Dion Waiters was en route to Los Angeles last month for a weeklong workout session with pro basketball trainer Rob McClanaghan, an annual West Coast trip that had become as much a part of Waiters' offseason routine as the trade rumors that always seem to include his name, when his cellphone buzzed. He answered it.
"Be ready," LeBron James told him.
James had not yet announced that he had decided to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. So he was coy in his brief conversation with Waiters, who grew up in South Philadelphia and has been the Cavs' starting shooting guard since they drafted him fourth overall out of Syracuse in 2012. "He never gave me a clear-cut answer," Waiters said, but then, he didn't need to.
Last year and this year, speculation swirled that the 76ers had a particular interest in Waiters and wanted to acquire him - first for Evan Turner, then in the Thaddeus Young trade that general manager Sam Hinkie just completed. Yet Hinkie said in a conference call Tuesday that "there weren't any discussions" regarding Waiters, and besides, those two words from James were enough for Waiters to understand that his days of wondering when the Cavs would build a winner and whether he would still be with them when they did were over.
"I'm still where I am, right?" Waiters, who averaged 15.3 points a game over his first two seasons in Cleveland, said in an interview last week after working out at the Competitive Edge Sports complex in King of Prussia. "You can't listen to everything that's out there. I'd say 10 percent is always true. Ninety percent is not. I've been traded for three years now.
"I hate losing, and a guy like [James], who's probably the best player in the world right now, is someone I can learn from. I can grow. I still haven't reached my peak. Now with a guy like that, he can open up the floor for you and give you a lot of opportunities."
At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Waiters is virtually a physical clone of Dwyane Wade, and at 22, Waiters has the advantage of being 10 years younger than Wade, too - details that weren't likely to have escaped James' attention as he weighed whether to re-sign with the Miami Heat or come back to Cleveland. Their styles of play are similar enough that Waiters already has spent hours reviewing tape of Wade, studying how Wade molded his game to accommodate James over the pair's four seasons together in Miami.
"When I get the opportunity to get the ball, I've got to destroy my opponent," he said. "The rest of the floor is going to be so wide open that, once I get by him, the rest of it should be easy."
Whenever he's in Los Angeles, Waiters also trains regularly with Kevin Love, who joined him and James with the Cavaliers as the primary piece of the three-team trade that sent Andrew Wiggins and Young to the Timberwolves.
"He likes my game," Waiters said. "He thinks I'm underrated. One of the things about K-Love, he knows I pass the ball."
Had Wiggins remained in Cleveland, Waiters might have been relegated to coming off the bench, a prospect that didn't sit well with him. (He tweeted, "Nooooooooo" on July 15 in response to a question about whether he'd accept such a role.) In Waiters' mind, it would have been just another undeserved slight during his short NBA career.
Not only had the Cavs gone 57-107 since he joined them, not only had those trade rumors shadowed him, he didn't deny last week that having to play second fiddle to point guard Kyrie Irving bothered him. But the presences of James and Love have gone a long way to quelling whatever dissatisfaction Waiters felt.
"I'm an alpha dog, man," he said. "No one should take that the wrong way. The way I am, it got me this far, so why stop having it now? I would never, ever, ever stop having confidence. That's the toughness I've got - Philly toughness. I mean, I think that's what keeps me going every day, keeps me levelheaded and staying focused, got me a chance to be something in the NBA."
What he has a chance to be now, with James and Love, is a champion. By fasting for Ramadan and adopting a new diet that cut his carbohydrate intake, Waiters has lost 12 pounds since last season ended - another measure of preparation for what could be ahead for him.
Cleveland hasn't celebrated a major pro sports championship in 50 years, since the Browns in 1964, and Waiters took a moment last week to imagine it: "You know how crazy that city would be, man, if we win a title? That's the main focus right now. I can't focus on Dion. I've got to focus on the team and what's best."
The best player in the world told him to be ready, and Dion Waiters will be damned if he lets him down.