Ex-Hawkeye Aaron White details life in Russia, latest career move

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Aaron White is back in Iowa, having recently spent most of nine-plus months in Russia’s second-largest city.

Considering the countless news stories about whether there’s been nefarious U.S./Russia collusion, it had to be an interesting time to be inside that country, right?

It wasn't as politically charged as you might think.

Aaron White remains Iowa's all-time leader in free throws (618), free-throw attempts (800) and is No. 2 in scoring (1,859 points) and No. 3 in rebounds (901). He will play in Lithuania next season, his third year of pro basketball.

“There’s really not this angst or hostility toward Americans,” the former Iowa basketball star said Wednesday. “Even my family and (wife) Grace’s family thought, ‘Oh, Russians don’t like Americans.’ It wasn’t like that.

“If you happened to meet people that actually spoke and understood English, and you told them you’re from America, they didn’t look at you any differently. Most of them probably thought it was cool. A lot of people from there don’t get to travel.

“The everyday people didn’t care about what was going on in the U.S.”

White's second year of pro basketball, though, was plenty interesting in St. Petersburg.

Unlike in White's first post-Hawkeye year in Bonn, Germany, English wasn’t commonplace in Russia. And that included team meetings and gameplans.

If there was a specific missive for White, one of the coaches was proficient enough in English to individually relay him the message. But White said there were many times he emerged with confusion from a timeout. In-game instructions were all in Russian.

“I’d come out of the huddle and go, ‘What’s going on?’” he said, laughing. “That was interesting for me.”

Also of note to Hawkeye fans: White’s game might not be what you remember it to be.

The 6-foot-9 forward who accrued many of his 1,859 collegiate points (No. 2 all-time at Iowa) via dunks, put-backs or his school-record 618 free throws has become more of an outside shooter.

“If somebody (from Iowa) watched my games, I play totally different than when I was in school,” said White, now 24. “I shot like double the amount of 3s that I shot free throws this year.”

He averaged just under 10 points and seven rebounds a game for Zenit St. Petersburg, which won a league-record 20 straight games at one point.

But what might have been most interesting about White’s experience in Russia was how his contract was handled — and what happened next.

His team in St. Petersburg had until midnight May 30 to exercise an option for 2017-18, but missed the deadline. At that point, White became a free agent — and teams in the EuroLeague, which is the top pro league in the world outside of the NBA, started calling his agent.

The next day, his Russian team offered White a two-year deal worth more money annually than he was previously making — unconventional, considering it could’ve kept him for one year at a lower rate. But by that time, White already had a better offer from BC Zalgiris Kaunas, a EuroLeague team in Lithuania.

On Tuesday, White officially signed with Zalgiris Kaunas for next season, with an option to keep him through 2018-19. Although EuroLeague salaries are kept under wraps, a typical deal for a player of White’s stature would pay at least six figures.

The Washington Wizards, who selected White in the second round of the 2015 NBA Draft, still maintain his rights. But for now, the stability offered within the latest deal works well for White and his family.

Aaron and Grace White have a daughter and are expecting their first son in October. They’ve put down U.S. roots in North Liberty, a short drive away from his college coaches at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“At least while I’m playing, it’s the perfect spot,” White said. “I can work out at the university. Grace has a lot of friends here. We know a lot families around here that have kids.”