CHAPEL HILL — Stilman White last played in a game for North Carolina during the 2012 NCAA tournament, in a season-ending loss against Kansas. Since then, months went by without him picking up a basketball.
White, who will be back playing for the Tar Heels next season, spent about a year serving on a Mormon mission. He returned from that last December and recently finalized his return to the UNC basketball team.
It might take him a while to get back in playing shape.
“I probably touched a basketball probably three times my whole mission,” White said on Thursday, speaking with reporters for the first time since his return to UNC.
White, a native of Wilmington, spent his mission in Utah before returning in December. A month before that, he had surgery on his right ankle, which he said bothered him throughout his freshman season. Then he further aggravated it while playing soccer during his mission.
Doctors cleared him to resume playing just a couple of weeks ago.
“I still have a lot of rust to shake off,” he said. “We’ve been playing the last two weeks and I definitely have good days and bad days and there’s definitely a lot of rust.”
White perhaps played one of the most memorable bit parts in school history. Late in the 2011-12 season, he went from a seldom-used reserve to starting point guard, and the transformation happened in the amount of time it took for Kendall Marshall to suffer a season-ending wrist injury in the NCAA tournament.
Marshall endured his broken wrist during UNC’s victory against Creighton the round of 32. Dexter Strickland, UNC’s starting shooting guard the first half of that season, had already been lost with a season-ending knee injury.
So when Marshall was hurt the Tar Heels, who lacked depth in the backcourt, turned to White. He started two games – a victory against Ohio in the South regional semifinals, and the loss against Kansas in the regional final – and exceeded expectations, finishing those two games with 13 assists and no turnovers.
And then, after a paperwork delay, he was off to his mission in Utah. White spent about a year there, wearing the familiar missionary uniform of pressed slacks, a white dress shirt and a tie. Sometimes he knocked on doors. Others he approached strangers. He attempted to spread the word of his faith.
All the while, he was hopeful that he could return to UNC and rejoin the team.
“It feels like coming home again,” White said. “It’s been good. It’s been kind of a crazy year and a half for me. But I’ve learned more in this past year and a half than I think my whole life combined before that. It’s been a great year and a half but I’m definitely happy to be back here for sure.”
White, a scholarship player before he left, is back on scholarship. To meet the NCAA-mandated scholarship limit, Luke Davis, another reserve point guard, has gone off scholarship. Those details were worked out during the past several weeks, but White said UNC coach Roy Williams always told him he’d have a scholarship.
White has changed physically and he says he’s changed mentally since last playing at UNC. The physical change is obvious enough. He said he weighs 173 pounds – an increase of more than 20 pounds since he arrived at UNC more than two years ago.
“I definitely had a little high school kid body coming in and probably most of my freshman year,” White said.
The situation at UNC has changed, too. Caught without point guard depth two seasons ago, Williams has made a point to stockpile it since.
White will join a crowded position that already includes returnees Marcus Paige, an All-American candidate, Nate Britt and Davis. Joel Berry, a heralded point guard prospect from Apopka, Fla., is arriving at UNC this summer.
“It’s a lot different than when I first got here and it was just me and Kendall,” White said. “But that’s something I’m looking forward to. I know there’s going to be a lot of competition.
“I don’t know – I don’t have any clue what my role will be on the team next year. I’m not sure anyone can answer that question this early. But I’m just looking to come in here, kind of regain my game and see what I can do with it.”