Willie White briefly turned back the clock last Wednesday afternoon at Sharp Manufacturing in Memphis.
“A bunch of guys said they saw my name on television during the Nuggets-Lakers playoff game,” said White, the former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball great. “They were like, ‘Man, you really could play, couldn’t you?’”
Twenty-four years have passed since White averaged 6.3 points and 1.7 assists as a rookie for the Denver Nuggets during their NBA Western Conference finals loss to Los Angeles. Until this past week, Denver hadn’t advanced that deeply into the playoffs since that 1985 postseason.
So when the Nuggets and Lakers began reprising that series last Tuesday night, White was mentioned in a graphic alongside such former teammates as Alex English, Dan Issel, Calvin Natt, T.R. Dunn, Wayne Cooper and Lafayette “Fat” Lever.
“They beat us and then they beat Boston to win the championship,” White said of the Lakers. “But I’ve still got my Midwest Division ring, some pictures and clips. I never dreamed then that it would take this long for the Nuggets to get back to the conference finals. But I’m pulling for them as hard as I can.”
After leaving UTC in 1984 — he remains the Mocs’ all-time career Division I scoring leader by more than 500 points (1,972) — White spent two seasons in Denver, then seven overseas.
“We were wide open,” White said of those Doug Moe-coached Nuggets teams. “We just tried to outscore you. Lots of running and gunning. You might score 120, but we’d get 121.”
The Memphis native loved it. Moe’s offense often reminded him of UTC coach Murray Arnold’s strategy when the hour grew late and the score close.
“We didn’t really have a lot of plays in Denver,” White said. “When the game got tight we cleared out for Alex English or Dan Issel. It was like when I was at UTC and we really needed a basket. A lot of times Coach Arnold would call, ‘Thumbs down.’ That meant I was to do what I could do. I liked it.”
He still likes watching the NBA whenever his job at Sharp allows him a night off to drop by the FedEx Forum and catch the hometown Grizzlies.
“Cooper leaves me tickets whenever Sacramento comes to town,” White said of his former teammate, now a Kings executive. “Elston Turner leaves me tickets when the (Houston) Rockets are here. I’ve probably talked to all those guys at least a few times since I left except for Issel, and that’s only because I don’t have his number.”
Yet ask him about the Lakers series, about the 12-plus minutes he averaged against Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and Co., and White will say, “That was a long time ago. I remember seeing Jack Nicholson and all those stars. I remember him giving me that ol’ look and saying, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ But I don’t remember that much about the games.”
Maybe because it was too painful. After Denver pulled to within 2-1 in the best-of-seven series, English suffered an injury in Game 4 in Denver with the Nuggets comfortably ahead. The team didn’t immediately collapse, but a last-second putback by the Lakers after four missed shots put the visitors up 3-1 in the series. They closed it out the next game in Los Angeles.
After one more year in Denver and seven in Europe, White decided “it was time to stop playing and start a family.”
He and wife Dennessee are raising three children: sons Jalen (16) and Darius (14) and daughter Rickeya Burt. White’s adult daughter Shavonne Flowers lives in Chattanooga.
“Jalen’s a football player and Darius is a basketball player,” White said. “Darius is a scorer a lot like I was, but he’s a better ball-handler. Rickeya plays ball, too, and she’s really good. She wants to go to Tennessee or Memphis.”
Willie also still plays. Every Thursday morning you can find him at Old Grove Baptist squaring off against the likes of Penny Hardaway (Memphis), Todd Day (Arkansas), Andre Turner (Memphis), LaMarcus Golden (Tennessee) and McKinley Singleton (UAB), to name but a few Memphis schoolboy legends.
“Hey, it’s so good that Hardaway, Day and I don’t even always win,” White said. “Singleton usually has the best team.”
He does still more than hold his own at softball, where he plays for the elite Memphis Express. He also keeps up with the Mocs whenever possible, especially Stanley Lawrence and Stanford Strickland.
He even compared a former UTC teammate to NBA great and 2009 Hall of Fame inductee John Stockton.
“Stockton was quick, crafty, sneaky,” White said of the Utah Jazz point guard. “He was really just a smaller Nick Morken.”
As for a comment during ESPN’s Thursday broadcast of the Lakers-Nuggets’ Game 2 that labeled Kobe Bryant the greatest Laker ever, White said, “I was always told Jerry West was the greatest Laker. Kobe’s great, but if I took 40 shots a game, I’d score 40 points, too.”
He scored neither 40 points nor took 40 shots against the Lakers back in 1985. But he did play more than 12 minutes a game as a rookie against the eventual champs.
“Lafayette Lever got hurt and I had to play more than I usually did,” White said. “Some people think that hurt us. But I almost made the NBA Finals as a rookie. That’s not bad.”
Especially when it’s taken the Nuggets 24 years to get that far again.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...