Tia White rarely saw her youngest brother cry.
But when Coby White fouled out of the state championship game during his senior season — after it became apparent that his team was about to lose — he made his way toward the end of the bench, plopped down in his seat, buried his head in his jersey and started to weep.
Tia walked down the set of bleachers toward the Greenfield School’s bench and over to Coby. She grabbed him from behind, hugged him and whispered in his ear.
“It’s OK,” Tia told Coby. “You played your butt off. You did everything you could do. You don’t have anything to be upset about.”
Coby’s jersey shielded the tears streaming down his face.
“This wasn’t for me,” he told her in between sobs. “This was for Daddy. I wanted to win for Daddy.”
After his junior season at Greenfield, Coby White and his father, Donald, came up with two goals they wanted Coby to achieve before the end of his high school career.
His first goal was to be named to the McDonald’s All-American game. Check.
His second goal was to win a state championship. Unchecked.
Donald, who died of cancer in August 2017, before Coby’s senior year, never saw either.
A year later, Coby White is a key player for North Carolina as a freshman, with a chance at a championship do-over if he can help his team get to the Final Four and win a national title.
The Tar Heels are one of the favorites to do so, and a large part of that is because of White. He is averaging 16.1 points and 4.1 assists per game as a freshman. North Carolina coach Roy Williams called White, who is 6-5, 185 pounds, the “best scoring point guard I’ve ever coached.”
“Ty Lawson got to that stage later when he could score,” Williams added. “Coby is a scorer and I have never minded a scoring point guard.”
His 3-point shooting, size and speed give him the ability to get to the basket and score in a variety of ways. He splits double-teams with ease, leaving defenders behind with puzzled looks on their faces. And he’ll pull up and shoot a 3-pointer before you know it’s coming.
He has scored 547 points this season, which is the sixth-most points scored for a North Carolina freshman. He needs just four points to pass Sam Perkins for fifth all-time.
He could be a lottery pick in the 2019 NBA draft if he declares. He is currently projected to go No. 5 overall, according to NBAdraft.net.
“A lot of stuff he does, you can’t be taught,” said Kendall Marshall, who played point guard at North Carolina from 2010-12, and is now a member of the basketball staff. “He’s that good.”
Coby’s biggest fan
Coby White is fairly reserved but always honest. Earlier this season, when asked about his favorite Duke-Carolina game, he admitted he grew up a Duke fan, and has fond memories of Austin Rivers’ game-winning 3 over Tyler Zeller at the Smith Center in 2012.
Easily recognized by his big curly Afro, White wears a big smile and has an infectious personality. When a teammate makes a big play, he jumps up and down and screams, often times more excitedly than the player who made the play.
“He’s motivated by the W,” Bonita White said.
Coby White, who set the North Carolina high school scoring record, inherited that from his father.
Donald White, whose friends called him Doc, played basketball at N.C. Central in the early ‘70s. He loved to win too.
By the time Coby White was born, Donald was in his late 40’s. He had two older children, William, who was 8 at the time, and Tia, who was 16. He and his wife Bonita were established in their careers, and when Coby reached high school, Donald was able to retire. That allowed him to spend a lot of time with his youngest son. Coby White went to high school at Greenfield in Wilson, a 30-minute commute from their home in Goldsboro.
During Coby’s first two years of high school, Donald would drive Coby to school in his green 2001 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Donald also picked him up every day and took him home. The 30-minute drives gave Donald and Coby a lot of time to talk about life.
The father and son were close. They played pranks on each other and loved to laugh and have fun.
And Donald was Coby’s biggest fan.
So when Coby learned that the cancer in his father’s liver had spread in 2017, and there was nothing doctors could do to save him, he ran outside their home, and screamed out, why?
“I’ve never seen him go through that before,” Bonita White said, with tears in her eyes as she recalled the story.
One month later, on Aug. 15, 2017, as Coby and his older brother, Will, were heading to RDU to board a flight for a basketball camp in California, his mother called them to deliver the news they were expecting but never wanted to hear. Their father had died.
Donald was 66.
Instead of going to the camp, Coby, then a rising senior in high school, wanted to come back home. So Will and Coby left the airport and made the hour-long trip back to Goldsboro to see their father one last time.
On the car ride back, neither brother said much.
“We were really both numb to the fact that it happened,” Will White said.
Coby White said the death of his father remains the worst experience in his life.
To get through that tough time, Coby said he relied on the support of his family, friends and coaches who were always there. The entire North Carolina coaching staff showed up to his father’s funeral, which is part of what assured White that he had chosen the right school.
And Coby leaned on the advice his father once gave, and the memories they once shared. White wants to keep those to himself. The pain is noticeable when he talks about him.
White wears pink sneakers in every game to represent those in his family who have dealt with cancer, including his late father. In some ways he feels like his father is always with him.
During a February practice, the strap over White’s shoe laces popped. It was his only pair of pink Jordans.
“I’ve got to get new ones,” White thought.
But North Carolina was out of pink sneakers and no more were expected from Nike. Kenny Williams gave White his pink shoes to wear.
White has been one of North Carolina’s best players this season. He won second team All-ACC honors, and was also voted to the All-Freshman team. He has three 30-point games this season and tied a school record for most 3-pointers in a game.
White has played well so far in the NCAA tournament. He scored 17 points and hit four 3-pointers in North Carolina’s second round game against Washington. No. 1 seed North Carolina (29-6) will play No. 5 seed Auburn (28-9) on Friday in the Sweet 16 in Kansas City.
“When he plays his game, you can feel there are some forces pushing him,” UNC senior Cam Johnson said.
Donald White always taught his children that no matter what you choose to be in life, be the best at it, and stay humble. That has always stuck with Coby.
“To go 100 percent, nothing less, and to give it my all,” White said last week, as he sat at his locker, alone, but with the memory of his father never far away.