Sometimes they’d recognize him in Utah, even while he wore a shirt and tie with long pants, even while he roamed through the city of Logan and its surroundings, a missionary doing his work.
They’d say, “Yeah,” said Stilman White, the North Carolina guard. “I remember seeing you play in the (NCAA) tournament. And it’s a cool thing.”
White told the story back in the summer, after he’d returned from a Mormon mission that lasted about 18 months, his return to the UNC basketball team was official. Now it’s March, a memorable month for him, and the Tar Heels are back in an NCAA tournament regional semifinal for the first time since White was their emergency starting point guard.
The last time UNC advanced this deep, in 2012, White went from a bit player to a leading man. He went from a rarely used backup to the Tar Heels’ starting point guard, their replacement for Kendall Marshall after he broke his wrist in a round of 32 victory against Creighton.
White, then a freshman, weighed about 155 pounds. He’d never played more than 11 minutes that season, had never started, and had never come close to playing on the kind of stage that awaited in St. Louis, where UNC first played Ohio in the NCAA tournament Midwest Region semifinal.
“It was all just kind of a blur, that whole weekend,” White said last week in Jacksonville, Fla., while he sat in front of his locker, back in the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years.
Now he’s 22, a senior in age but a sophomore in the classroom and on the court because he missed two full academic years while he completed his mission. He’s bigger now, no longer quite the baby face. His body has filled out.
“My freshman year, especially, I still had a high school kid body,” White said last week. “And so that was definitely one of the major benefits of my mission, was getting two years for my body to physically mature.”
White was the smallest player on the court when he helped UNC, a No. 1 seed that season, to a victory against Ohio in the 2012 Sweet 16. That win set up a game against second-seeded Kansas – winner to the Final Four.
White started alongside Reggie Bullock and Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller. Barnes, Henson and Zeller were drafted several months later and are in the NBA. Bullock became a first-round draft pick the next summer.
And then there’s White, UNC’s oldest sophomore. He spoke with optimism in the summer of contributing this season, but it took him awhile to readjust after being gone for so long.
He played soccer often during his mission – so much that he required ankle surgery after he returned home in December 2013 – but said he played basketball three times. And so it was a “real struggle,” he said, to become re-acclimated to the speed of the game.
“And right when I felt like stuff was starting to slow down and become better, I got the stress fracture in my foot, the stress reaction,” White said. “And so that was a setback. But now I’m starting to feel comfortable again.”
White suffered the stress fracture in December. He wasn’t cleared to play again until late in the regular season and didn’t appear in his first game after the injury until he played at Georgia Tech on March 3.
A return to the NCAA tournament, in some ways, has brought White full circle. He’s not back in St. Louis, site of the most memorable moments. But he’s back, at least, in an NCAA tournament regional.
At this point three years ago, Marshall’s wrist was national news. And so, too, was White, Marshall’s unlikely replacement.
“I thought it could have been one of the great stories ever, if we had gone on,” Roy Williams, the UNC coach, said earlier this week. “It sort of got lost because we lost in the second game, the Elite Eight game. But I thought it could have been one of those great, great stories of ‘who’s this guy coming out of nowhere?’ kind of thing. He really did a nice job for us.”
In those two games he started – against Ohio and then Kansas – White is remembered more for what he didn’t do, rather than what he did. In 60 minutes – 32 against Ohio, 28 against Kansas – he didn’t make many mistakes. He didn’t commit a single turnover, and had 13 assists.
He didn’t try to force anything. And, as surprising as it might have been given his lack of size and experience, he didn’t play as if he was overwhelmed by the moment.
“Stilman’s job was just keep us where we’re supposed to be,” Williams said. “Don’t turn it over. Don’t try to do anything crazy. Stay between your guy and the basket, even if you have to give him 27 feet – it makes no difference.”
Circumstance thrust White into UNC’s starting lineup. There was Marshall’s injury. And before that, in late January, Dexter Strickland suffered a torn ACL in a victory at Virginia Tech.
Without Strickland, who started the first half of that season at shooting guard, UNC didn’t have an experienced backup point guard. Then the injury to Marshall, who rewrote UNC’s records for assists during his two years on campus, left the Tar Heels without any experienced point guards, period.
And so Williams turned to White, a Wilmington native who’d been a late addition to UNC’s incoming recruiting class that season. Entering the 2012 NCAA tournament, White hadn’t played more than eight minutes in any game since December. He played five minutes or fewer most games.
Now all of a sudden he was starting with UNC two victories from the Final Four.
“The biggest confidence boost that I had coming into that was that all my teammates helped, supported and believed in me,” White said last week. “And the coaches, as well, I’d include in that.
“And so I wasn’t worried about what anyone else was saying around because I knew the guys that I was going to be out there on the court with, and playing with, believed in me.”
Life didn’t change for White after those two games, he said. People recognized him more here and there, but the greatest change was knowing that he’d played his final college game for a while – that not long after starting against Kansas he’d begin his Mormon mission.
He served it while based on the campus of Utah State. He’d wake up at 6:30, read Scripture and plan for his day in the morning and then venture out along with his partner. From 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, White said, they were out “trying to talk to people. Trying to help people in any way we can.”
He returned to North Carolina in December 2013. He worked out his return to the team with Williams. White’s scholarship situation was in doubt, but Williams found one for him.
Before UNC’s final home game, against Duke, White watched the players he arrived on campus with – Desmond Hubert and Jackson Simmons – go through the usual senior night festivities. And there was White, on the bench, two years from his senior night.
“Senior night was weird to see the guys I came in with, leaving,” White said. “It was one of the more weird things that’s ever happened to me.”
White has never watched it over again, the last game he started. He has never seen what millions of others did that night when he played 28 minutes against Kansas, when many of them likely wondered, as Williams put it, “Who’s this guy coming out of nowhere?”
Every now and then White’s mind drifts back, though. He’ll be starting again, alongside four future first-round NBA draft picks, and he’ll be running the Tar Heels’ offense against Kansas. And three years later there’s one thought, White said, that most sticks out: “Probably what could have been.”
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter