Coby White thought little of the collision when it first occurred. He’d hit his shoulder in a similar fashion before, and given the circumstances — a casual game of basketball with friends — he figured the pain would fade in time.
But one day passed. Then another. And something didn’t feel right. Following a flight back to Chicago, an MRI revealed a torn labrum in his left shoulder.
His first reaction when informed of the news?
“Uh, what’s a labrum?” he said with a laugh after the Bulls’ first training camp practice on Tuesday.
Such an injury typically carries a four-to-six month recovery timeline, and in announcing his surgery in June, the Chicago Bulls said White would be re-evaluated in mid-October.
“It wasn't what I planned for, but I mean it is what it is,” White said, later adding that “at that point there's not too much you can do about it. I just kind of took it in stride and continued to just attack rehab. That's all I really could do.”
But the third-year guard is progressing. Though only a limited, non-contact participant in training camp, he’s begun dribbling and shooting, and even participated in some fast-paced, open-court drills with staffers after most had vacated the practice floor on Tuesday.
“I'm able to do pretty much everything on a basketball court. I just struggle with left hand, overhead shots — such as, like, layups — but I can pretty much do anything,” White said. “Right now I've just been working on strengthening my shoulder and getting it stronger because I ain't used it for a long time.”
He’s also been in the film and weight room while rehabilitating. White said he's added a couple pounds and feels materially stronger, especially in the lower body. The hope is his improved strength, flexibility and “quick twitchiness” will aid him when he returns.
The Bulls are operating off a mid-November timeline for that return, which would mark five months since surgery. It will also mark, according to White, the longest he’s been away from the game due to injury since he started playing basketball. As a rookie during the 2019-20 season, he was one of only two Bulls players to appear in all of the team’s 65 games. In 2020-21, he missed just three of 72.
“It was frustrating,” White said of the injury in the context of priding himself on durability. “But the good part was it wasn't during the season.
“The way it happened, like, that shouldn't have happened that easily, the way that it (the injury) happened. So I guess, prior to it my shoulder was already kind of iffy. But if it was bound to happen, I'd rather it happen when it happened rather than during the season, so now I only miss a little bit of the first part of the season.”
Still, White didn’t deny the mental rigors of rehab. Days, he said, have a tendency to blend together in boring, repetitive fashion. Now, he faces an uphill battle to re-find his rhythm after so many months away. He praised the Bulls’ medical staff for their role in keeping his recovery engaging, and cited the experience as an opportunity to “grow mentally."
“He’s got an internal will and an internal drive. I think that’s his greatest strength mentally,” Billy Donovan said of White. “The way he can handle those kinds of situations — and I imagine for him there was probably some really tough days because they are long days — but he really stayed with it.”
When White returns, it will be to a different role than he left. White began last season as the Bulls’ starting point guard, and eventually started 54 of the 69 games in which he appeared. After being moved to the bench mid-season, he returned to the first unit when Zach LaVine tested positive for COVID-19, and showed signs of progress in his consistency and decision-making.
But the Bulls made four-year investments in two point guards this offseason: Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. Ball is the presumed starter, a fact White is acutely aware of.
“It was dope,” White said of the Ball addition. “Lonzo's gonna really help the team as a major piece. He's so unselfish, and as a point guard, he's great defensively, which is one thing that I can [learn] from him.”
He echoed a similar sentiment regarding Caruso, saying he thinks the Bulls’ entire team can learn from the ex-Lakers guard’s championship experience.
When asked his perspective on how the additions might affect his future, White shrugged light-heartedly.
“Life ain't perfect, bro. You gotta work for stuff,” he said. “Like I always say, since I got here Day 1, I'm just gonna compete and find my role, and whatever that role may be, I'm gonna play it to the fullest.”
That role will likely be off the bench, but White should still have ample opportunity to contribute when healthy, particularly offensively. That point was central to Billy Donovan’s conversations with White about the backcourt changes, which the Bulls coach said were productive.
“Coby has alway been a really good team guy,” Donovan said. “I think the biggest thing with Coby is ‘Hey, however I can fit in and help the group and help the team I’m going to do it.’ That’s what I think he’s looking for. Any player that’s young always looks at, ‘OK, how do I fit in? Where do I fit in? What’s my role? What’s my job? What’s my responsibilities?’ But I think he’s got enough confidence and belief in himself that there will be a role for him that he can play and fulfill and be an important piece and ingredient to our team.
“I know our entire staff and organization love him as a player. But when you have a chance to add players to the roster and improve the roster, inevitably sometimes those players come in many different positions and impact many different guys. But I still think there is a role and place for him (White) to be a really good player for us.
“I give him a lot of credit because I think his mentality and disposition was, like, ‘Listen, we’ll figure that piece of it out,’ and ‘whatever I can do to help the team.’ And I told him, I said, ‘Listen, there’s going to be a lot of value.’ There’s not a lot of guys in this league that shoot the ball the way he does. And when you’ve got really good offensive players, one-one-one players like those three guys we’ve been talking about (LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic), having a guy like that (White) who can knock down a shot is really, really important. I think he’s got enough belief and confidence in himself, and I think he’s heard enough from me about how I feel about him that I think he knows and is pretty confident that there will be a role for him that will be important to helping us.”
For now, though, White was more interested in talking recovery than role. Those are questions for a later day — hopefully in mid-November — when he’s able to join the new-look Bulls and carve his niche.