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How former basketball star Juston White claimed his heritage and grew up

Former East High and Wichita State basketball player Juston White is now chief professional officer of the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Central Kansas.
Former East High and Wichita State basketball player Juston White is now chief professional officer of the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Central Kansas. The Wichita Eagle

In the 1990s, Juston White grew up in a modest duplex near Hydraulic and Douglas. It wasn’t in the best part of Wichita, but it wasn’t in the worst either. There were a lot of gangs back then, he said, so he had to be careful about the colors he wore and the people he walked with.

His mom kept a sharp eye on him then, so that he didn’t get mixed up with the wrong people. And White was, by temperament, soft spoken, likable, almost shy, his friends thought.

Even then, his friends said they saw an inkling of the pride and excellence that would eventually lead White to become one of the best high school basketball players in the state and return, now at 35, as the chief professional officer of the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Central Kansas.

White loved soccer. He carried his cleats to school and would tell his dad, when he got home, about the soccer games he played at recess. But when he was 9 years old White came home and told his dad that he’d played basketball that day. His dad, who had played basketball himself, beamed a smile so wide that White would never forget it.

Soon after, his dad, according to what White was been told, died from complications of a head injury he’d received from two officers in a jail cell.

At the funeral in Mississippi, White remembers how lifeless his mom was and how small he felt. He felt helpless, like there was nothing he could do to comfort his mom or make the situation better.

He vowed to do the one thing he could do: not cause trouble for her. He would get good grades, stay out of mischief and “do the right thing.”

“I didn’t want her to have to worry about me and my future,” White said.

He wanted to honor his dad, so he began to focus on basketball.

He was taller than most kids and, although a little awkward at times, quickly developed into one of the best players on a traveling AAU basketball team, which would play in gyms across the country, in middle and then high school.

On one trip to Los Angeles, when all the other players were going to a shopping mall in their basketball uniforms, White changed into crisp khaki shorts and a polo, one of his teammates, Brook Robinson Jr., remembers. He was a pretty boy, they teased.

During White’s sophomore year at East High School, his grades dropped and he had to tell the new basketball coach, Ron Allen, that he would be temporarily ineligible. He wasn’t used to telling people he’d done wrong.

“I didn’t really take too well to male authority figures or anyone to give me direction,” White said.

I didn’t really take too well to male authority figures or anyone to give me direction.

Juston White, on his high school years

He walked slowly to the gym right after school and turned into Allen’s office. “Coach, I am ineligible,” he said.

Allen was a big, intimidating man, White said, who would sometimes put his big hands on his shoulder during practice.

“I told him if I had a belt on, I would take it off and ‘whoop you right here in this hallway,’ ” Allen said. “I just reacted to him how I would my own son.”

Allen looked at him, according to White, and said, “You know what your problem is, you don’t have a father.”

White was shocked and hurt. But he wasn’t angry because Allen had told the truth.

White was a good basketball player when he entered East, according to Allen, but because he worked so hard, he became a great player. He wanted to increase his jumping ability so he found special shoes to help his vertical. Allen said White only missed one practice.

White played during one of the school’s most successful eras. The team was invited to a tournament with 25 of the top high schools in the country.

At practice White would go back and forth with Korleone Young, who was later drafted into the NBA out of high school. If Young dunked on one end of the court, White would come back and dunk on the other end, Allen said.

Wichita State offered White a scholarship; he was the only City League player who would receive such an offer for more than a decade. But it didn’t go as he had imagined. White suffered through injuries and didn’t like how he was treated by the coach, but he didn’t really have another plan then.

A lot of his childhood friends didn’t graduate from high school, let alone college, so he thought that just by showing up and passing his classes, he was being successful. “I didn’t have anyone to really explain what my responsibility was in college,” White said.

It wasn’t until he transferred to Winston-Salem State University, a historically black college in North Carolina, that this changed, he said. He saw children of doctors and lawyers, with big ambitions and who looked like him, something he didn’t remember as much at Wichita State. He remembers going out on a date with a girl and asking about her major.

“I said, ‘Wow, pre-med.’ I couldn’t believe it. I was blown away,” White said.

He knew then that he’d have to “step my game up.” “It was very inspiring to me,” White said.

White worked in the financial industry in North Carolina after graduation for a few years. But after the financial crisis in 2008 he moved back home, in part so he could be close to his mom again. He started volunteering for a group that helped young children in trouble.

He helped out with players at East, such as Teance Walton. He tried to be an example to him and even drove to see Walton’s graduation from Ashford University.

In 2014, after he returned to Wichita, the Boys & Girls Club hired him over 80 other candidates to run its $1.4 million after-school development program. He now manages a staff of 10 in a program that serves more than a thousand children each year. Many of these children come from backgrounds similar to his own.

In the past couple of years, when White has seen video of police violence on Facebook, he said he relives the trauma of what happened to his dad.

“What some people fail to realize,” White said, “any encounter with a police officer can be traumatizing, it can have an effect on someone.”

Much of White’s job requires him to get along with donors of all types. So he doesn’t go out protesting in part because it would make it harder to do his job, and in part because that’s just who he has always been: someone quietly working hard to do his best and make his momma proud.

“For me the best that I can do to play a role in advocating for civil rights is to focus on my job with the youth,” White said, “and ensuring the kids that we serve are in a better position to deal with these issues, as a mature adult, and preparing them for whatever they may endure in life.”

For me the best that I can do to play a role in advocating for civil rights is to focus on my job with the youth.

Juston White

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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