As a rookie for the Bulls, Coby White had a role to play. Pour in buckets in bunches. Listen, learn and grow. Teammates past and present describe him as exceptionally mature for his age and station. Coaches laud his work ethic and adaptability.
But when the 20-year-old returns home to Goldsboro, N.C. he assumes a different type of position: That of a mentor. His gaudy high school resume makes him something of an icon in the landscape of North Carolina basketball. The perseverance it took to follow that foundation to a starring role at UNC, and now the NBA, make him a role model to many.
“It's just kids that have looked up to me since I was in high school,” White said, adding that, when safe, he frequently visits a nearby gym in Goldsboro to work with and mentor high schoolers in the area. “I just truly appreciate them for allowing me to make a connection with them. When I go home, I try to just help kids and mentor kids as much as possible and try to help them realize that there is a way out — and not necessarily with basketball, but anything in life.”
In an extension of that philosophy, White and Napheesa Collier of the Minnesota Lynx co-led a virtual life skills session on Tuesday with top 13- and 14-year old boys and girls basketball players from around the world as part of the Jr. NBA’s Global Championship. Since its founding in 2018, the Championship has consisted of players from 16 regions — eight within the U.S. and Canada, and eight international — assembling for a bracketed tournament supplemented by personal development and community engagement programming at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla.
But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the showcase went remote in 2020. Now, participants’ days are filled with competitive, at-home drills, as well as plenty of the latter set of programs. This year, it’s just taking place virtually.
White’s role in the event, along with Collier, was facilitating an hour-long discussion and breakout sessions with 60 returning Jr. NBA participants on topics ranging from racism, to police brutality, to mental health, advocacy and beyond.
“We thought it was incumbent upon us to use our platform to have a meaningful dialogue with players about race and social justice,” said NBA Senior Director of Youth Basketball Development Adam Harper, adding that that focus has been part of the program since its inception. “And help [participants] understand the role, as young people they can play in driving social change and interaction.”
At points in the conversation, White stressed the importance of having a solid support system (in his case, his family) when navigating life’s challenges. He also spoke to the value of education and dialogue with those close to you when finding one’s voice.
“It's not too long ago that they (White and Collier) were sitting in very similar seats as the kids that we were engaging in discussion,” Harper, who participated in the sessions, said. “So I think their ability to share lessons that they learned along the way will certainly resonate.”
The Bulls rook called it a new experience, but a rewarding one. His participation in Jr. NBA initiatives date back to Jr. NBA Day at All-Star weekend in Chicago, and leading remote dribbling tutorials at the beginning of the league’s hiatus.
“It was my first time doing something like that virtually,” White said of the discussion. “It's definitely something I'd want to do again… It was a good conversation. They had some good points, and I feel like they were really engaged and they took it well.”
White joined NBC Sports Chicago for a phone conversation to discuss his philosophy on mentorship, the athlete’s role in social justice advocacy and his experiences with racism. Edited for clarity:
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What did you talk about in the Jr. NBA discussion?
We just talked about police brutality, what's going on, everything that's going on in the world with George Floyd and everything, talked about that. Talked about racism — not only just now, but in life. How it affects sports on and off the court. We talked about life challenges, things that we personally went through and how we got over it. Just talked about life and what most likely you encounter growing and how it's not gonna be easy.
How did the conversation resonate?
It was a good conversation. They had some good points, and I feel like they were really engaged and they took it well.
What messages or advice do you try to convey when you talk to kids, like in the Jr. NBA conversation?
That you can make it in anything in life if you put your mind to it. I know I had dreams of going to the NBA since I was young and there was a good amount of people that told me, "That dream's not really realistic."
And it's also having the fine line of encouraging them and positivity but it's also keeping it real with them. There's kids that want to be in the NBA and NFL, but it's a once in a lifetime opportunity for most kids. It just so happens that God blessed me with the talent. So also encourage them to get out there and find interests that's not sports-related and attack that. Always have a backup plan.
I told 'em, one thing for me is adversity. There's going to be a lot of adversity you go through in life and how you react off that and for me, I just tell them that I'm always here no matter what, no matter where I am, most of the kids I mentor they have my number, so they can hit me up any time they need to talk about anything. Anything they need, I would have their back through it all.
What, if anything, in your upbringing motivate you to give back through mentorship like this?
That (my upbringing) obviously influenced me a lot. When I was growing up, I had my brother and my sister and those were the two great mentors for me to look up to, and they always put me on the right path. I had two great parents that put me on the right path. But my brother and my sister were really the ones that showed me, like, you put your mind to something and you can do it. No matter what it is. And they always believed in me and told me if I just work hard, the sky's the limit for me.
So, I just want kids to be able to have that foundation, that same foundation I had. Because without my brother and my sister, I really don't know where I would be right now.
What’s your perspective on the role athletes can play advocating and educating on issues of racism and social justice?
I think it's huge. Not only me, but every athlete in the world plays a huge part because so many of these kids look up to who we are. I feel like for me it's about spreading positivity, but also connecting with them on a certain level where you can keep it real with them. When I go back home, I like to mentor a lot of kids because a lot of kids look up to me, and I just tell them how I feel and tell them, what life challenges they're going to run into and how everything isn't easy.
And with the conversation around systemic racism, police brutality and racial violence, what change do you hope to see and impart?
Equality. For me, it's equality. That no matter what skin color you are, no matter who you are, no matter who your family is, everyone should be treated equally and have a fair opportunity in life. No matter if you're Black, white, red, yellow. You should have a fair opportunity in life and not be judged based upon your skin color.
But also, that it's real. Growing up, it's real. You hear about it, but when you experience it and when you really see it (racism), it's life-changing. Just making sure they know, you know, stand up for what you believe in. But also make sure to be careful out here. And it's sad you have to say that, but it's the truth.
How have you seen or experienced racism in your life, and how does it affect advice you pass down?
When I was 16, I was with four friends and we was about to get something to eat. The parking lot was full of cars, but the cops picked our car to come to, made us get out the car, one by one searched us and then after searching us one by one searched my whole car from the front of the car to my trunk. We didn’t see a warrant or anything. They searched my car because they seen four young African-American kids and thought we were up to no good. After they searched my car and didn’t find anything they left without searching anyone else’s.
So at that moment I realized that this was real, and when I’m talking to younger kids, I tell them to always be aware of your surroundings. Because things of that sort can happen to you at any moment, which is why you should surround yourself with people on the right track because you never know. Anything could have happened that night.
What's been going through your head the last couple months, since George Floyd's death and the protests/discourse it's sparked?
It's been a lot of stuff going through my mind. It's crazy that — to be honest, I was talking to my sister about it — the main thing that's sticking out to me is, if I'm being honest, without COVID(-19 pandemic) happening, everything else might not have happened like it did. COVID made the world stop and at a standstill, no sports, no entertainment, no new movies coming out, no nothing. And so, when this happened, everybody focused on this and keyed in on this.
So, like, in reality, Trayvon Martin got killed in 2012, I was 12 years old. And for 400 years, stuff like this has been going on but this is the first time people have actually taken initiative — I'm not going to say everybody has to take initiative, but when the whole world takes initiative and protests and is behind it, it just means so much more. And I'm not saying COVID isn't bad, it's a bad thing I hate what's going on. But without it, would people really be protesting as much and being so involved, you know what I'm saying?
It does seem there's been an enhanced focus, and the protests were worldwide
Yeah, it was global, in different countries. Before it was here and there, people talking about it. But after a couple weeks people got games, people watch sports, sports is going on, entertainment is going on, so people went on with their lives. But now I think people had the time to sit back, like, this is wrong. This is wrong, this should not be the world we live in when young Black African-Americans, they feel threatened every time they leave their house.
Some have said sports returning could be a distraction from all the things you just mentioned. How have you felt about the way the NBA and WNBA have handled their returns?
Sports coming back is good. I feel like as long as they keep doing what they're doing, it's good. To keep spreading that message, especially the WNBA and the NBA, keep spreading that message. Don't let it die down. I feel like since the season has resumed everyone has still been doing their part keeping Black Lives Matter alive.
All that said, do you feel any optimism that real change could come this time? Or is it too soon to say?
I'm really encouraged and happy to see the involvement. But something like this isn't going to change overnight. It's been going on for centuries. So I just feel like it's going to take a lot of time. But I think we're taking steps in the right direction for sure. To help the cause and help end racism period in the world. So, I feel like we're taking the right steps and the right precautions. But it's definitely going to take some time, it's not going to be something that happens overnight.
What’s your focus moving forward in the spirit of that mission?
I think to just keep supporting the cause, to keep supporting Black Lives Matter. And keep spreading positivity and encouragement, but just keep voicing my opinion and voicing what I feel on it. Keep doing events like I did yesterday. I'm not really a big social media guy, it hadn't even crossed my mind to use my platform on social media, I haven't even really used it yet. And I don't feel guilty, but maybe I don't feel like I'm doing enough right now. So, maybe I'll start using my social media, and using that. But for me, it's keep doing these NBA- type events and keeping my platform out there.