The last time we saw Stilman White on a basketball court, he was starting against Kansas in place of an injured Kendall Marshall in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. White scored four points –including the first basket of the game– , handed out seven assists, had one steal did not turn the ball over in the Tar Heels’ 80-67 loss to the Jayhawks. This summer, he is preparing to rejoin the Carolina men’s basketball team for the 2014-15 season after spending two years as a Mormon missionary.
If it seems as though White is from a different generation of Carolina basketball, it’s because he is. He’ll be the only Tar Heel on the roster this fall to have played in that Kansas game. And by the time he takes the court this November, it will have been two years and nearly eight months since White was in a Tar Heel uniform.
White’s mission took him to Logan, Utah and the campus of Utah State University. He rarely touched a basketball over the course of the year and a half. Instead, he traded his jersey and basketball shoes for a shirt, tie and slacks and filling his days with scripture reading and doing mission work. “From 10 a.m. to . . . 9 p.m., we were out trying to talk to people, help people out in any way we can, interact with people see who’s interested in hearing a message about Jesus Christ,” he said.
Originally, White’s plan had been to go on his mission directly after high school, which would have put him back in Chapel Hill in time for the 2013-14 season. But after discussing the situation with Roy Williams, he opted to spend a year at Carolina before undertaking the mission. “I think either way I would have been happy with the decision I made,” he said. “But it’s good now that i’m off my mission, and going in I’ve already had a year of college experience. I know what the college life is like, managing school and basketball and all that.”
Now back in Chapel Hill, White has re-acquainted himself with rising seniors Luke Davis, Desmond Hubert and Jackson Simmons, the only players still remaining from that 2011-12 team, and jumped in with his ‘new’ sophomore class, attending summer classes with Nate Britt, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks. On the court, he’s playing pick-up games with his teammates and conditioning himself for college basketball. “You kind of forget how fast everyone is,” he said. “I think that’s been the biggest surprise to me.”
There was little time for working out while on mission. White was already waking up at 6 a.m. to study scripture, so any time to hit the gym would have had to come before that. And with a full day of working –and a lot of walking– getting rest was imperative. White aggravated a lingering ankle injury while on his mission and had surgery in December. He returned home then and has since gone about getting into game shape.
Game shape for White will look somewhat different than it did two years ago. He’s put on some weight and plans on using it not the court. “My body’s matured a lot. I definitely had a little high school kid body coming in and probably most of my freshman year,” he said. “Already when I’m playing out on the court, I can throw my weight around a little more.”
But it’s not only White’s body that has matured. His mission enabled him to meet many people of diverse backgrounds, people he wouldn’t have otherwise come into contact with. Doing mission work in northern Utah, often in harsh conditions (“We were happy when it was 15 degrees,” he said of the winters) changed him, made him more confident and gave him skills he will continue to put to use moving forward. “It’s definitely not comfortable at first, when you’re just walking up and trying to talk to somebody about Jesus,” he said. “It’s something that was pretty tough and kind of awkward, but when you’re doing it all day every day, you kind of get used to it and you figure out ways how to get into conversation with people and interact with people and bring it up. I learned how to be a lot more social and better at talking to people from it and it was cool. It was a neat experience being able to try and do that.”
And so White gets the opportunity to put those skills learned from a mission to work on the basketball court and in college life. He’ll be a 22 year-old sophomore by the time the season starts, a mature voice on a young and talented team. As far as court time, White will have his work cut out for him. The 2012 NCAA Tournament team had two scholarship point guards (combo guard Dexter Strickland tore his ACL in January). The 2014-15 team will have Marcus Paige, Nate Britt, Joel Berry and White on scholarship, plus Davis. “There’s going to be a lot of competition,” he admits. “I don’t have any clue what my role will be on the team next year. I don’t think anyone can answer that question this early, but I’m just looking to come in here, try to regain my game and see what I can do with it. I know my mission’s benefited me and made me a lot better person and a lot more mature and it will make me a lot better basketball player, so I’m excited to see how well I can compete with those guys with all those things now.”
The last image that we have of Stilman White on a basketball court is that Kansas game. While starting a marquee NCAA Tournament matchup was a “sweet experience” for him, he’s eager to make some new memories. “I’m excited to see what I can do this year,” he said. “Hopefully I showed people in the tournament that I can play in the ACC, I can play at North Carolina. But I feel like I can play a lot better and I can show a lot more to everyone.”
Sounds like a man on a mission.