Dion Waiters' basketball career has been steeped in mystery, a portrait of potential, intrigue, tragedy and second chances.

He accepted a basketball scholarship to Syracuse University before he played in his first high school game.

He was denied admittance to two of the Philadelphia Catholic League's premier schools.

He deals with having three cousins and his best friend killed in violent crimes.

And now, after spending time at four schools in three years, the soon-to-be senior at Life Center Academy in Burlington could become a McDonald's all-American.

Lamont Peterson, a former assistant coach at Memphis and part of Tyreke Evans' inner circle, thinks the 6-foot-4, 215-pound guard is the high-school version of NBA all-star Dwyane Wade.

"He is a true urban legend," the coach said. "That's how deep he is. Everyone in Philly has heard about Dion. . . . You heard he's this and that.But you would never see him."

Waiters, 17, began showing signs of great potential as a youngster growing up in South Philadelphia.

He wanted to follow in the footsteps of close friend and Syracuse guard Scoop Jardine. His goal was to play basketball at Neumann-Goretti, where Jardine went to high school, but he was denied entry as a freshman.

Waiters will be the first to admit that he wasn't exactly a choir boy. He, however, denies that he stayed in trouble, missed school, and hung out late at night.

"I don't know why people got my image messed up," said Waiters, who lived with Jardine while in eighth grade. "I used to go to school every day.

"I don't know why people are scared of me. All I used to do was just play ball. I've never been arrested. I never been in anything."

Neumann-Goretti coach Carl Arrigale and assistant coach John Moscoe declined comment on why he wasn't accepted.

"Neumann told me to go to Bartram for the first semester and make sure my grades were right and I could transfer to Neumann," Waiters said.

But it never came to that.

Waiters, who was scheduled to play basketball at Bartram, didn't get along with a group of guys at the school. And before he had a chance to play in a game, his mother, Monique Brown, had him transfer to Southern.

"I was getting into a couple of little fights," Waiters said of his four-month stay at Bartram. "The fights weren't really on my behalf. It was my friends that I was with. And being as though I was with them, I didn't want to see them get hurt."

Waiters liked Southern. Perhaps a little too much.

He admits to being on cruise control in the classroom. That's why Brown decided early on that her son would leave Southern once the school year was complete.

"I just wasn't going to get the right education," said Waiters, who didn't play at Southern. "All of my friends were there. I was distracted."

The one place he wasn't distracted was on the basketball court. In fact, he was extra motivated playing for the Team Final AAU squad.

"When I didn't get to play my freshman year, I just took it out on AAU," Waiters said. "I was like that's my high school there."

After his second tournament, Syracuse offered him a scholarship. He accepted a week later.

With a scholarship in his hand, Brown wanted to send her son to a place that would qualify him for college. She chose South Kent School, a boarding school in rural Connecticut, over Oak Hill Academy.

"It was a different atmosphere for him," Brown said of the strict school. "It was also something different as far as an all-boys school."

Getting away would also help him escape the daily reminder of family losses.

His cousin, Antose Brown, was fatally gunned down in his van in 2006. Another cousin, Isiah Brown, and best friend, Rahmik Thomas, were killed in separate incidents a year later. And a third cousin, Charles Brown, was slain in 2008.

Even now, Waiters must cope with a loss. A fourth cousin, Carl Brown, died in a motorcyle accident last month.

"I'm stressed out still to this day, especially the one that just died," said Waiters, who didn't go into detail about the killings. "I was close to all of my cousins. Everything we did, we did together."

But while at South Kent, he was able to relax.

During that time, his days consisted of going to class, basketball practice, study hall and back to his room to study some more. As a result, Waiters said, he maintained a 3.2 grade-point average.

"South Kent really made me mature fast," Waiters said. "Being up there, you really had to do everything on your own. Your mom wasn't there for you. That really helped me grow."

However, he opted to leave after one year, partly because head coach Raphael Chillious resigned.

"He also left because [Minnesota Timberwolves and former Syracuse point guard] Jonny [Flynn] told him that he and Maalik Wayns could be an all-American backcourt at Roman Catholic," said Chris Clayton, a mentor to Waiters. "He was real hung up on that. He really wanted to go to Roman. But it just didn't work."

That's because, according to Waiters, he was two credits shy of what Roman required of him to transfer.

"He got his heart broken twice by the Catholic League dominance: Neumann-Goretti and Roman," Clayton said.

As a result, Waiters, who has a relationship with Flynn, enrolled at Life Center. The Christian school gave him an opportunity to play a national schedule against the likes of Oak Hill and Findlay Prep of Nevada. He averaged 18 points through the first seven games. In the eighth game, he suffered a broken left ankle against National Christian (Md.), ending his season.

"That was the worst experience ever," said Waiters, who was supposed to make his Philadelphia debut against Academy of the New Church the next day.

Waiters later sat out the Rasual Butler All-City Classic because of a sprained right ankle. He reinjured that ankle at last month's NBA Players Association Top 100 camp.

Instead of taking it easy, Waiters participated in the LeBron James Skills Academy, which ended Thursday, in Ohio.

A good showing at this month's AAU events could enable him to become the area's fifth McDonald's all-American in five seasons, following Wayns (2009), Evans (2008), Gerald Henderson (2006), and Wayne Ellington (2006).

"That's my first goal," Waiters said. "I'm a guy from South Philly who put in all of this hard work. Hopefully, it pays off."

He gets plenty of credit from the people who do the national rankings. Just listen to Dave Telep, Scout.com's national basketball recruiting analyst.

"Dion is one of those guys that at the end of the day, he's got a blueprint on how to score," Telep said. "And he has a powerful body."

ESPNU lists him as the nation's 14th-best recruit in the Class of 2010. Scout.com (18) and Rivals.com (28) both have him in the top 30. He will be ranked around 24th in the Bob Gibbons Top 150 Seniors list when it is released later this summer.

"He has a tight, crafty handle and subtle burst of speed," said Norm Eavenson, a recruiting analyst for Bob Gibbons All Star Sports. "His frame [allows him] to drive the lane, draw contact, and finish or dish off."

Despite his national reputation on the court, Waiters still has a stigma off it.

"I'm sick and tired of hearing stuff about him being a bad person," said Jardine, who had been linked to a stolen Syracuse campus indentification card in 2008. "He has never been a bad person. If he was a bad person, I wouldn't have him around.

"The stuff I went through, I try to show him the mistakes that I made. He can see that and learn from it, so he doesn't make the same mistake.

"He just gets a bad rap, because we are from South Philly. Give him some type of credit."

Contact staff writer Keith Pompey at 610-313-8029 or kpompey@phillynews.com.