HE KNEW the question was coming. He had to. The saga that has been DeSean White's life for the past 3 years begs a sort of introspective query as to how in the world he got from there (Providence College) to here (Northwood University).
Still, White paused.
"Things," he says with a sigh, "haven't gone exactly as I planned."
No, not even a masochistic travel agent would plan the nomadic route that White, a onetime Cardinal Dougherty phenom, has taken. His southward trajectory has bounced him from among college basketball's elite, the Friars of the Big East, through the midmajors of the Atlantic 10 (La Salle) and the Colonial Athletic Association (Delaware) and now unceremoniously dumped him in hoops no-man's land, at a tiny NAIA business school in Florida on a startup program engineered by one Roland Massimino.
To understand how White got here is to understand the other side of college basketball. Away from the bright lights that celebrate the prized recruits who go on to fame and fortune is White, a can't-miss talent who reminds everyone that talent isn't always enough.
"He has been through the wringer," says Dave Distel, White's high school coach, who really is more of a surrogate father. "A lot of it is his own fault, but he hasn't had it easy."
The big issue now isn't so much how White got here, but what's going to happen next. Whether White's story becomes a cautionary tale or an inspirational story of grit and survival remains to be seen.
He still has to write the ending.
One thing is certain. The ending will be written in West Palm Beach. He is 21 now, and, after 3 years on four college campuses, has exactly 35 games to show for it.
With 2 years of eligibility left, White knows that this is his last chance, that if things go south at Northwood, there is really nowhere else to go.
"Oh, I've made that very clear to him," Massimino said. "What's left? I guess a lower-division NAIA school, but, really, this is it for him."
White is determined that this will be a story to tell his kids and grandkids, that he will prove the doubters wrong and offer encouragement for people who might otherwise give up. He says that he is doing well in his Northwood classes, that, though not thrilled to be so far from home, he is happy and content there and that he will emerge from Northwood, degree in hand, ready to take on the world.
And he could be right. A likable kid with an engaging personality, he also is blessed with a 6-8, 245-pound frame. Signed originally by Providence's Tim Welsh as the understudy to future NBA player Ryan Gomes, White could still become that sort of player.
But if this were just about basketball, it would be simple.
Because it's not just hoops, it's complicated.
White's travels and travails up and down the I-95 corridor really have nothing to do with his ability to put the ball in the basket. That part, he mastered a long time ago. At Cardinal Dougherty, he starred on a team that won two Catholic League titles and included three other Division I players, one of whom (Kyle Lowry) already has become a first-round NBA draft pick.
It's all the rest that has given White grief.
To an extent, he gets that.
White accepts responsibility for what has happened to him, recognizing that he is the common denominator in all of it, but also insisting that at certain stops, circumstances were misconstrued or, in his estimation, misrepresented. People, he said, prejudged him.
"It hasn't been 100 percent my fault," White says. "But I'll take the blame for all of it.
"The thing is, people first would say I had a bad attitude. Then I changed that around. Then it was, 'He's this, he's that.' It always had to be something. 'He's selfish, doesn't want to pass the ball.' So I passed the ball. 'He doesn't do the extra stuff,' so I did the extra stuff. It got to feeling like, can't I be great for anyone?"
Coaches tell a different story, of a kid whose circumstances haven't always been kind to him, but who also didn't necessarily do all he could for himself.
"It's going to click for him somewhere, sometime, and when it does, whatever team he's on is going to get a heckuva player," says Monte Ross, the Delaware coach who had White on his campus for 4 months. "But that light bulb has to go on soon, because time is running out."
Raised by his mother and grandmother, White did not have it easy. By way of explaining his silver lining in this twisted mess, White reminds you that he could have chosen the other path, "and everybody knows what path I'm talking about." Street-smart but otherwise naive, he is understandably stingy with his trust - "I think trust, that's the thing that's been the same problem at all the schools," White said.
Distel earned it through basketball, becoming such a central figure in White's life that Distel's kids consider White almost like a brother.
"He's a great kid who's had his share of issues,'' Distel says. "He grew up in some very, very difficult circumstances."
A top-75 player who would average 20 points and 10 rebounds as a high school senior, White signed on with Providence, liking the fact that the school was away from home, but close enough that his mother could catch some games.
The fit seemed ideal. In his rookie year, White played 29 games, averaging 5.5 points and 2.9 rebounds. He did even better early in his sophomore season, putting up 6.7 points per game in the Friars' first six games, but a foot injury sent him down in the dumps early. When his grandmother died that fall, White wanted out.
"When that happened, it was like everything went crumbling down," he says. "I was lost."
Welsh tried everything to persuade him to stay, even spending hours one night in White's dorm room hoping to change his mind.
"I was trying to convince him to at least stick it out the entire year, but he wanted to go," Welsh says. "There really isn't much you can do at that point. When a kid says he wants to go home as a freshman, you expect it, but when it drags into his second year, you know it's going to be a problem."
White chose not to come back after the holiday break, but at least he left Providence in good academic standing and was able to transfer to La Salle in January 2006.
It was White's last uncomplicated divorce.
La Salle coach John Giannini was thrilled to have White. By the time White would be eligible, his own superstar, Steve Smith, would have graduated, and White offered a chance for the Explorers to surprise some people in the A-10.
And White, who knew some of the assistant coaches since he was a kid and now was just minutes from home, was ecstatic to be there.
"From the first time I went there, I thought that was it, last stop," White says. "I figured smooth sailing, I'd get a degree."
But sometimes being close to home isn't a good thing. The temptation to go home was too great, and White's absence from Olney was reflected in missed meetings, workouts and classes.
There was more, an off-the-court run-in that White terms a "misunderstanding."
No one else is much interested in getting too specific with exactly what went on, but by summer, the marriage was over. White wasn't dismissed so much as school and player agreed it was time to say goodbye. White never wore a La Salle game uniform.
"I think being here, being close to home, was far more difficult than he imagined it would be," says Giannini, who didn't know where White had wound up, but wished him the best. "Sometimes kids have problems in their environment, by no fault of their own, and it makes sense to get away. When they come home again, it's a huge distraction. I frankly think the further away from home he is, the better he has done and will do. The catch is, I don't know if he's happy away from home."
From La Salle, White headed to Delaware.
That was over quickly. White was ruled academically ineligible and dismissed from the university in early January.
Ross says White was given his fair share of warnings, told over and over he needed to go to class and keep his grades up.
White says that it went down differently, that he told the coaches from the get-go he was struggling with his classwork and the coaches brushed it off, telling him he'd be fine.
"A little over 3 weeks in, I was like, 'I need help,' " White says. "I told them I might fail some tests and they said, 'Don't be silly.' I wasn't laughing. It all hit the fan on Christmas break. They called me on Christmas Eve and said I was done."
He never played a minute for the Blue Hens.
White contemplated bypassing the whole college scene and heading overseas, hoping to land some sort of a pro contract. But no one takes a player sight unseen, and, despite 3 years in the mill, White had no real game tape to show.
Distel started working the phones, landing eventually on a connection with Massimino.
White enrolled in March. (The school operates on a quarterly system.)
Massimino said the two have yet to talk a lick about hoops. Instead, the coach is trying to get White on a steady academic path. To get his academic house in order, White is taking an overload of courses this quarter and will have to follow up with a mini-course and summer school.
"It's going to take a person who's really dedicated and wants to get back in the swing of things to pull all this off," Massimino said.
Strangely, the free fall might have landed White in the perfect place. Northwood basketball is strictly mom-and-pop as it embarks on its second season. Massimino is coach, father, adviser, chief marketer and ticket salesman. White would have to practically evaporate to fall through a crack there.
And it is far removed from both home and the limelight, giving White the space and peace to find his way.
He hasn't played an organized, lights-on, blow-the-whistle basketball game since December 2005. The mere mention of it sends him on a gleeful imaginary trip of fame, fortune and a little bit of in-your-face to those he left behind.
The big thing is whether White will make it that far. The Seahawks made it to the NAIA Tournament this year and, though off the map, White certainly could find a route to some sort of money in basketball if he actually gets on the court.
Right now, he sounds as if he has figured it out. He says that each bump has taught him something and that, while this indeed wasn't his chosen path, it's his now, and it's up to him to make something of it.
"It's not about your next step, but what you do when you finally decide to leave," White said. "Where am I going when I leave Northwood? What's my next move? I can leave with nothing or I can leave with something. It's up to me." *