The Mythology of Dion Waiters

Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images   Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images /

Humanity has always required a scapegoat.

Try as we might to focus completely on the differences between us, we all share the need to explain our limited understanding of the universe. Stories have always narrowed the gap between the rational and the inexplicable, comforting words that help us feel just a little less small. And when things have gone bad, as they invariably do, someone must always be there to take the fall.

Along this particular web of the collective unconscious, the trickster tale are a prominent silken thread. Spun from Nordic winters or sweltering African summers, the trickster is both clever and foolish, helpful and unkind and, almost contradictorily, of vital importance. The word “trick” connotes an almost cruel sense of mischief. However, If used properly, the deception can lead to the creation of worlds, scattering of stars and bringing of fire to mankind.

The NBA is a culture unto itself. Gods and monsters. Legends and myths. Heroes and villains. And tricksters still abound, if you know where to look. During his brief career, Dion Waiters has been all of these things and more. The weight of expectation is a heavy one and Waiters’ actions, both on and off the court, have likely just added to the burden.

Similarly, the Coyote — not the animal but the mythological character — has come to embody many of these same traits. His importance is undeniable, an ubiquitous character in the mythologies of several North American tribes. Coyote’s shortcomings and wisdom are integral, a brook of color running through the grayscale background of our shared dreamscape.

Close your eyes and the two beings, Waiters and Coyote, can be seen balancing precariously along the same silken thread that binds us all.


The great Spirit Chief had called all the animals together. The Chief announced that, with the arrival of People, every animal would need a new name. Some animals, like Coyote, had names while others did not. Coyote’s name meant “Imitator” and he grew tired of the insults and mistrust others had in him. He wanted a new name.

The Spirit Chief said that new names would be given out the following morning so Coyote decided he wouldn’t sleep and be the first of all the animals to arrive. He returned home and spent hours thinking of a new name but, after a while, he fell fast asleep.

When Coyote awoke the next morning, he rushed to find the Spirit Chief and, when he saw they were alone, he foolishly believed he was the first to be given a new name. He asked to be called several names, like Bear, Eagle or Salmon. These names, explained the Spirit Chief, had already been given out.

“Coyote,” said the Chief, “you must keep the name you have because it is the right one for you. Many bad things will affect the People and you must use your powers — your trickster medicine — to help them.

“You will be able to change shape and do many things but you will still be laughed at for the foolish things you do. That is your way.”

In the wake of LeBron James’ departure from the team in 2010, the Cleveland Cavaliers were left rebuilding and looking to regain some of their previous success. The Cavs had drafted Kyrie Irving in 2011 and, the following year, selected Waiters with the fourth overall pick of the 2012 NBA Draft.

Waiters had spent two seasons at Syracuse University. Many thought he might not be ready for the challenging transition of life in the NBA. Dion did not share that belief.

In the two-and-a-half seasons he spent with Cleveland, the legend of Waiters first began to take shape. There was an irascible charm to him; through a wry smile he delivered boasts that wavered between arrogance and absurdity. It was an edge reflective of his Philadelphia roots, a life marked with tragedy that went largely unreported. Instead, every overconfident statement was dissected at length and magnified with each loss earned by Cleveland’s underwhelming roster. He became a polarizing figure whose detractors pointed to production that didn’t quite match the accompanying attitude. Supporters who embraced the on-court chaos he embodied proudly staked a claim on Waiters Island.

Waiters’ bravado peaked in October 2014 when he flatly stated that he and Irving were “the best backcourt” in the league, a response directed toward Bradley Beal of the rival Washington Wizards. Sheer numbers aside, the statement was all the more surprising considering it came just months after an alleged locker room incident that left Irving with a black eye and broken nose.

It’s impossible to determine how much of the on-camera persona is indicative of the “real” Waiters but there’s a sense that he was trying desperately to play the part of franchise savior that he unwisely assumed (without necessarily being asked) at just 20 years old. Still, it’s worth noting that the confidence that so often fueled his critics is the kind of attitude that fans should expect of NBA players. How else could they survive the constant scrutiny?

It’s more likely equal parts bluster and bravery and, while Waiters may indeed be lacking self-awareness, the combination was more entertaining than anything else that happened during his stint with the Cavaliers.

In the beginning days of the world, the night sky was always dark. The Sky Mother believed that all beings should be united and thought that stars would help shine the way.

One of the People had been selected to arrange the stars, which were kept in a special jar. Just some of the stars were placed carefully, a few here and others there, and the Sky Mother watched in amazement as she enjoyed the beautiful arrangement. Coyote, trickster that he is, was curious to see how this was done.

He went to the jar and lifted the lid and the stars pushed past Coyote and raced for the sky, which is why there are so many stars at night that seem to have no particular pattern. The Sky Mother was so angry with Coyote that she cursed him, forever making him a wanderer and bringing mischief wherever he went. That is why there are some days when Coyote is happy and satisfied with food to eat, and others when he is miserable and filled with hunger.

In 2014, LeBron James made his triumphant return to the Cavaliers but wasn’t looking to be entertained. A constantly evolving legacy required the delivery of at least one championship to the City of Cleveland. There was no time to wait for Waiters to develop consistency, to see if the walk could match the never-ending talk. A trade to the Oklahoma City Thunder was completed and Waiters was left to write another chapter of his convoluted story.

James lauded Waiters, at least publicly, following the trade. But while the decision to deal Waiters wasn’t LeBron’s to make, it’s unlikely that it would have happened without his approval. Additionally, Waiters’ replacement in Cleveland was Iman Shumpert and, later, J.R. Smith, who had gone through his fair share of mischief. Wasn’t one trickster just as good as another?

The answer has become clearer in the months since, with Smith becoming a valuable teammate and Waiters still largely inconsistent.

Waiters’ brief stint in Oklahoma City was tumultuous, even as he tried to fit alongside such larger personalities — and greater talents — as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Waiters would be an occasional starter, an intermittent offensive boost as a reserve and a player wandering between roles.

Many considered Waiters’ time with the Thunder a test, proving his worthiness as an NBA player. If it was, it was one rigged for Waiters to fail. Shortly after the trade, Durant would be sidelined by a foot injury and the roster was shaken up considerably. Waiters, predictably, was lost amidst the ensuing chaos.

When Durant returned for the 2015-16, Waiters resumed a bench role but, once again, struggled with inconsistency. But how much of that is due to Waiters’ faults as a player? Or was it the result of a team dynamic where no one, with the exception of James Harden, has ever been a contributor worthy of sharing the limelight with the Durant/Westbrook duo?

When People had filled the Earth, there were many bright days of happiness. When the sun shone, there was plenty of food to eat and flowers that brightened the world. But once Winter began, food was scarce, the flowers died and the People grew cold and sick.

Coyote, like other animals, had no need of fire until he heard a village cry in desperation. “If only we could have a small piece of the Sun,” the villagers exclaimed, “then we would be able to warm our homes.”

Coyote had heard of the Fire Beings that lived far away, high atop the tallest mountain. He felt pity for the People and thought he might be able to help them. He went to the home of the Fire Beings and watched as they would take turns to protect the fire that burned both day and night. When one of the Beings would go to sleep, another would emerge slowly from a teepee to continue the watch. Coyote saw all of this and waited patiently.

When the first Fire Being went to sleep, Coyote took a dry stick and raced toward the fire. He lit the stick and prepared his return when the Beings noticed him and began to give chase. Coyote ran as fast as he could but the Fire Beings were also quick and managed to grab hold of the tip of Coyote’s long tail, which is why it is still burnt white after all these years. Coyote escaped and set fire to the Wood near the village he had encountered.

The Fire Beings tried to get the fire out of the Wood but could not do so and left it there to return to their home atop the mountain. But Coyote knew how to get the fire out, and taught the people how to rub sticks together to start a fire and keep their homes warm throughout the winter.

The past few months have been perfectly in sync with Waiters’ paradoxical journey. His first postseason was interspersed with moments of brilliance and contrasting points of historical folly.

Though inconsistency still plagued him, there was at least a foundation and Oklahoma City, along with their annual quest for a title, was the perfect place to continue building. Durant’s departure as a free agent changed that, as did Waiters’ refusal to accept the Thunder’s qualifying offer to extend his contract. Within weeks, he went from contributing to a championship contender to surprising unemployment.

Waiters would reportedly receive offers from several teams but, in late-July, agreed to terms with the Miami Heat on a two-year deal, the second year of which is a player option to become a free agent in 2017. His salary for the upcoming season? $2.9 million, roughly $2.9 million less than the Thunder offer he rejected.

Following the announced agreement with Miami, Waiters made this statement via his Instagram account:

"“I didn’t do it for the money… I did it for the opportunity to go out & ball & have fun. Everything else will take care of its self!!!“I just felt like it was the best situation for me…& my family. I could have waited & got wat I wanted. But I rather be happy then miserable at the end of the day!!!“Meaning Yu can have everything & still not be happy…#heatnation let’s get it!!!”"

Taken at face value, Waiters’ enthusiasm makes it easy to accept that his decision to join Miami was one he gladly made. You prefer that over believing that his hand was forced when the free agent well had gone dry and no team wanted whatever services he can provide.

But the Heat are rebuilding, reeling from the loss of franchise cornerstone Dwyane Wade and unsure if superstar Chris Bosh will ever be able to play basketball again. Miami’s backcourt is glutted, with Goran Dragic filling the point guard position and a handful of players — Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson, Wayne Ellington, Beno Udrih and Waiters — all competing for playing time.

It’s undoubtedly a gamble for Waiters, and it’s hard to predict if he’ll get the most of this particular opportunity. Waiters could thrive during the upcoming season, challenging accepted wisdom and being a steady contributor, either as a starter or a reserve. But the struggle for minutes, coupled with his inconsistent tendencies, could reduce him to a mere cautionary tale. Like Coyote, he might simply wind up getting burned for all time.

The great oral tradition of stories, particularly tribal ones, sets a precedent that disparate views are likely. For everyone of Waiters’ many detractors, there are loyalists doggedly believing that Waiters can and will achieve success; the plumbing may be shot and the rent might be high, but there’s always room in the seaside condos of Waiters Island.

Each NBA season is a rich narrative, and each player is a part of that tapestry; Waiters’ next strand along that web will regardless be spun. Perhaps the myth of his journey as hero, trickster or something more, will one day be shared beside the glowing embers of a fire, pulled from the wood after being carried down from the tallest mountain.