How the memory of Coby White's father keeps guiding the Bulls rookie

ByEric Woodyard ESPN logo
Sunday, November 3, 2019

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's four hours before his professional debut with the Chicago Bulls, and if 19-year-old Coby White is nervous, he's doing a good job of hiding it.

"Say, 'Hey Uncle C,"' his mother, Bonita, says with a smile, inching her 3-month-old grandson, Ali Pourghassemi II, closer to White so they can rub noses.

Soon, Coby White will take the court for his first regular-season game, fulfilling a dream he and his family have shared since he was a kid in Goldsboro, North Carolina, 3 hours away from the Spectrum Center.

The Whites -- including Bonita, elder son Will, daughter Tia and extended family -- will be well represented in Section 111, but there will be one person missing. The person who really helped inspire the dream.

Coby's father, Donald White, died of liver cancer Aug. 15, 2017. Donald was the first person to put a basketball in Coby's hands. He would take Coby as a 2-year-old to watch Will play AAU basketball as far away as Florida, Nevada and Tennessee. Back home, Coby would try to replicate his brother's moves on his Nerf hoop.

Donald played basketball while attending North Carolina Central University, but as would be the case with Will, he wasn't quite good enough to get to the next level. Coby, the No. 7 overall pick in this year's draft, will be the one to put the family name on the back of an NBA jersey.

That Donald isn't there to watch his son in the NBA isn't something the family discusses much. The tributes are there. The emotional first-person piece in The Players Tribune that describes the agony Coby went through when he first heard the news of his father's illness. The "FMF" tattoo on Coby's right biceps, which stands for "For My Father." The custom pendant necklace that bears his father's face and hangs from the right side of his bed in his apartment in downtown Chicago.

Roy Williams, who coached Coby as he broke Michael Jordan's freshman scoring record at North Carolina, remembers telling Donald that one day his son would play in the NBA. "He said," Williams remembers, "'When that happens, I want you to give him the right kind of guidance."'

There's a team around Coby attempting to do exactly that. It's what Donald would have wanted.

It's nearing 9 p.m. CT at the Bulls' practice facility on the west side of Chicago in late September. Media day festivities ended much earlier, and the Advocate Center is mostly empty, except for Coby. And Will.

Coby is putting up extra jumpers, and Will is serving multiple roles: passing him balls, offering advice, providing support. A former coach at two small colleges in North Carolina, Will is more than just a big brother. But there is one role that Will, 27, doesn't try to assume.

"I don't think it's necessarily my job to try and fill that father-figure role, but I think my dad would want me to help take care of him," Will says. "Their bond was so deep -- they were like best friends. But I'm just making sure that he's taken care of and OK. That's probably what my father would've wanted."

It's definitely what Bonita wants.

The White family is doing what it can to ensure Coby can concentrate on his new job while eliminating as many distractions as possible. Will lives with his brother in an apartment on the 50th floor of a high rise overlooking Coby's new city. Bonita and Coby's sister, Tia, as well as extended family, are a phone call away.

"I'm very confident knowing that [Will is] here to make sure things go smoothly, and knowing that Coby is taken care of," Bonita says during a recent visit. "He's the baby, so we've always kind of taken care of him.

"Even when he was growing up, the roles that he has now with big sister, big brother, mom and dad, they're the same. We're still making sure he has what he needs."

Tia also is involved, signing off on Coby's agent, financial adviser and many endorsement deals.

"We're all so close. Our parents, and really my dad, taught us to always take care of each other," Tia says. "Being 19 in Chicago by himself, I think my dad would've been concerned, so knowing that Will is highly responsible, gonna always put Coby's best interest in mind and they both have each other to look out for one another, I think it would've made my dad very happy.

"It would've enabled him to rest easy knowing that his older son was there watching over Coby, making sure he was good."

Sometimes the interaction is as simple as Will binge-watching episodes of "The Boondocks," "The Flash" or "Dragon Ball Z" with his brother.

"It's my brother, and he's somebody I know I can trust no matter what," Coby says. "Your brother is like your best friend. They know you in and out, and they always want your best interest and are going to keep it real with you."

"If he doesn't feel like I should be doing something or he doesn't feel like I should go somewhere, he'll tell me. He'll tell me when I'm doing too much and will always keep it real."

It's what Donald would have wanted.

Coby scores 17 points off the bench in his regular-season debut. He also dishes out seven assists with just one turnover in 27 minutes, but the Bulls lose.

It won't be the last time Coby's development as a rookie will be judged against the backdrop of a team loss.

But a former college coach sitting in Section 111 is able to point out the positives.

"He was able to get in the lane and create," Will says. "Defensively he wasn't lost on the ball. I thought he did a good job of getting over those ball screens. He was solid for his first game."

Coby will be expected to be a cornerstone for the Bulls' rebuilding process. He averaged 19.2 points in the preseason, second among rookies behind Zion Williamson's 23.3.

Coby follows his strong regular-season debut with a 25-point performance against Memphis while playing 30 minutes and not turning the ball over once. But like with all rookies, good games can be followed by struggles, as Coby has three turnovers and a 3-for-14 shooting performance in a blowout loss to the Raptors.

"He cares," Bulls coach Jim Boylen says of White. "He wants to be great. He knows what he has to improve upon. When I met with him, before we drafted him, I thought that was the one thing that stuck out was that he had a spirit where he wanted to improve.

"He knew he wasn't a finished product yet, and there's some beauty in that from a young guy like that, so his brother's a great influence on him, too, and he's a great kid. His brother was a coach, so I think that helps, too."

Even Boylen sees the influence of Will on his younger brother.

It's exactly what Donald would have wanted.

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