,” he says. And this is the thing that stuck with him: He was hit by a Honda Accord. A small car. “If it was an F-150? Or a school bus? I got fortunate, getting hit by a Honda Accord.”

Many players did amazing things this past NBA season. Russell Westbrook. Stephen Curry. But Whiteside’s achievement stands out. Long ago discarded as an NBA flameout, he was given that one last chance most men never get—and became so dominant that Hall of Famer Bob Cousy said Whiteside is the first player to remind him of Bill Russell.

“Any day can be taken from you, you know?” Whiteside says. He knows.

Whiteside was drafted by the Sacramento Kings in 2010, when the scouting reports said he was cocky and uncoachable. He was almost instantly demoted to its development league team. Two years later, he did what failed NBA players usually do: He played abroad, in Lebanon and China. His American teammates had made peace with their banishment; they partied in Beirut or Beijing. Life out there can be good. An American nobody can be a local star.

But Whiteside spent his time at the gym or in front of the TV. “I’d watch all the NBA guys playing my position, and I thought they weren’t doing anything I couldn’t do,” he says. He spent so much time in the gym last year, he added 30 pounds of muscle in eight months. He weighs 290 now—seven feet of solid mass.

Before this NBA season, Whiteside and his manager called every team. “I can go down the list,” he says. “They weren’t called once. They weren’t called twice. They were called multiple times.” Nothing. He lived a few blocks from the Charlotte Hornets’ facility, and he couldn’t get in to practice on his own. He made his way into the D-league again, and in December, the Miami Heat, desperate for a center, gave him a shot.

Whiteside went on a tear—double-doubles, a triple-double, averaging the second-most blocks per game in the league.

“There were a lot of people saying, ‘Were you for real?’ ” his teammate Norris Cole told him. But Whiteside had a perspective that new guys don’t: He was older (at 25) and had nothing to lose.

“I came in my rookie year kinda nervous. I tried to play with those guys,” he recalls. “And I came in the second time like, yo, just angry. I came in trying to dominate these guys.” After a huge game against the Clippers, he called out their coach, Doc Rivers, on national TV for not giving him a workout when he was looking for a job. That felt good, Whiteside says. “I’m better than a lot of these guys, and I’m going to show them.”

It’s odd to encounter a man who’s at once so bracingly honest about his failures and so utterly convinced of his excellence. But don’t mistake that swagger for cockiness, the rap against him on those old scouting reports. You don’t rise back up from that Honda Accord without serious conviction. “I’m in a rare moment in my life,” Whiteside says. “I’ve got everything going for me, and it’s all up to me now.”

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Photos by Jeff Olson