Aaron White 101: How an unlikely star helped revive Iowa basketball
IOWA CITY, Ia. – There was something uncharacteristic about Aaron White as he slunk into his seat on the Iowa basketball team bus in Dayton, Ohio, last March.
The persistent orange-haired pillar of energy was lifeless.
"He put his head down," said Bobby Hansen, radio analyst for the Hawkeyes and longtime NBA player who was in the next seat. "I said, 'Are you OK?' He said, 'I'm exhausted.' I said, 'You need to take a break.'
"He hit the wall right there."
A seventh loss in eight tries, this one coming in Iowa's first NCAA Tournament game in eight years, rocked White where it hurt the most. He knew he needed to break up with the game his entire life was built around.
For the next two weeks, he did.
"It was tough for me to not touch a basketball," White said. "My previous two years, I was right back at it."
Nothing has come easy for White, but he always plowed ahead — and along the way this under-recruited kid from the Cleveland suburbs revived a Big Ten Conference program and became one of the Hawkeyes' all-time greats.
He will end up as a top-three scorer and rebounder in Iowa's 114-year basketball history. But White's impact goes beyond personal achievements — he helped bring change to a program that was in shambles when he agreed to sign on with coach Fran McCaffery.
In White, McCaffery saw a special combination of work ethic, basketball IQ and athleticism harnessed in a 6-foot-9 frame. But few others saw that four years ago. No other major-college program offered him a scholarship. Even White's father doubted whether his game fit the rugged Big Ten.
"I don't think by any means I'm the second-most talented scorer that's ever come through here, or (a) top-five rebounder," said White, who at 11 a.m. Saturday will play his 75th and final home game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. "A lot of it is work ethic, desire, energy, passion."
Going Big, leaving home
White grew up eight hours east in Strongsville, Ohio. He sheepishly admits now that he'd never been to Iowa before McCaffery recruited him — and, no kidding, "never thought of it as a state."
"Sadly, the only memory I had of their basketball program was 2006," White said, "when they lost to Northwestern State (in the first round of the NCAA Tournament)."
But the allure of playing in the Big Ten outweighed his family's urgings for him to stay close to home.
"I'm almost embarrassed about it now," Rick White, Aaron's father and youth coach, said. "I thought the (Atlantic-10) was more suited to his style."
White was down to Iowa and Duquesne, two hours away in Pittsburgh, among his 20-plus scholarship offers.
"He felt extremely slighted that he didn't have any other big-time offers besides Iowa," Rick White said. "He had that fire in his stomach, and he liked Fran, and it was the Big Ten.
"And that's what he went for. He was right."
White broke his wrist dunking as a high school sophomore, costing him a key summer of AAU ball. That hurt his recruiting profile, but it may have helped McCaffery — then fighting through his first season at Iowa with an 11-20 record — scoop up a hungry difference-maker in White.
"He's so incredibly likable," McCaffery remembers thinking. "In the recruiting process, you immediately like him, and you know that he can come in and impact this team, because of his personality."
Ohio meets London
That's the thing about White. He packs a profound impact on those around him.
His playing style isn't always fluid — kind of a controlled, flailing hustle. But he's got sneaky athleticism. He could've played Division I baseball as a shortstop, Dad said, before choosing basketball full-time. (Oh, and don't give him any strokes on the golf course — his handicap dipped below 3 this past summer.)
Underneath White's shy off-court demeanor is that infectious personality McCaffery noticed early. And it creates a ripple effect.
Senior center Gabe Olaseni can attest to that. Though the London native and White were hallway neighbors the summer before their freshman year, their relationship was light on words.
"I really couldn't understand him," White said. "His (British) accent was crazy at that time."
Olaseni laughed, remembering the days when they just politely nodded and smiled at one another. Their friendship, though, flourished through jump shots.
A raw rookie then, Olaseni would tag along with White to the practice gym. Olaseni, now a 6-10 Big Ten force as a senior, watched White's relentless work ethic and saw it spill over into his desire and development.
"If the best player on your team and arguably one of the best players in the Big Ten can get up extra reps or watch extra film," Olaseni said, "it makes you do extra stuff as well."
They've shared an apartment the past three years. If they want to get extra shots up, all they have to do is cross the street to Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
"Literally, it's like a 15-second walk," Olaseni said.
They've helped each other avoid temptations of college life, content to watch "Parks and Recreation" reruns and mindless movies on Netflix.
They attend church together, too, and are part of a weekly Bible study that includes a big chunk of the Hawkeye roster. They'll exchange text messages such as, "Remember to pray today."
White's faith has grown stronger since coming to Iowa.
"I believe God has a plan for me and my life," White said. "I think everything has led up to this point."
Tattoos, and their meaning
White's unlikely path includes 83 Hawkeye victories (and counting). Iowa won 49 games in the four years before he arrived.
He has made more free throws by far (600) than anyone in school history, and with 12 points Saturday he'll pass Acie Earl (1,779) for second place all-time at Iowa. With five more rebounds, he'll pass Ed Horton (877) for No. 3 on that career list.
"Each thing that he achieves, I'm just wowed by it," said his mother, Debbie Kuntz, a fourth-grade teacher in Strongsville. White's parents, who divorced when he was 4, will be by his side on Senior Day. "It's above and beyond what I ever thought it would be. I'm so happy for him and proud of him."
White got two tattoos after coming to college that pay tribute to important women in his life — especially Mom, whom he talks to or texts after every game.
The first tattoo, on his side, depicts the Serenity Prayer — the one that begins, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change" — along with wings and crosses.
It's a prayer Mom instilled in him. White remembers to say it when he brushes his teeth each morning.
"It almost looks like a shield, and that's kind of how I view it — my shield protecting me with my faith," White said.
The other tattoo — which slightly peeks out of his uniform along his right chest muscle — is a staircase going through clouds, along with the names Deborah (Mom), and Helen and Susie (his grandmothers).
"They've been with me through my path," he said. "That's the purpose of it."
Most wouldn't think of straight-laced White as a tattoo guy. But the more you understand what drives him — basketball, faith and family — the more it makes perfect sense.
"My brother (Brian, a musician) has them. A lot of people I follow in the NBA have them," White said. "I'm going to get more. As important things happen, important people in my life, I think it's just a cool way to keep them with me."
Boy meets Grace
Grace Burns entered White's world the summer before his freshman year, through a more outgoing Strongsville native — Iowa football player Ray Hamilton.
Hamilton urged his shy friend to meet Burns, then a sophomore Iowa volleyball player.
"I was like, 'Nah, I've got stuff to do,' " White said. "Even though I didn't have anything to do."
White and Burns eventually connected. And they clicked.
"I remember when they first started talking to each other," Olaseni said, "me and Josh (Oglesby) made the comment that you're going to marry this girl."
They've been together ever since. Though no wedding date is set, Burns tabled her dream of medical school to support White's senior season. She plans to go wherever White's professional basketball career takes them.
"That's kind of when I really realized, this is the girl I'm going to marry," White said. "Pre-med. All As and Bs. Really smart. Could do anything she wants. The fact that she kind of put her life on hold for this last year and trusts us and trusts me … that kind of solidified how special she is to me."
Burns ticks off the things she loves about White — his faith, work ethic, honesty, loyalty and big heart.
Oh, and this:
"He's one of the goofiest people I know," Burns said. "He is the only person that no matter how stressed or mad or worried I was, he can always make me laugh. What's so unique about it is nobody gets to see that side of him except for the people he's super-comfortable with."
His fame and future
White can't believe he has more than 21,000 Twitter followers.
"I'm not that interesting," he joked.
Social media's reactionary crowd always weighs in anyway. Iowa wins? White's Twitter mentions carry effusive praise. Iowa loses? White gets texts from loved ones urging him to stay offline.
Critics rile up White's family and girlfriend. But they motivate him to work harder, if that's possible.
"Sometimes I'll read a couple tweets," White said, "and it'll fuel me to get a workout in."
Burns has watched White walk back to Carver-Hawkeye the night after a loss. And he might not return until he makes 50 shots in a row.
That underscores a basketball devotion that triggers him to maintain a healthy diet and incessantly study the game. Recently after hearing about the book "The Energy Bus," which focuses on leadership and positive energy, he made a late-night run to Barnes and Noble to grab a copy.
"I talked to him the next day on a road trip," Burns said, "and he was halfway through that book."
One reason White will likely surpass 1,800 collegiate points after having just one offer from a major program: He uses his mind to put himself in a position to score — often via the fast break, getting fouled or dunking.
"That's been a big part of his game," said Hansen, who scored nearly 4,000 points in 11 NBA seasons. "And to me that's what's going to make him a professional basketball player for the next 10 years, at least."
Don't be surprised if White pursues coaching after his pro days are over. But that's way down the road. If the NBA doesn't call, he'll play overseas.
White realizes he'll face doubters. But he's been there, done that.
"The critics are going to say I can't shoot well enough to play in the NBA, but there's no doubt in my mind," White said. "My energy, my basketball IQ, the way I can affect the game in multiple ways — I can help an NBA team."
The big finish
To get here, White needed that break after the NCAA loss to Tennessee — the end of an exhausting stretch that began with two overseas summer basketball trips, including as part of the U.S. team in the World University Games, and the Hawkeyes' perplexing slide from the nation's top 10 to irrelevance.
He spent time with his girlfriend. He played golf. He spent time alone. He reflected.
"It was a lot to go through last year," White said, "but I think it really helped me as a person, and I think it helped a lot of guys on our team."
This past summer, he recharged with prestigious invites to skills academies hosted by NBA superstars LeBron James and Kevin Durant — validation that he's got pro potential.
In true White form, his senior season hasn't been a breeze. He suffered a stinger injury early in a Jan. 24 loss at Purdue, a shot to the shoulder that caused him intense pain for days. White didn't miss the next game, but admitted the pain didn't completely go away until before a Feb. 15 loss at Northwestern.
"Which is ironic, because then I played terrible against Northwestern (1-for-12 shooting)," he said.
Now, with one game left before the postseason begins, White's performance is peaking. He has averaged 20.4 points and 9.4 rebounds during a five-game winning streak, Iowa's longest in the Big Ten in 18 seasons. He'll probably be named first-team all-Big Ten.
As his career winds down, his legacy has been felt well beyond the accolades.
Matt Gatens, who as a senior took a spindly freshman from Ohio under his wing, pointed to White's character as a catalyst in reviving a moribund program.
"He has led Iowa's emergence back into the NCAA Tournament and national relevancy," said Gatens, who now plays professionally in Turkey, "which I think Iowa fans need to appreciate."
Maybe the best part about White's story? The final chapter has yet to be written.
Iowa, at 20-10, is well-positioned to have a crack at recording the school's first NCAA Tournament victory since 2001. That would be something, considering Hawkeye basketball had sunk to practically nothing before White showed up.
"I never would have thought this would have happened, to be honest," White said. "I believed in coach. It was part of the reason I came here. I believed he could turn it around. I believed I could help. … But I didn't think I could help this much or do this much."
MORE ON AARON WHITE
Some cutting-room-floor topics on Iowa senior forward Aaron White:
By the way, really, what happened last year to a team that was top-10 nationally then completely spiraled?
Aaron White: "It wasn't one thing that really happened. It was a complacency I think that we got into. Once we got a couple losses, instead of putting our foot in the ground like we have this year I think, we just accepted it. I think we kind of expected it was going to turn around eventually without making that expectation happen. You get a ranking like that, you have a great team, you've got leaders, you've got seniors, you've got an NBA player (Devyn Marble) on your team. You just assume that we're going to start winning games. I think that's what we did. We just kept assuming. Kept doing the same things rather than changing them. If you don't change, things don't change."
What about that famous story of White sleeping overnight in the Iowa locker room after getting locked in as a freshman?
Rick White (Aaron's dad and youth coach): "I just kind of smiled. If only you knew the Dad and Son arguments that we would get into about me saying, 'You should be working out, you should be lifting weights, you should practice on your shots.' ... That didn't quite register. I kept telling him to do that; it would make it easier his first year in college. Just common sense-type stuff. But he didn't want to hear anything about that. Well then, fast-forward a couple years later and he's getting locked in the gym because he's there so late working out ... you realize that he kind of gets it and what it takes."
When White suffered what appeared to be a significant injury against Purdue on Jan. 24, what was racing through the minds of those closest to him?
Debbie Kuntz (Aaron's mom, who was in West Lafayette): "It was awful. I think it was bad on a couple of accounts. As a parent, you want to find out what's going on. But you can't do that. When he went back in, I could tell from his face he wasn't OK to play. … My first thought was he broke his collarbone. I literally thought I was going to vomit."
How instrumental has White's Christian faith been throughout a long, winding college basketball career?
Grace Burns (Aaron's longtime girlfriend): "There are things out there bigger than basketball. He totally realizes that. I don't know much about basketball. Before games, I don't give him pep talks or anything like that. … But before every game, I tell him, I'm praying for you to have fun and praying for you to have strength and courage tonight, because there's only so many things that you can control. I always tell him one of the things you can always control is having fun and working hard."
How important has White been to his current coach and the program as a whole?
Fran McCaffery: "As a coach you realize, OK, two things: No. 1, he's got incredible work ethic. No. 2, he's got incredible basketball intellect. You add that to the fact that he's 6-9 and athletic, now you've got a combination that you know is going to be special. To have a chance to work with him for four years and see his impact on our team, in our program, on his teammates. He's doing things now as a leader on the floor that are really special. Any coach would hope to have somebody like that every year. And it doesn't happen like that all the time."
WHITE IN THE RECORD BOOKS
Iowa's career points leaders
1. Roy Marble, 1986-89 — 2,116
2. Acie Earl, 1990-93 — 1,779
T3. Aaron White, 2012-pr. — 1,768
T3. Greg Stokes, 1982-85 — 1,768
5. B.J. Armstrong, 1986-89 — 1,705
Iowa's career rebounds leaders
1. Greg Brunner, 2003-06 — 990
2. Kevin Kunnert, 1971-73 — 914
3. Ed Horton, 1986-89 — 877
4. Aaron White, 2012-pr. — 873
5. Michael Payne, 1982-85 — 857
Iowa's games played leaders
1. Zach McCabe, 2011-14 — 137
T2. Aaron White, 2012-pr. — 136
T2. Roy Devyn Marble, 2011-14 — 136
T2. Melsahn Basabe, 2011-14 — 136
5. Roy Marble, 1986-89 — 134
Iowa's free throws made leaders
1. Aaron White, 2012-pr. — 600
2. Roy Marble, 1986-89 — 516
3. Acie Earl, 1990-93 — 493
Iowa's free-throw attempts leaders
1. Aaron White, 2012-pr. — 778
2. Acie Earl, 1990-93 — 725
3. Roy Marble, 1986-89 — 707
WHITE'S STATISTICS BY YEAR
Freshman — 11.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 50.4% FG, 69.9% FT
Sophomore — 12.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 46.8% FG, 74.8% FT
Junior — 12.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 58.4% FG, 80.7% FT
Senior — 15.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 51.1% FG, 81.9% FT