DENVER • The night before the 2015 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference title game, UCCS had a problem: star guard Derrick White was in the hotel swimming pool, testing a sore ankle.
Thought we’d have to limit his minutes, UCCS coach Jeff Culver says now. D-White was hurting.
“But it’s Derrick we’re talking about,” he adds.
And in the first half of the actual game — UCCS vs. MSU-Denver, the upstarts vs. the champs — it was Marcus Mason who had a problem. “Coach Mase” has been White’s trainer since White was hovering around 100 pounds in seventh grade, and he was sitting in the third row for a Division II showdown that had the eyes and ears of hoops heads across the state. They — Mason and White — had just talked two days prior about the mistake that White was making at this exact moment: he had allowed an opposing guard to blow past him for a layup.
“I’m getting out of my seat to come down to the court and yell at him,” Mason says now.
Instead, “Derrick was just baiting the guy. He comes back and pins the ball on the backboard.”
See, they’re just like us: the village that helped lift White into the starting backcourt of the Spurs for a playoff series against the Nuggets is not entirely sure how he’s done it, either.
How did a Q-tip-sized kid with no Division I scholarship offers gain the trust of G.O.A.T. NBA coach Gregg Popovich in just his second season as a pro? Not even those closest to him have a perfect answer for what still seems like the impossible, but there are clues across the street from his first playoff series: Pepsi Center, where the Nuggets and Spurs played Game 1, was a 5-minute, 12-second walk from the Auraria Events Center on Saturday. The Can is maybe three blocks from Auraria Events Center, where White suddenly became one of those guys they talk about at Parker Rec Center and when the CHSAA boys state tournament rolls around.
The date: March 7, 2015 (only four years ago). The score: UCCS 82, MSU-Denver 65. The line: 37 points (11-12 field goals, 5-7 3-pointers), 10 rebounds, five assists. Thirty-nine minutes.
“It was so intense down the stretch we didn’t feel like we had it locked up until we did,” Culver says. “Derrick was living that whole thing with us. Guys were ready to win it. He was ready.”
The moments everyone in the gym knew they were watching somebody different: multiple. A personal favorite had White stepping across the midcourt line and pulling a 3 that hit nothing but net. The shot clock was never in danger, UCCS had a healthy lead. Still, swish, no big deal.
“I remember that one,” Culver says. “He was out at the volleyball hit line. Dagger shot.”
White is one of the smartest athletes I’ve covered, sharp enough to grasp the magnitude of the stage that is the NBA playoffs. But Saturday during a Spurs practice he was the same man with the same nerves he had four years ago across the street in the RMAC.
Then it was roommate Alex Welsh, who’s now a realtor in Denver, and the UCCS boys. Saturday it was White laughing at the free-throw line with All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and taking passes from Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, a postcard moment for Colorado basketball as a whole.
“Always good to come home,” White says. “Always.”
His “how” hasn’t been answered yet, but the man who’s coached White the longest offered a handful of reasons how White has done what he’s done. Here were three I picked out:
One, he chose the correct level(s) for college in three seasons at UCCS, two at CU-Boulder.
“Him going to UCCS was unbelievably good for him,” Mason said.
And during the sit-out season in Boulder, White embraced the role as the Buffs’ best player even when he wasn’t eligible to play in games. Colorado legend Chauncey Billups once told him to perform like a one-and-done player at CU. Whenever White didn’t, Billups called him out.
Two, a strong (and hands-off!) support system. White has trained with Mason roughly 1,000 times — from middle school to his NBA predraft workouts to the coming offseason — and he’s never received a complaint, recommendation or demand from someone else in White’s circle.
“It’s like Derrick’s relationship with Pop. He trusts his coach,” Mason says. “He doesn’t look for a second validation. Derrick’s going to fit in where coach wants him, not where he wants to be.”
Three, consistent workouts. “Maybe 20 percent of our workouts has changed” since White was 12 and began to train with Mason to now, starting 55 of his 67 games with the Spurs. Jot this down, kids: one drill is a five-tier scoring session that has White get buckets at the rim with both hands, a floater with both hands, mid-range jumper, 3-point shot and free throws.
“He’s got great size. He’s got great instincts. Obviously Pop trusts him out there,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone says of White. “He’s not afraid of the challenge.”
Oh, one more thing from that fateful night four years ago in the RMAC: MSU-Denver didn’t recruit White out of Legend High in Parker. “He’s got a long memory,” as Mason said, and perhaps it’s worth noting the Nuggets held the 24th pick in the 2017 draft. The Spurs took White at 29. Missing on the local kid was more egregious than missing on Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell.
“Any kid can have his work ethic. Any kid can be coachable. Any kid can be a great athlete,” Mason said. “Derrick, he’s different. What he has is something that’s not basketball-related.”
In the RMAC championship game across the street from Saturday’s NBA playoffs, his career turned. Four years and three blocks apart. Two postseasons.
One story that’s far from over.