Stilman White’s long journey at UNC coming to an end

UNC's Stilman White (11) drives to the basket against defends UNC-Pembroke's Griffin Pittman (11) in the first half on October 28, 2011 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
UNC's Stilman White (11) drives to the basket against defends UNC-Pembroke's Griffin Pittman (11) in the first half on October 28, 2011 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. News & Observer file photo

One-hundred and seventy-nine games later, Stilman White will be back in North Carolina’s starting lineup on Saturday night. This time he’s not likely to pass the hours before with Super JetPack, one of the hottest iPhone games of 2012.

“I hadn’t even thought of that, to be honest, since probably then,” White said with a laugh on Friday. “... I definitely don’t have that game anymore. I probably need to re-download it and play it for it old times.”

White is a senior point guard for the No. 5 Tar Heels (25-6, 13-4 ACC), and six years after he arrived on campus in 2011, his senior night finally has arrived. And so as part of a long tradition that began under Dean Smith, White will start against No. 17 Duke (23-7, 11-6) at the Smith Center on Saturday.

Roy Williams, the Tar Heels coach, acknowledged earlier this week that this sort of thing does make him nervous. Just about every year on senior night, Williams finds himself starting at least one senior, sometimes several more, who wouldn’t ordinarily start.

Sometimes they’re walk-ons, those on the end of the bench who rarely play except in the final seconds of games long decided. Sometimes they’re guys like White, who play only sparingly.

“I’m over there nervous and hoping we’re not down 27-0,” Williams said. “You know – that kind of thing.”

This isn’t anything new for White, who left school after his freshman season to begin a two-year Mormon mission, and then returned to UNC in 2014. He has started a big game or two, after all.

Like, for instance, the one against Ohio in the 2012 NCAA tournament regional semifinal. And the one that came after that victory, against Kansas, with a trip to the Final Four at stake. That’s been about five years ago now. UNC has played 179 games since that 80-67 defeat against the Jayhawks.

Even still, Williams sometimes wonders, ‘What if?’ What if Kendall Marshall, then UNC’s record-setting point guard, hadn’t been hurt earlier in the tournament in a victory against Creighton? What if White, then a seldom-used freshman, had helped lead the Tar Heels into the Final Four, anyway?

“It would have been one of the great stories of all-time,” Williams said. “I really believe that.”

Unlike Williams, White doesn’t find himself wondering, ‘What if?’ He said on Friday that he doesn’t think too often about that night in St. Louis. Scenes from that game don’t play over in a loop on his mind. There’s nothing haunting about it.

White then found himself thrust into one of the most unlikely circumstances any UNC player had ever experienced. In the time it took Marshall to suffer a broken wrist, White went from playing a few minutes per game – if at all – to the Tar Heels’ starting point guard.

He played 32 minutes and had six assists and no turnovers during UNC’s 73-68 overtime victory against Ohio in the Sweet 16. In the loss against Kansas, White finished with seven assists and no turnovers, but the Tar Heels, doomed by their poor shooting, faltered in the final minutes.

White hasn’t watched a replay of that game – or any of his games, for that matter. Many of his current teammates, though, have watched it, some of them live, while they were in high school, and at least one of them while he was still in middle school.

Brandon Robinson is a freshman forward at UNC. When the Tar Heels played against Kansas in the 2012 NCAA tournament, Robinson was in the eighth grade. The other night, he said, he decided to re-watch that UNC-Kansas game, which he watched live with his dad.

Robinson found it on YouTube. There on the screen in front of him was a smaller, skinnier White, holding his own alongside UNC teammates Harrison Barnes, John Henson and others.

“I saw him out there and I was just laughing,” Robinson said. “And I was just taking pictures of him while I was watching the game, sending it to him.”

White’s teammates like to have fun with White’s, well, experience. Some of them are still teenagers. White, meanwhile, is five months away from turning 25. Some of the players he shared the court with during the 2012 NCAA tournament now seem like NBA veterans.

Barnes is in his fifth NBA season, and with his second pro team. Henson is also now in his fifth year in the NBA. James Michael McAdoo, who arrived at UNC the same time as White, is now in his third season with the Golden State Warriors and, like Barnes, won an NBA championship with them.

In all, seven of the 10 players who started that UNC-Kansas game in 2012 spent at least part of a season in the NBA. And then there’s White, who at last is approaching his college senior night.

“It’s kind of weird knowing that guys that you were just playing video games with in the dorm, you’re two broke college kids and then the next thing you know he’s signing a $90 million NBA contract,” White said, speaking of Barnes. “And so stuff like that is almost too hard to believe.”

I think now is probably a good time for me to become a basketball fan.

Stilman White

After that loss against Kansas, Barnes, Henson and Marshall all decided to leave school to enter the NBA draft. White left, too – to began his Mormon mission. He spent part of the next academic years in northern Utah, often spending long days traveling by foot to do his missionary work.

A “good majority” of his fellow missionaries from back then, White said, have already married. Some of them have children. And here he is, in the final months of his senior year of college, with who-knows-how-many-games left as a college basketball player.

White’s first college basketball game came on an aircraft carrier – UNC’s victory against Michigan State in 2011 on USS Carl Vinson in what’s known as the Carrier Classic. Two members of the Tar Heels’ 2009 national championship team – Tyler Zeller and Justin Watts – were still at UNC.

Draymond Green, meanwhile, was still playing at Michigan State. Kennedy Meeks, the Tar Heels’ senior forward, made sure people knew that earlier this week, when Meeks was trying to add some perspective about how long White has been a part of the basketball program at UNC.

“That tells you how old he is,” Meeks said with a laugh.

During his years at UNC, White has been a part of a Final Four team. He has met former President Barack Obama. The Carrier Classic, though, remains his favorite memory. Or at least the one he felt most comfortable sharing.

He has had 36 different teammates at UNC. Some of the ones from five years ago, White said, “remember the freshman me.” They remember the 150-pound White, looking more like a scrawny high schooler than a college athlete, running around and wasting time with things like Super JetPack.

“I’d get in a little bit of mischief every now and then,” said White, who has played in 20 games this season, usually when Williams wants to send a message to those who play more often. “Nothing serious. But I liked to mess around and just have a good time, you know?”

His Mormon mission changed him, he said, more than any other life experience. The natural evolution of aging made a difference, too, White transforming from an 18-year-old kid to a 24-year-old man, the Tar Heels’ elder statesman.

White’s oldest teammates now were but high school juniors when White arrived at UNC. His youngest teammates, if they stick around all four years, will leave UNC nearly 10 years after White’s freshman season. His teammates praise him for his wisdom. And his sense of humor.

Now, for White, his time at UNC is nearing its end. Most of his teammates have aspirations of playing professionally. Most dream about playing in the NBA. White, though, is living his dream now. He has lived it every time he’s put on a jersey with “North Carolina” across the front.

What’s next?

“I think now is probably a good time for me to become a basketball fan,” he said.

The realization has started to set in that soon he’ll graduate. Soon he’ll have to find a job.

Soon his basketball days will be over. His time as a UNC player will be but a memory.

“I made a LinkedIn profile last week,” White said. “So things like that start to set in reality for me that some big changes are coming up.”

But now there is one more night at the Smith Center. And for the first time in five years, in 179 games, White will be starting again.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

No. 17 Duke at No. 5 UNC

When: 8:20 p.m. Saturday

Where: Smith Center, Chapel Hill