A couple weeks later, White was back in his hometown for the funeral. He was not thinking about the upcoming season with the Ducks, his last chance at college basketball after two years at Georgetown and three in Eugene. He was nervous in his hometown for the first time, wondering if the church where Jernigan’s service was being held might be a target for a shooting.
“I think that was one of the first times I was paranoid going back to Chicago. Around that time, there was a funeral that was shot up like a week before,” White said. “I went back home, and originally, my parents were a little worried about me going back. When I saw that funeral had got shot up, I thought that maybe was an omen, that maybe I shouldn’t. But that’s my family. I wanted to be there.”
Three days later, another friend of White’s, 25-year-old Gerald Glover, was killed in a shooting on Interstate 57. Less than a month later, after White had returned to Eugene to begin his senior season with the Ducks, a former teammate on his high school basketball team, 22-year-old Quantis Smith, was found shot and killed on a sidewalk. White had never been a stranger to violence — he lost a cousin to a shooting when he was in sixth grade and has lost eight loved ones to gun violence, he said — but losing three within a month as the most important basketball season of his career was set to begin would test anyone.
“There was about a month there where Paul was in a dark spot,” Oregon assistant coach Mike Mennenga said. “But he had to deal with that in his own way. I don’t know if there’s words you can say.”
White ruminated on that period of this season as he sat at his locker stall at SAP Center, preparing for practice before Oregon meets UC Irvine in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Sunday evening. His coaches believe he is playing for those he has lost, and they could see it in his eyes as he scored 14 points in a win over Wisconsin in the first round Friday. White talks to them before each game, reciting a prayer while the national anthem is played.
It was Mennenga who helped work with White on a daily basis after he transferred from Georgetown following the 2016 season. That summer, before leaving the D.C. campus, he lost another friend and former Chicago high school basketball star, Saieed Ivey, to a shooting in Los Angeles. When White arrived in Eugene, he redshirted and tried to throw himself into basketball and his academics.
White has become a key player for the Ducks, averaging 10.7 points and 3.4 rebounds. He has scored 14 points in three consecutive postseason games, helping Oregon revive its season and make an unlikely run to the tournament’s second round. He could only do it after he worked through that first month of the season.
“I’ve been able to really adapt to death,” said White.
“Paul isn’t like … got the NBA staring him in the face,” Mennenga said. “Paul has real life stuff he’s thinking about. When you deal with stuff like that, and you’re playing a game, it puts things in perspective.”
White will play again for his lost friends and family Sunday. He told stories about them Saturday, lighting up while talking about spending time in high school with Smith. He recalled playing countless games of arcade basketball with his cousin Rodney.
One of the more emotional moments of his life came when Rodney was in jail and made a collect call to White, who was in high school at the time. White said he remembers Rodney telling him he made his family proud, and that when he got out of jail, he wanted to see him in the NBA. White will be thinking about his cousin and talking silently to all of the friends he has lost as he listens to the national anthem Sunday night.
“I don’t believe in writing names on your shoes or writing on your wristband or anything like that,” White said. “Because if that’s the case, that’s a lot of names I’ve got to write. I don’t want to leave anyone out.”
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