DENVER — He tries terribly hard to play it off, as if going to work alongside Pau Gasol and Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge is normal. It’s not. He knows it.
The dead giveaway, however, came at Christmas. Like a good son, Derrick White purchased a gift for his mom and dad — Richard and Colleen, salt of the earth — that underscored how the UCCS great and CU-Boulder graduate will be the last guy to ever lose sight of his roots. Was it jewelry? A new house out in the 'burbs, perhaps? No, Derrick bought them a washer and dryer, and his mom promptly text messaged a photo of a filled-to-the-brim laundry basket awaiting his purchase.
“For a while there our dryer wasn’t working too well,” NBA guard Derrick White told me Tuesday before his Spurs played the Nuggets at Pepsi Center. “And it’s kind of the least I can do.”
I mean, is there a better personality fit than Derrick White and the San Antonio Spurs? Where too much of the NBA blows its cash on the basketball equivalent of Ferraris and icy bling, the Spurs are just over here washing and drying their clothes and putting the competition through the ringer. Now that one of our own is behind enemy lines — a Colorado native with Broncos, Rockies and, yes, Nuggets, racing through his blood — I had to ask the question that’s plagued Nuggets fans for going on three decades: Why are the Spurs always so damn good?
“Honestly, from what I know so far, I think it’s the habits that you have to follow each and every day. They want to execute better than the other team. It’s pretty simple,” said White, whose No 14 jersey will be retired in a ceremony at UCCS on Saturday. “(Spurs shooting guru and assistant coach “Chip” Engelland) always says that Pop (Gregg Popovich) gives you the answers to the test. Once you know what he’s looking for, you just do that. There’s no guessing.”
It says here the basketball gods smiled on White when they confirmed their status as the smartest operation around by selecting the 6-foot-5 point guard with the 29th pick of June’s NBA draft. White arrived here, on this lofty NBA stage, by applying his livelihood to the process of becoming better, day by day. It was long hours in the gym — at Legend High in Parker, at Nick Graham's gym in south Denver, at UCCS and in one season in Boulder — that elevated White to this spot. He’s more of a washer-and-dryer type of guy than a millionaire who’s trying to impress folks with a new suit. Hmmm. Sounds like a franchise we know (and Colorado often loathes purely out of jealousy).
"He's doing great," grumpy-gus Popovich allowed Tuesday.
Oh, Derrick sprung for a new Audi, and that makes the drive between San Antonio and Austin race by a little quicker. It’s in Austin where White has spent much of his rookie season as a professional. No fewer than nine times he’s been assigned and recalled to the Spurs’ G League affiliate about 45 minutes from where he stays in San Antonio. “With no traffic,” he said. Where some 23-year-old former college stars and first-round draft picks might scoff at the notion of playing 13 games in the G League, White acknowledges it’s part of the process the Spurs have employed to the tune of five world championships. He’s embracing and trusting it.
“The G League team has been great. It’s not a demotion. I take it as an opportunity to get better,” said White, who scored in double figures for the big-league Spurs twice in the past week, against the Suns and Warriors. “My teammates there are great. And we’re winning — here and there.”
Tuesday night in the locker room, there was no doubt the Spurs identify a certain type of personality for the role players surrounding big-money veterans LaMarcus Aldridge ($21 million per year), Kawhi Leonard ($19 million) and Gasol (almost $200 million in his career, per Spotrac.com). It’s evident in White. It’s evident across the room in ex-Illinois star Brandon Paul, a sure-fire NBA talent from the Chicago area, but one who paid his dues overseas before earning a chance in the NBA.
“This beats playing overseas,” said Paul, who, like White, is cool to bounce between Austin and San Antonio if it results in a shot to play with the best athletes in the world.
“'D', you need tickets tonight?” Spurs guard Dejounte Murray asked White prior to tip-off. White had roughly 40 requests for tickets in his first game back in the homeland. UCCS coach Jeff Culver, assistant Alex Snyder and athletic director Nathan Gibson scored some seats to see their guy, as did CU coach Tad Boyle.
The culture is evident with San Antonio's old guys, too. That’s probably what makes this whole thing work for the Spurs, year after year. Whether he knows it or not, 10-year vet Danny Green has become a mentor to White, gesticulating across the court Tuesday to show him where he should be on a certain play. White briefly checked into the game Tuesday with 11 minutes left in regulation. The Nuggets are playing some action ball these days and won, 117-109.
“Right now it’s about development, learning something each day, learning the system and how they want to play,” White said. “When I get my chance, just be solid and be aggressive and be myself.”
Dejounte Murray. George Hill. Bryn Forbes. Cory Joseph. The next redshirt program is White’s.
“Patience,” his dad said.
Yes, that night last week when Derrick was thrown into the fire and, in one quarter, found himself matched up with Golden State's Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, still seems surreal. Hey, he's 23, and once had to mail out his own highlight DVD to land some college interest. We get it.
But there's a better chance San Antonio suddenly tumbles out of the playoff hunt than White forgets where he came from. It's not like the Spurs would let him, anyway.