WILSON, N.C. – Of all the words Coby White could use to describe his basketball playing experience, he’s never picked refuge or escape. Yet here he is on an overcast August afternoon demolishing the competition inside of the dimly lit gym at Greenfield School (Wilson, N.C.).
Every ankle he collects on wicked crossovers, every NBA-range three-pointer he drains, every hi-five he slaps is a moment he doesn’t have to mull over his reality.
On August 15, White lost his father, Donald White, to cancer.
“Hardest day of my life,” Coby says. “That was rough. It is rough.”
For Coby, it’s all still a dream; so much so that, on some level, it’s hard for him to believe he’s parked in this gray computer chair inside of the basketball office on this unseasonably brisk day talking about his dad in the past tense.
Not his dad.
Not “Doc,” the nickname he earned for his innate ability to diagnose his friends and family members’ ailments and injuries.
“I’m still getting used to it all,” Coby says. “I don’t know if you ever really get used to it though. I’m learning to live with it.”
In the past five years, Coby has lost one uncle and two aunts to cancer, and, while those experiences may have lessened the shock of Doc’s passing initially, they did little to prepare him for the hurt in the aftermath.
“I can’t really describe the feeling of losing my dad,” Coby says. “They’re all different because they’re all different people. My dad and I were very close so it’s been rough. It’s been a long process in just a couple weeks.”
Coby first learned of Doc’s prognosis in February, which, in context, makes what he was able to do on the basketball court downright legendary.
A month after the news, Coby won Gatorade Player of the Year for North Carolina after posting 31.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.1 assists a game for Greenfield. He followed that up by obliterating the competition in the Nike EYBL, the country’s toughest circuit, to the tune of 21.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals a game for Team CP3 (N.C.).
“When I heard the unfortunate news about his father I immediately thought back to when I saw Coby play in April, May and June,” ESPN director of basketball recruiting Paul Biancardi says. “It’s remarkable that he even showed up. To know the unfortunate circumstances he was dealing with and to remember how mentally locked in he was in every game mentally is amazing. His faith has to be really strong and his focus and resolve is extremely high. All things considered, to be that productive against some of best talent in the country is truly amazing because in these situations basketball is either an escape or a burden.”
Coby learned to take the former approach because in 2015, during Doc’s first bout with cancer, Coby’s resorted to the latter.
“He was playing with Team Wall and it was just a lot to deal with for him at the time,” Coby’s brother, Will, says. “After my father’s cancer went into remission I think Coby really took a lesson from that. One of my father’s favorite things to do was watch him play, so I think Coby felt like not giving the game his all would be letting him down.”
In June, Coby’s mother, Bonita, broke the news to the 6-foot-4 point guard that Doc’s cancer was incurable.
His reaction, at least initially, was typical.
He cried. A lot.
He was angry. Really angry.
Incurable? Why? How?
“I didn’t get it,” Coby says. “I ran outside crying. I didn’t fully understand everything, but I talked to my dad and he was straight up with me. He told me he was going to leave eventually and he wanted me to be strong for my mom. He told me, ‘You’re gonna make it; that’s from my heart.’ I’ll never forget that.”
Soon, Coby’s anger and disbelief gave way to an unshakable faith that he’d never tapped in to before. He didn’t think Doc was going to overcome the grim prognosis, Coby knew he would.
“I’m a Christian and I believe in God and I know how important faith is,” Coby says. “So I stopped worrying because I had faith. My dad is so strong and he he’d beaten cancer before. I said this was just gonna be another one of my dad’s stories he’ll tell people; how he beat cancer again.”
Coby’s stance came as no shock to Bonita.
Even at a young age, she said he’s always shown a maturity “beyond his years.”
“He’s the youngest of three, but he learned a lot and paid attention to things early,” Bonita says. “His thought process is so much different than kids his age.”
That’s why he went into a state of shock when Bonita called him and Will on that August morning while they were waiting to board a flight to Los Angeles for the Nike Skills Academy.
“I immediately thought about my mom,” Coby says. “She’s lost so many people already and now she’s losing her husband. That hurt me so bad. I had all this faith and it didn’t save my dad. I was mad with God.”
Coby had been told that proper perspective typically comes in the absence of emotion. The latter, especially in an unfortunate situation, can take months or even years to subside. That’s why it’s mind-boggling that his clear viewpoint came during the emotional peak that was Doc’s funeral.
“Pastor (Joe) Jackson got up to speak and he talked about Heaven and how my dad was up there dancing in the golden streets having a good time,” Coby says. “He said he wasn’t suffering anymore and that made me feel so good. I knew all these things, but when I heard them; I can’t explain it… I just had this feeling of peace. That’s when I accepted what happened as God’s will. I accept that. It’s hard to say that because my dad was a good man.”
Ask anyone who knew Doc intimately and they’ll tell you that he may have missed his calling as a comedian.
“He was hilarious,” Will says. “He was the dad that all of your friends wanted to come to the house and just be around. He loved to make people laugh and feel welcomed. He never met strangers. Everyone loved Doc.”
A no-nonsense, straight-shooter, Doc’s most proud achievement was his family. He often reminded Coby where he got his scoring prowess. Doc played at North Carolina Central from 1970-73.
“He said I couldn’t score like him,” Coby says with a laugh. “I definitely got it from him. My dad was just a real man that loved his family. That’s why family is so big for me.”
It’s also one of the main reasons he committed to North Carolina last summer.
Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams and his entire staff attended Doc’s funeral in support of Coby.
“I already knew this, but it just reminded me that I made the right college decision,” Coby says. “I appreciated them coming so much. It made me know that I had a true family waiting for me next year. Makes me want to go even harder for Coach Williams when I get there.”
First thing’s first, Coby’s got a checklist of goals for his senior year like winning a state title, becoming a McDonald’s and Jordan Brand All-American, and becoming North Carolina’s all-time leading scorer.
As it stands, White has 2,456 points and needs 852 more to break JamesOn Curry’s 2004 record of 3,307.
By that math, Coby would need to average just over 25 points a game; six less than he averaged last season.
“I’m definitely coming for that,” Coby says. “I know my dad would be proud of that.”
Greenfield coach Rob Salter said he’s planning to design pregame shooting shirts for the team in honor of Doc.
“Doc was a part of our family here and I want to do something to honor him,” Salter said. “I’m gonna let Coby decide what will go on the back, but it’s just something to help Doc’s memory live on.”
To that end, Coby created the hashtag #FMF, which stands for “For My Father.”
He ends every social media post with it.
“He’s my motivation now,” Coby says. “It makes me feel good to post that.”
Naturally, Coby still grieves.
From time to time he still breaks down when he misspeaks while reciting the nightly prayers he prayed for his dad while he was still battling cancer.
“I would always ask God to bless my father’s life and cure him,” Coby says. “I prayed that so much it was just like second nature. Now, I have to catch myself and ask God to bless his soul. That gets me…
“I’m dedicating the rest of my career to my father. More than anything, my dad wanted me to succeed and take care of my family. He just wanted the best for me. I feel like I owe it to him to put everything I have toward that. I still think about what the preacher said about him up there in Heaven dancing in the streets of gold. That makes me happy. It makes me want to be the best man and the best player I can be. He’s still with me watching over me. It’s a good feeling to know he’ll always be with me in my journey.”
Dancing every step of the way.
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY