When telling the wondrous basketball story of Derrick White, make sure to prominently mention University of Colorado-Colorado Springs coach Jeff Culver.
He saw potential in White that every other college coach missed. He turned White loose on courts all over the Rocky Mountains. He played a crucial role in creating a skywalking phenom.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without him,” White said.
That’s absolutely true, Derrick.
At first, Culver had the then-radical idea White could excel in Division II college basketball, but soon he knew his soaring guard/forward was the rare player with few limits. Culver’s instincts were correct. White has arrived in the NBA, where he’s a Spurs rookie facing the immense challenge of pleasing Gregg Popovich.
On Saturday night, Culver welcomed White back to the UCCS gym where he once shook rims. Culver added a closing, and happy, chapter to a sometimes complicated and painful basketball saga.
The Mountain Lions retired White’s No. 14. They honored the greatest player in school history. And they embraced, with Culver leading the way, a player whose talents and ambitions grew so huge he had to depart for Boulder for his senior season.
Culver and White transformed a basketball program. Before Culver and White arrived, the Mountain Lions had lost 101 of 165 games. Before White departed, UCCS had traveled to consecutive D-2 NCAA Tournaments.
It was all so unlikely.
In the fall of 2011, Culver was sitting in the gym at Aurora’s Legend High School when he saw a 6-foot, 150-pound senior named Derrick. No four-year school wanted White.
But Culver, then coaching at Johnson and Wales, sensed a certain potential. He brought White to UCCS in the spring as part of his first recruiting class. White was hungry to defy the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference coaches who had ignored him. That’s why he chose No. 14 for his jersey.
“Because there were 14 teams in the RMAC,” White said, “and I wanted to make them pay for not recruiting me.”
On Tuesday, Culver sat at Pepsi Center watching White play for the Spurs at basketball’s highest level. The moment was overwhelming.
“I think surreal is definitely a word that came to my mind,” Culver said. “From day one, this has definitely been surreal.”
Culver has made the wise and brave choice when it comes to White. He’s chosen to celebrate White’s continued basketball rise, but that choice can’t have been easy.
In the spring of 2015, Culver was looking at a basketball power. White had grown to 6-foot-4, 190 pounds and become the most dangerous player in D-2. And White had a tag-team partner in Alex Welsh, a versatile, gifted power forward. The Mountain Lions had every reason to believe they could rule the nation.
Then White departed for Boulder to play for Tad Boyle. It was a crushing blow to Culver and his program.
I know coaches who would have remained angry until their final days. I know coaches who never would have tamed their disappointment. Culver has walked the better path.
Welsh was in the gym Saturday night to honor White, his close friend. In 2012, Welsh, White and Culver arrived together at the UCCS campus. They endured losses. They celebrated wins.
“We went through a lot,” Welsh said. “We became like his sons.”
Welsh, with White gone, led the Mountain Lions to a winning record during his senior season. Sometimes, Welsh would look on the court for his departed friend. He knows Culver had the same aching feeling.
But the ache is gone, replaced by a realization that White made the correct choice. Welsh knew his friend required a bigger stage
“He needed more people to see him,” Welsh said. “He needed to show what he could do.”
On Saturday night, White was back at one of his basketball homes. He signed autographs. He laughed with old UCCS friends.
And he shook hands with Culver, who believed in him when no one else did.