U of M junior James White overcomes huge odds to pursue a dream on the basketball
By Greg Russell
James White gathers in the missed free throw from Joe Jackson. He fires it back to
the Memphis point guard at the free throw line during a practice session in the Finch
Center in midsummer. At first glance, the moment might appear insignificant. But White,
a U of M junior, thought just a few years earlier he would never run the length of
the court again — much less have the strength to pick up a basketball. Suddenly, the
simple interchange reminds us to never take anything for granted.
In the spring of 1998, University of Memphis basketball manager James White was living
the perfect life. His family had taken him on a spring break trip to Orlando, Fla.,
to watch his two idols play in a game for the Orlando Magic. A trip to Disney World
was also in the works. For a first-grader, things couldn’t get much better. But that
is precisely when things began to fall apart.
"We were at Disney World in Orlando," recalls James. "We had asked people to take
care of our house. Well, somebody left a lamp on the bed and the house caught fire.
The main thing I was concerned about, being 6 years old, was that the Orlando Magic
had Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal and that we were going to have to leave a
day early and wouldn’t get to see the Magic play. Oh man, I was disappointed."
When the Whites returned home, the family discovered the house had burned to the ground.
All possessions were lost. "That was a rough time," James says.
"All right, move on with your life," he thought. After all, church members were helping
the family get back on its feet. He had the whole summer to look forward to. It’s
hard, after all, to keep a 6-year-old down.
But something was still not right.
|White, an accountancy major, already appears to be on track for his latest challenge:
to be a head basketball coach at the collegiate level. He guided a high school team
to a perfect 10-0 record during a University of Michigan player development camp in
Bumps soon began appearing on James’ head. Mysterious bumps that wouldn’t go away.
"I tried shampoos, everything," James says. Neither the family’s general practitioner
nor a dermatologist had the answer.
But a doctor at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital possibly did.
"I can remember the date, June 6, 1998," recalls James’ dad, Bill White. "He had a
biopsy at Le Bonheur and the results came back inconclusive, but the white blood cells
were a little elevated. We were a little worried. So they drew more blood and when
this blood test came back, his white cell count was very high."
Doctors told the Whites the worst: they suspected leukemia.
"They told us we needed to be at St. Jude (Children’s Research Hospital) at 9 a.m.
the next day for more tests," Bill says.
At St. Jude, exactly three months to the day after James’ dream trip to Orlando had
been cut short, the family learned that James had T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia
(ALL) and a small mass in his chest. Dr. Bassem Razzouk told the family James would
need stronger treatment than is used for children who have the common form of ALL.
"St. Jude is very straightforward with the patients and the parents," Bill says. "James
was on the exam table when the doctor came in and said, ‘James, you have cancer.’
I remember my son had tears welling up in his eyes."
It was a hard moment for the White family to fathom.
"When your child is diagnosed with cancer, it really resonates," Bill continues. "You
think, ‘No, God, not my child.’ Your child is your gift. I recall my wife saying how
surreal it was."
Bill says the family’s faith helped.
"I knew he’d be healed, either here or in heaven. I just didn’t know in whose hands,
in ours or in God’s."
For James, life took a sudden turn.
"When you are that young, you don’t understand the magnitude of it," James says. "You
are just thinking, ‘Oh man, I’ve got to go to the doctor.’ You are not thinking this
is any life-threatening situation."
That quickly changed.
|White says his fourth-grade year was the toughest when his chemotherapy treatments
intensified. He is pictured with former Memphis Grizzlies’ player Jason Williams.
(Photo courtesy of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital)
"They get you right into treatment at St. Jude. It is called the induction phase,"
James explains. "I hated it. I must have stayed in the hospital for most of the summer
as an inpatient. They are poking and prodding and drawing blood. They’re giving you
treatments right off the bat, giving you 11 pills every three hours. I was so young
I didn’t even know how to swallow pills. I had to learn."
For the next three-and-a-half years, James underwent chemotherapy treatments at St.
"It is an interesting journey when you enter the doors at St. Jude," says Bill. "I
had been a lifelong Memphian and I had always heard about the hospital but I really
never knew what went on inside. They practice medicine the way it is meant to be.
They practice it to save your life. They are not there for the money. In fact, no
family ever pays St. Jude for anything."
James was finding out how unfair life can turn out to be.
"At that age, you just want to be playing outside, having fun, going to movies," James
recalls. "My sports were taken away from me. I was distraught. I was angry."
He would suffer side effects including a stroke, seizures, shingles, chicken pox and
James endured treatments for what he says seemed like a lifetime. But the end was
in sight. St. Jude doctors had given the go-ahead for a party that is thrown to celebrate
a patient’s last chemo treatment. A cake was ordered. The Discovery Channel arrived to film the event for a documentary about children with cancer.
But the day of the party, doctors — doing a routine last check — found James had relapsed.
For the next year and a half, he underwent treatments that were even more aggressive.
"The fourth grade was during my relapse phase," James says. "I had never been under
such intense treatment before. You don’t want to be a cancer patient anymore. You
don’t want to have to go for treatment every week. You see your friends going to swim.
I couldn’t learn to swim because I had something in my chest that couldn’t get wet.
"I was on steroids. I was over 100 pounds in fourth grade. I had no stamina, no strength.
I remember shooting a free throw, an air ball."
Which, for James, was a telling moment. Basketball had always been the focal point
of his life. He played church ball but he didn’t make the team in middle school. James
pursued the sport at basketball camps, even during weeks when he was undergoing chemotherapy.
Bill recalls one particular day during a Bubba Luckett (BBA ’83) basketball camp at
Christian Brothers High School during James’ toughest year of treatment.
"He had a chemo treatment on a Wednesday. It was a very tough day for him," Bill says.
"Well, he wakes up on a Thursday and says, ‘Can I go to the basketball camp?’ We take
him. During the game he gets nauseated. We take him out of the gym and he throws up.
He then asks if we can go back in and watch. We’re watching the game and he says,
‘Daddy, can I go back in and play?’ That’s how much he loves the game."
James, who says his parents would take him to games even when he was a baby, remembers
that Tiger basketball helped him through many of his toughest times.
"During the time I had cancer, I got a phone call from (then-coach) John Calipari,"
James says. "I can’t tell you how much that really made my day. He called me up and
said, ‘Hey James, I heard you’ve been battling cancer. You are in my thoughts and
prayers. Anytime you want to come by practice, you can and hang out with the players.’
So every Friday afternoon, that’s when my dad got off work early, we’d go watch the
The air ball James had shot earlier in the year ended up being the low moment; in
May of 2002, life would begin to return to normal as James finished treatment.
A new challenge
Bill White knows when he sees his son’s number come up on his cell phone what to expect.
"You can hear basketballs bouncing in the background," says White with a laugh. "Almost
always. He puts in 50 to 55 hours a week with the basketball team. That is his life."
After his last chemotherapy treatment in 2002, James made the White Station varsity
team and was part of a state championship with current Tiger Joe Jackson. When he
realized he didn’t have a future as a college player, he decided he wanted to become
a college head coach — something he knows won’t be easy not having played beyond high
He is hoping the Finch Center will be his launching pad: he served as a team manager
last year and will move up to video coordinator this season.
"More and more when you do video type of stuff, you learn everything about the game,
the x’s and the o’s," says James. "You share your knowledge of the game and the coaches
get to know you. You see a lot of coaches coming from the type of background that
I will see in my junior and senior year.
"After that, I hope to get a graduate assistant type of coaching position. When you
get a position like that, you are like a coach in the making."
James says he is indebted to Memphis coach Josh Pastner for giving him the opportunity
to work with the team. "I have learned so much from him. He has been a great mentor.
He, Jimmy Williams, the other coaches, they all have been great."
James’ story of twice surviving a fatal form of cancer hasn’t been lost on the team.
"If you see him now, you wouldn’t know what he went through back then," says Jackson,
his former teammate at White Station. "We see him as one of us, not as a manager,
but as a player. He is there any time we need him."
Tiger center Tarik Black says he didn’t know of James’ battle with cancer until a
team trip to St. Jude.
"That is when he told us the story, how he overcame it, "Black says. "I mean, we are
players and sometimes we think we have it tough. But look at what he went through.
It makes us realize how blessed we are. It puts everything into perspective."
James only on occasion discusses the spring when many of his hopes seemingly were
dashed because of cancer; he prefers to dwell on the present.
"I am working for the Tigers — it is a dream come true," he says. "Working for the
hometown team, there is nothing like it."