Hannah White reached for her phone as soon as she heard the chants at TD Garden.
Celtics fans typically reserve those three letters for superstar Jayson Tatum.
On this evening, however, the sellout crowd was cheering for White’s husband, Derrick. She recorded video as he stood at the free throw line and scored his 25th and 26th points of the night in the final minutes of the Celtics’ Game 2 win over Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs.
Hannah shared the video with family and friends. Oh my god, she wrote, I can’t believe it.
This was a first for Derrick White in his seven-year NBA career. But White, not one to fuss over individual honors or crave the spotlight, tried to brush it off.
“That’s JT,” he said after the game. “That ain’t me.”
The memorable night marked yet another impressive performance for the 28-year-old guard, who has settled into his role after getting traded to Boston in February 2022.
White can shy away from recognition all he wants, but the MVP chants represent just how far he has come.
Once an undersized teenager begging for attention from college coaches, once a Division 2 player betting on himself, Derrick White is now a key contributor on a championship contender.
“His whole story, the amount of twists and turns that all happen to come out right,” said Derrick’s father Richard, “it’s incredible.”
‘Taken for granted’
White played more than just basketball growing up, trying his hand at baseball and football. Before long, his small stature led him to abandon those other athletic endeavors. He lacked power at the plate — though his speed made him an exceptional bunter — and couldn’t match up physically against his much bigger peers.
“He was very small,” recalled Richard. “We had a hard time getting him to eat or put on weight. In his mind, he just thought that would slow him down, if he gained weight. His mom would make meals, and he just wouldn’t eat. I had a lot of leftovers.”
It was basketball that remained. And it occupied most of White’s free time, first on the family’s driveway and then at the local rec center.
Once he was able to drive, his father joked, “we never really saw him.”
In middle school, White started working with Marcus Mason, a former college coach who opened a personal training business. They focused on strong fundamentals and basketball IQ, knowing White’s slight frame and underwhelming athleticism were not going to overpower anyone.
That became clear when White enrolled at Legend High School, which had recently opened in the distant Denver suburb of Parker. With a small student body, there was only one boys’ basketball team. That meant a group of 11 freshmen, including a 5-foot-8-inch, 110-pound Derrick White, had to compete against upperclassmen across the region.
The team — “obviously overmatched,” according to coach Kevin Boley — finished with one league win in its first season.
White’s body started to fill out — as a senior, he was up to 6-1, 155, hardly imposing — and so did the stat sheet. He emerged as Legend’s best player, averaging a team-high 17.1 points per game. But it wasn’t enough to garner attention. Boley said rival schools had players headed to Division 1 schools such as BYU and Wyoming.
“When you’re talking about the best players in Parker, Derrick’s name didn’t come up,” Boley said.
But it wasn’t discouraging.
“I think that’s part of what drove Derrick, being a little bit smaller, being taken for granted.”
‘The stars aligned’
The feedback from college coaches always boiled down to one thing: Size. White couldn’t pass the first eye test. Yes, he had developed into a solid high school point guard, but his play still didn’t wow anybody. His game was not flashy.
Boley and White’s parents distributed film to schools with a promise: If you redshirt Derrick and get him in the weight room, he will evolve into an unbelievable player on the back end.
No one bought in.
“We were never going to give up,” Richard said. “It just takes one.”
White’s options were slim. He could go to a junior college in Wyoming. He could go to Johnson & Wales, best known for culinary arts, which had a campus in Denver. Or, he could forgo college basketball completely, a route he never wanted to confront.
In 2012, Jeff Culver, who recruited Derrick at Johnson & Wales, accepted the head coaching job at Division 2 University of Colorado/Colorado Springs, less than an hour drive from the Whites’ home. Culver called White, then a senior still desperate for offers, and scheduled an on-campus visit.
“The stars aligned,” Culver said. “I don’t know that he would have attended Johnson & Wales. I know everybody wants to talk about that, but the reality is, I don’t think he would have gone there. I don’t know what he would have done, if he even would have been playing college ball.”
Culver agreed with the Whites’ assessment of their son, and intended to redshirt Derrick as a freshman. White was to use the year to get bigger, stronger, and faster.
But after an ugly preseason loss and a rash of injuries, Culver had to reverse course. He turned to White, hoping the undersized guard could spark the team. Within months, he went from having an unclear future in the game to the starting lineup for the Mountain Lions.
White, who led the team in field goal attempts and scoring, would have benefitted from that redshirt year. UCCS finished 5-21 that season, losing seven games by fewer than 5 points. The defeats followed a similar script, with the team’s inexperience rearing its head down the stretch.
White and his roommate, forward Alex Welsh, spent late nights in their apartment breaking down what went wrong.
“A lot of the time, we’d come home, sit down in our living room, and kind of shake our heads at each other, like, ‘Wow, so close again. What are we doing wrong?’ ” Welsh said. “The learning curve felt so extreme.”
By White’s sophomore year, the conversations began to shift. UCCS improved to 21-9, with White and Welsh as the top two scorers. By their junior season, the coaching staff started chuckling at the stat sheet: White was everywhere. He registered 171 assists, 74 steals, and 68 blocks that year — all team highs by a wide margin.
“I think part of what fueled it is he had a chip on his shoulder from not getting enough love out of high school,” Culver said. “He had an ax to grind with every school that didn’t recruit him.”
‘Things shine on Derrick’
One morning during their junior year, White sat down on Welsh’s bed and began rocking back and forth.
“Are you good?” asked Welsh, sensing White’s nerves. “What’s going on, bro?”
White didn’t say anything. But Welsh knew.
“Are you leaving?” he asked.
White nodded. He told Welsh about his plans to transfer to Colorado to play Division 1 basketball in the Pac-12.
“Are you mad?” he asked.
Sad, yes. Mad? Hardly. Welsh was thrilled about White’s opportunity.
Richard, though, was on the fence about his son’s decision. He thought Derrick should stay at UCCS and continue the momentum. But Derrick’s mother, Colleen, encouraged him to make the move. If you don’t try, she said, you’re never going to know.
At Colorado, White finally took his redshirt year. He sat out his first season and used the time exactly how Culver intended at UCCS. Not only did he build muscle, he gained confidence.
And that redshirt year might have made all the difference for his future.
“If the rules were then what they are now, he would not have been a first-round draft pick,” said Colorado coach Tad Boyle. “That’s not because he wasn’t good enough to be. It’s just the adjustment period, I think, was really beneficial for him. The year in the weight room, the year in practice, the year working on his game, developing his skills was critical to his success.”
When White took the court the next year, he led Colorado in the same four statistical categories as he did at UCCS: points, assists, steals, and blocks. As teams and agents began to reach out, White’s dream of playing in the NBA finally seemed real.
White still had to fight for an invite to the NBA scouting combine by playing in the Portsmouth Invitational, a predraft tournament for college seniors. He showed out in the first two games before dropping a clunker in the third. As his father remembers, though, all the important people had already left.
“They never saw that one,” Richard said. “Once again, things shine on Derrick. He’s always up for a challenge. He knows he’s not going to get anything handed to him. He has to go out there and keep putting out good performances so that people remember him.”
‘Bigger and bigger stages’
Even after getting drafted 29th by the Spurs in 2017, even after carving out a consistent role with the Celtics, White is still the same as he was all those years ago — just eight or so inches taller.
“He’s been the exact same person since the seventh grade,” said Mason, who has trained White for the last 15 years. “In my opinion, he never peaked. He keeps getting better every single year.
“The ability to get better has allowed him to catch and pass so many players in the world. It’s kind of amazing when you say it like that.”
With the Celtics, White still hits his key statistics — points, assists, steals, and blocks — but also makes important plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet. He tips balls so a teammate can grab the offensive rebound. He pesters opposing guards on defense. He does the little things he’s always done. Now, more people are noticing.
“It’s just bigger and bigger stages,” Culver said, “bigger and bigger audiences. More and more people kind of coming out of the woodworks and discovering his game and what he’s capable of doing.”