The telephone call that Stilman White dreamed of came on the afternoon of March 29, 2011. He was driving home from a workout. The senior guard from Wilmington, N.C., was surprised to hear the voice of North Carolina head coach Roy Williams. White suddenly sat forward in the driver's seat and tightened his grip on the wheel.
"It was nerve-racking. When his name pops up, you kind of clear your throat," White said in a phone interview. "He said he had a scholarship open for me if I wanted to come to Chapel Hill. I committed. I sped home and told my mom the good news. I was pretty excited. I didn't get much sleep that night."
It was an offer the Mormon hoopster couldn't refuse, especially considering the legendary coach was supportive of his plan to serve an LDS mission. White had offers from three other schools and was interested in playing for a fourth program, but when Williams called with a Tar Heel scholarship, White's path became clear.
"A lot of schools would come watch me play, then they would hear about the mission and I wouldn't hear from them again. It was a little frustrating," White said. "But it all ended up working out."
Midway through this freshman year, the 6-foot, 160-pound guard is seeing about four minutes a game, but has played in front of President Barack Obama on an aircraft carrier; he has soaked up the lore of North Carolina basketball; and he has experienced life as one of the only Latter-day Saint student-athletes in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He plans to submit his mission papers after the season.
Mormon Blue Devil
White isn't the first Mormon to play basketball in the ACC. More than 17 years ago, Matt Christensen, a 6-foot-10 center from Massachusetts, signed with coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and played the 1995-96 season before serving an LDS mission in Frankfurt, Germany. He returned to Durham, N.C., in 1999 and was a member of the Blue Devils' 2001 national championship team. Christensen finished his career in 2002, almost seven years after he arrived.
Christensen, now a businessman with a family of five, can relate somewhat to what White is experiencing.
"I think I was the first LDS player at Duke. I didn't know of any other LDS guys on other teams during the time I was playing in the ACC," Christensen said.
His desire to serve a mission played a big role in the recruiting process, which started in seventh grade when the University of Tulsa sent him a letter. Over the next five years, Division I programs across the country competed for Christensen's talent. Each recruiter was told upfront about the mission. "If that is a problem for you, then don't recruit me," he told them. Some went away, while others argued he was shaving years off his NBA career. One recruiter was so bold as to say — with his father, Clayton, sitting in the room — Matt really didn't want to go on a mission, "you're just saying that to make your parents happy."
But Christensen really did want to serve a mission. He narrowed the list to three schools by his senior year: Duke, BYU and Stanford. But the decision was difficult. Ultimately, he went with Duke for a number of reasons.
First, the Durham campus felt like home and reminded him of Oxford University (his father studied at Oxford and it was a special place for the family).
Second, the Duke coaching staff had no problem with his mission and had done its LDS homework. Not only did Coach "K" know his Mormon terminology, but assistant Mike Brey attended sacrament meeting with the family. The staff also arranged visits with the local Latter-day Saint leaders.
"Most coaches, when they would talk about the church, would say things like, 'We checked and there is a local Mormon parish here. I called and talked with the priest, he says it's a great community,' something like that," Christensen said. "Coach K had interactions with members of the church going back to his time at West Point. They were supportive of me being a practicing member and they meant it. They took time to understand the church and what it meant."
Becoming a Tar Heel
Stilman White's recruiting experience was quite different. He missed the last half of his junior season after having knee surgery for a torn meniscus.
Healthy again as a senior at Hoggard High in Wilmington, White quickly developed into the most dominant player in the area, earning all-state honors and averaging 21 points a game. When college programs showed interest, White spoke openly about serving a mission, something he had wanted to do from a young age.
"I've seen just how it changes people," he said. "They come back and they're so much more mature; they've learned so much."
Many eastern schools lost interest when they learned about White's mission plans. Others, such as Utah State, BYU and UNC-Wilmington, were supportive of the mission and offered scholarships.
Playing in Utah appealed to White. Stilman's father, Shannon White, attended East High in Salt Lake and played basketball at Snow College and the College of Eastern Utah. Many of his relatives reside in the Beehive State.
The Whites are longtime followers of the University of Utah and White was interested in playing for the Utes, but the program was going through a coaching change at the time and he said they didn't contact him until very late in the process.
Then North Carolina entered the picture. The Tar Heel brand alone was impressive, White said, but the chance to play for Williams and learn the game in the shadow of six national championship banners and the retired jerseys of Michael Jordan and James Worthy wasn't bad, either.
The tipping point came when he attended a game between Duke and North Carolina. The phone call wouldn't come for a few weeks, but feeling the electric atmosphere, hanging with the team in the locker room and seeing the Tar Heels win the ACC and cut down the nets all contributed to his decision.
"It was something I wanted to be a part of," White said. "All the guys were living a dream."
Most importantly, UNC was cool with him serving a mission. "That's the one thing I specifically asked them," White said. "They were very supportive of it. It was one of the main things that led me to come here."
Lessons to learn
While Elder Matt Christensen was serving in Germany, letters from the Duke coaching staff were just as encouraging as letters from home. Email was still years off, but coaches sent him two letters a week. Christensen recalled one hand-written letter from assistant Quin Snyder, now with the Los Angeles Lakers.
"He said I shouldn't worry about what basketball would be like when I get back, I should just focus on my mission, which was really interesting, because I had never expressed that concern," he said. "To me, it was a reflection that he was thinking about me enough, even though I was over in Germany, to guess that maybe it was something I was worried about. They couldn't have been more supportive."
Christensen returned home having learned several lessons that helped him as a student-athlete.
His experiences fueled him to be more proactive in the gospel. He served a year in his ward bishopric and another three as elders quorum president.
"I knew I couldn't be LDS and go along for the ride," he said. "I needed to be actively engaged in my ward and in my personal development."
Christensen knew people were watching him closely and he needed to be a good example. Along with the constant scrutiny of playing regularly on national television, he frequently accepted invitations to speak to LDS youths in the area and tried to stay on top of his studies in civil engineering and economics.
Christensen also absorbed all he could from his coaches, especially Krzyzewski. On mornings after a loss, players showed up for practice knowing the coaching staff had pulled an all-nighter evaluating the game and correcting problems. He said Coach K taught him to be resilient and recover from mistakes quickly.
"The staff was always ready to go. At the time, he was already a Hall of Fame inductee and it would have been easy for him to coast, but he never did," Christensen said. "That was an important lesson for me. No matter where you are or what you've done, you always want to do your best. That has been impactful for me both professionally and spiritually."
Duke continued to support Christensen's LDS membership after his mission. The NCAA requires teams to take one day off a week and when possible, the Blue Devils rested on Sunday. His teammates were sensitive in their speech around their Mormon center. "They would catch themselves and apologize, then change the subject," he said. "It was not something I ever asked them to do."
Once in a while, teammates of other Christian faiths approached Christensen, rather than their own minister, with doctrinal questions. One teammate asked if the Bible taught against getting tattoos. Christensen shared some scripture verses and thoughts, but the player went and got a large tattoo on his arm anyway, Christensen said with a laugh.
One teammate wanted to learn more about the Mormons. Christensen said teammate Shane Battier, a religion major who still plays in the NBA, once had a funny experience while attending a broadcast of LDS general conference. During a talk, two people sitting close to the Duke star were whispering and he asked them to quiet down, which they did. Later, Battier was embarrassed to learn the whisperers included a missionary who was translating for a non-English speaker.
"We had a variety of conversations about the church. He never got baptized, but it was a neat thing and he enjoyed conference," Christensen said.
Basketball and blessings
Fifteen games into the season, Stilman White has scored a total of 13 points, dished out 12 assists and made one steal. He has played an average of four minutes a game, including the season-opener against Michigan State aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson, where he also shook hands with President Obama.
White likely will see more action now since teammate Dexter Strickland was recently lost for the season with a serious knee injury.
UNC coach Roy Williams said he recruited White because he had a depth issue at point guard and he liked how White developed through his high school career.
"I like him for our team because he has the toughness and competitiveness I love in a point guard," Williams said in an email. "He's learning the position from Kendall Marshall and the adjustments you have to make to play at this level. He's done a good job in the situations I've asked him to play thus far."
Some have discouraged White from going through with his plan to serve a mission, but the freshman remains resolute. He credits the gospel for all the blessings in his life.
"Everyone wonders why I would want to do something like that when I am living the dream — why put that in the way of college and basketball?" White said. "I tell them it's something I've always wanted to do and that the church has brought a lot of happiness to my life. It's only right that I go out and share that with other people who are looking for happiness. I have been greatly blessed and I want to give as much back as I can."
Advice for Stilman
Christensen's career didn't end with any fancy statistics. He appeared in 97 games, played an average of 7.7 minutes and scored 1.7 points per game. He was a member of three ACC championship teams and contributed to one national title.
Before he left, he was recognized as a top scholar-athlete and honored as the Blue Devil player exemplifying the commitment and values of Duke basketball. The aspect he misses the most about Duke is playing in front of the "Cameron Crazies," the student section at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
After Duke, Christensen went on to earn a master's of business administration at Harvard and today is the CEO and portfolio manager for Rose Park Advisors, a Boston investment firm.
When asked what advice he would share with White, Christensen mentioned two points. First, do what is right, let the consequence follow.
"The Lord will bless him for doing the right thing in the way that he (the Lord) thinks is most appropriate. If that means he comes back from his mission as the starting point guard for the next three years, that's great. If it means he gets hit by a truck on his mission and can't walk again, the Lord will still take care of all his children who make the right decisions. We may not understand how that fits into the eternal scheme of things, but the Lord does, so we trust in him."
Second, focus on missionary work, but don't forget to exercise.
"Coming back to play basketball at the highest possible level is pretty tough. On your mission, go the extra mile to stay in shape. Be 100 percent focused on what you are doing as a missionary, but also put yourself in the best position possible, so when you get back, you add value to the team. They will have high expectations. It will take a combination of talent and hard work to get it done."