Before arriving on campus, White joined several of his future teammates for a game in a pro-am league outside Denver. He showed up with chipmunk cheeks because his wisdom teeth had been removed that morning. He insisted on playing, Welsh said, and wound up scoring about 25 points. One of the referees made a point of getting in touch with Culver to pass along his scouting report.
“Hey, your new guy has been the best player in the gym,” the referee told him.
Culver needed clarification: Which new guy?
“I didn’t know who he was talking about,” he said.
Culver had every intention of redshirting White as a freshman so that he could add some bulk to his lanky frame. (He had had a late growth spurt.) Culver even emailed White’s father, Richard, to make sure they were on the same page. Without White, U.C.C.S. played in a preseason exhibition game against Northern Colorado, a Division I program, and got “spanked,” Welsh said. At the same time, it was becoming clear at practice that White was one of the team’s best players. Culver had a quick chat with Jeff Sweet, one of his assistants.
“We can’t redshirt this kid,” Culver recalled telling him.
By the time U.C.C.S. made the trip to Minnesota for its season opener against Bemidji State University, White was in the starting lineup. A crowd of dozens turned out to watch the Mountain Lions get drubbed. It was not the most auspicious start to a season. White shot 5 of 12 from the field and scored 14 points.
U.C.C.S. went on to finish with a 5-21 record, losing seven games by three points or fewer. Many of the team’s narrow losses had a similar feel. White and Welsh would lead the way for 38 minutes, Culver said, then muck up the final two minutes by doing “dumb freshman things.” But their potential was enticing.
“We just couldn’t finish,” Welsh said. “We were so young, and we didn’t have any experience, and we would crumble in crunchtime.”
Yet, the season set the foundation for White’s rise. As a sophomore, he led the team to a 21-9 record and became the program’s first all-American selection. He christened his junior season by dunking over a newly arrived transfer at the team’s first practice, prompting Culver to blow his whistle — “That’s a wrap!” he yelled — before White could inflict any more psychological trauma on his teammates.