Different dreams, 1 mission for UNC's Stilman White

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The North Carolina Tar Heels took on the Kansas Jayhawks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.

By all accounts, Stilman White is living the dream.

In just one year, the North Carolina point guard has gone from being the Tar Heels’ last resort to being their answer. But despite the progress he’s made on the basketball court, White is more than willing to leave that dream-come-true behind. At least for a little while.

He’s got another dream to pursue.

A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, White will leave the life he knows this summer and embark on a two-year-long mission, during which he’ll spend his days studying scripture, serving the community and spreading the gospel.

Though the righteous road could take him far from Chapel Hill, what he knows and his recent success, White doesn’t second guess himself or his decision to go. Because soon the 19-year-old will be able to say he’s accomplished not just one life dream but two.

“I’m just as excited to do this mission as I am to go play in the Dean Dome,” White said. “I’m just living the life right now, getting to do all the things I’ve wanted to do.”

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding…”

A 3-year-old Stilman White didn’t spend a lot of time playing with kids his age. Especially not if there was a basketball game on TV.

He learned to walk with a ball in his hand. Growing up going to Chicago Bulls games with his father, White could rattle off NBA facts and figures ever since he could talk.

“People used to tease me and say, ‘Man, you’ve really brainwashed this kid from an early age,’” his father, Shannon White, said. “But I’d tell people, ‘No, you don’t get it. He likes it so much, I actually get tired of it.’”

So it was only natural White would one day be the star of his high school basketball team. In fact, the only time the Hoggard High varsity squad struggled during the three years White played for it was when he sat out with an injury for three weeks, coach Brett Queen said.

When it came time for White — the Vikings’ all-time leader in 3-point field goal percentage and made free throws — to graduate, there was no question in Queen’s mind his star had the talent to go on to bigger and better things.

For White, that included not just basketball, but something else he’d been dreaming of doing his entire life — serving a Mormon mission.

But as he would soon learn, college coaches were not quite as sold on his dual dream.

“(My mission) made recruiting really difficult for me,” White said. “A lot of schools would watch me at a tournament or at one of my high school games and be real interested, then they’d hear about the mission and I’d never hear from them again.”

It was an unfortunate roadblock, but White refused to waver.

“He had plenty of opportunities to put that aside to make things work out a little differently with his recruiting process, and he never did,” Queen said. “It’s been something he’s looked forward to doing his whole life, and I’ve always admired that about him.”

Remaining steadfast eventually paid off. White received offers from his hometown school, UNC-Wilmington, as well as from Utah State and Brigham Young. Because of its affiliation with the Church, BYU student-athletes leaving for mission work is by no means a rarity.

Choosing the Cougars could have been the easy way out of White’s recruiting predicament.

But almost as if he knew the offer that was to come, White refused to settle for a school where the fit wasn’t just right.

“(My parents) just told me, ‘Visit these places, see what you like, see where you’re comfortable, pray about it,’” White said.

“‘Wherever you feel inspired to go, that’s where you should go.’”

“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations…”

In the next few weeks, White will receive his calling.

He is still in the midst of filing the necessary paperwork, which will then be sent to church leaders. They will review the application, and Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said it will be decided upon by a higher power where White is meant to be.

“In spirit of prayer and fasting we believe by revelation that that call is given to the young man or young woman about where they’re going to serve somewhere in the world,” Hawkins said.

White could end up anywhere on the globe. But the grin on his face as he talks about the next two years of his life reflects eager anticipation, not nervousness. In White’s mind, he’s not just fulfilling a duty. The chance to serve a mission is an opportunity with which he feels he’s been blessed. And White doesn’t need to look very far to see examples of the joy serving can bring.

White’s father, Shannon, served a two-year mission in California. His mother, Erin, did hers in Puerto Rico. Growing up, White heard countless tales of his parents’ life-shaping experiences serving their missions.

It’s from those testimonies that White draws his blessed assurance.
“A lot of people I’ve looked up to have done it,” White said. “It’s such a life changing experience and they say it’s the best two years of their life, so I think I’ve been around it so much I’m not as fearful of it as I would be if I wasn’t.”

White knows wherever he is called to go, he’s in for the experience of a lifetime. And why shouldn’t he be confident? Lately, things have just had a way of working out for White.

“And now, I ask, what great blessings has he bestowed upon us? Can ye tell?”

A phone call to UNC coach Roy Williams on the morning of Feb. 4, 2011 forever changed the Tar Heels’ future — and Stilman White’s.

The man on the other end of the phone, Larry Drew Sr., called Williams to inform him that his son, Larry Drew II, wouldn’t be returning to the team. Drew started the first 17 games of the season. Without him, it was immediately evident to Williams that he needed another point guard.

But one question remained: Who was still left?

“Ninety percent of the top players in the country sign in the fall,” Williams said. “Jerod Haase came in and said, ‘I’ve heard something about a youngster down in Wilmington.’ I said, ‘Well, get a tape.’ And so we looked at the tape and said, ‘Well, he’s got a chance.’”

Impressed by what they saw of White on film, the North Carolina coaching staff invited White, his parents, and coach Queen to UNC’s regular-season finale against Duke on March 5, 2011, after which the ACC regular-season champion Tar Heels cut down the net from the Smith Center hoop.

White was mesmerized by the atmosphere of the rivalry game. He fell in love with the facilities. The players were as inviting as could be. The biggest factor in UNC’s favor, though, was Williams’ unconditional support of White’s mission plan.

Unlike many of the coaches White had dealt with earlier in the recruiting process, Williams saw the point guard’s mission as a positive, not a drawback.

Less than 24 hours after Williams made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, White committed to UNC. And on April 13, 2011, he signed his name on the dotted line.

The opportunity might have fallen in White’s lap. But as far as he’s concerned, it was meant to be.

“When we were signing his letter of intent, it was a lot of fun to sit back and say, ‘Hey, if he would have put the things he believes in on the shelf, we might not have been in a position to actually go to Carolina,’” Shannon White said.

“…That they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah.”

On most mornings, Stilman White will rise with the sun.

Alongside his traveling companion, White will wake up before 6:30 a.m., spend the morning exercising and studying scripture, and be out the door by 10 a.m., ready to take on the day’s tasks.

Sometimes it could be preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ on the street to passersby. Other times it’s doing community service in the area. But all activities revolve around spreading the word of God in whatever capacity that may be.

It’s a gift he can’t wait to give.

“A lot of people are waiting to hear the true gospel, which I believe is my church,” White said. “It’s brought a lot of happiness in my life, so I definitely think I owe it to go out for two years and share it with other people.”

After a long day of work and study, missionaries return to their apartments at 9:30 p.m., and it’s lights out at 10:30. Then the whole routine starts over again.

Though he will be encouraged by the Church to send weekly emails or letters to family and friends back home, White is allowed to make just two phone calls a year while on his mission: one on Mother’s Day, the other on Christmas.

One day a week, missionaries observe preparation day, an afternoon during which they have free time to do laundry, write letters and prepare for the week ahead.

Though White said he might be able to squeeze in a little practice time on this day if the conditions of his new environment allow it, he’s prepared to not pick up a basketball for the full two years.

It’s a sacrifice. But even for a college athlete, it’s proven to be doable.

In 1996, Duke forward Matt Christensen left Durham and his team behind after his freshman season to complete a two-year Mormon mission.

Christensen said it was coach Mike Krzyzewski’s support of his planned missionary service that attracted him to the Blue Devils in the first place, and during his time in Frankfurt, Germany, the team wrote Christensen letters several times a week.

Christensen returned to Duke and redshirted during the 1998-99 season before finishing his career — with a wealth of experience and a national championship.

Knowing exactly what it’s like to make sacrifices for a higher purpose, Christensen is confident White, and his game, will be just fine.

“The Lord will bless him for doing what he’s doing,” Christensen said. “His focus should be on being the best, most fully obedient, faith-filled missionary he can be. The other things will take care of themselves in their own seasons.”

“Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God…”

Just 30 minutes before UNC’s Sweet 16 game against Ohio on March 25, Williams began writing the Tar Heels’ starting lineup on a white board in the locker room.

Kendall Marshall had started 55 of the last 56 games at point guard for the Tar Heels, dating back to UNC’s home win against Clemson on Jan. 18, 2011. But in what would prove to be a disappointing ending to the sophomore’s record-breaking season, Marshall fractured his wrist in North Carolina’s third-round win against Creighton the week before.

When White saw his name written on the board in Marshall’s place, shivers went down his spine.

Through the first 32 games of the season, White averaged fewer than four minutes per game. He hadn’t made a start since his glory days at Hoggard. Now he was about to make his first collegiate start for a No. 1-seeded team in an NCAA tournament regional semifinal.

When his name was announced over the loud speaker at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, White could think of just one thing while running to mid-court to join the rest of the Tar Heel starters.

“I was just trying not to look stupid because I had never done it before,” he said. “So I was just trying to play it cool and just go through the motions and get through all that so I could get on the court and play.”

The media and North Carolina fans alike had spent the previous five days obsessing about Marshall’s injury and whether he would or wouldn’t play again for the top-seeded Tar Heels. For a team many had picked to win it all, things weren’t going quite as planned.

“Is Stilman White really your guy?” a reporter asked Williams the day before the Sweet 16 matchup. UNC forward Tyler Zeller said the team heard the doubters but didn’t pay them any mind.

They were confident in the worth of their now-starting point guard, even if others weren’t.

“We try to stay away from media, and we just stay within each other,” Zeller said. “We know that everyone can say whatever they want … So I think we just tried to help him get comfortable and adapt to what was going to be happening, and I think he was able to do that.”

In UNC’s 73-65 overtime win against Ohio, White scored just two points but racked up six assists and played 32 minutes of basketball without once turning the ball over.

He had a similar showing in the next game — an Elite Eight matchup with Kansas. But as UNC fell to the Jayhawks 80-67, that performance would ultimately be his, and the rest of the Tar Heels’, last of the season.

“My gosh, and I’m serious, that’s one of the great stories there is in North Carolina basketball,” Williams said. “What that kid did, I hope he’ll remember it for the rest of his life and I hope everybody will remember how well he did.”

But as he sat in the corner of the locker room after the game, eyes red and tears streaming down his face, White didn’t quite have the foresight to see it that way just yet. All he saw was a dream, that of going to a Final Four, dashed.

“…and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with Him in the kingdom of my Father!”

Sometimes Stilman White has to take a step back to believe all of that really happened.

Now almost a month removed from the game that ended what would be his last season for two years, White has moved on from the disappointing finish and focused on the blessing of his experience.

But for him, that’s just second nature.

His faith and his love of basketball might be the driving forces behind White’s separate dreams in life, but every time he steps out onto the court, the two merge.

“My faith is basically everything,” White said. “It always keeps me calm, and I know whatever I want to do out on the court I can accomplish … I just kind of leaned back on all that, and it gave me all the confidence I needed.”

That confidence on the court will help White again when he returns to UNC in 2014 to finish the remaining years of his eligibility and finish school. At that time, he’ll be a 22-year-old sophomore.

It might be an unconventional route, but White doesn’t wrestle with second thoughts.

“A lot of people ask, ‘Well you’re on such a roll right now, why would you give it up after all you have going for you?’” White said. “But ever since I was young, it’s always something I’ve wanted to do … so I’m willing to put that all down for a little while for this.”

Don’t try to persuade Stilman White to stay. He’s got two dreams to achieve, and he’s on a mission to complete them.

Contact the Sports Editor at sports@dailytarheel.com.

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