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How Coby White’s family helped him rediscover joy on the court in a star-making season for the Chicago Bulls

Vincent Alban/Chicago Tribune/TNS

For those closest to Coby White, nothing about this season is a surprise.

Not the 37-point game. Not the command in the huddle. Not the behind-the-back moves and the hesi step and the rim-rattling dunks. Certainly not those soaring shots behind the 3-point arc. It’s hard to be surprised by something that has been slowly building — not for months but for years.

The NBA’s Most Improved Player Award recognizes a single season of growth, so it’s no surprise White is a front-runner. He has the league’s second-highest increases in minutes (13.2) and points (9.6) per game. After starting only two games last season, White has started every game he has played this season, leads the league in minutes and ranks in the top 10 in 3-pointers, loose balls recovered and offensive fouls drawn.

Off the court, the change is more subtle. Easier to miss on TV, harder to ignore in person. White always talked. But up until this season, he reserved his thoughts during games, pulling teammates aside for individual conversations, voicing his suggestions to fellow youngsters on the bench.

Now he speaks with his full chest. In a huddle, at the top of the key, with the ball in or out of his hands, it’s clear who is commanding the Chicago Bulls on the hardwood.

But despite the suddenness of his rise, none of this started in the 2023-24 season. It didn’t even start last summer. It’s easy to think that. It’s comforting to believe there’s an immediacy to growth, that change will emerge the moment it is pursued. But that’s not the case for White. It took six years to build a breakout season.

This story isn’t simple, but it goes something like this.

Seven years ago, White lost his father. Three years later, he lost himself. And this season, he found a way back — to joy, to patience, to a version of himself he recognizes. And whether the awards and wins and everything else follows, White knows everything will be different after this year.

And it all started by going back.

“I’m who I was before,” White told the Tribune. “I’m happy. This is who I was when I was 16, when I was 15, before everything changed. This is the first time in a long time I’ve felt like I could be myself.”

***

To know Coby White is to know his father.

If Donald White was defined by anything, it was affection. He was the kind of man whose warmth carried effortlessly. He was always eager to pick up the phone. Often to call his children. Sometimes to check in on Coby’s friends. He even would call up revered North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams just to chat.

Donald hugged his son often, wrapped him close and kissed him on his cheek — even in public, even in front of his friends. Coby learned to lose any sense of embarrassment over these displays of adoration, leaning into his father’s embrace.

If he was too far away for a hug, Donald placed a palm on his chest, tapping his heart in a wordless message: I love you.

“It was an everyday thing,” Coby’s mother, Bonita, told the Tribune. “He always showed our kids just how much he loves them.”

It’s hard not to see Donald in the moments when Coby enters the Bulls locker room, dropping a hand on a teammate’s shoulder, dapping up another. His affection is both constant and purposeful. Before every game, he wraps his arms around DeMar DeRozan and lifts the 6-foot-6 forward off the ground. After a blowout win, he head-butted Andre Drummond in the chest in excitement, leaving the 7-foot center laughing.

With 1.6 seconds left in a game against the Phoenix Suns in January, White made a gesture to catch Patrick Williams’ eye from the sideline.

They were waiting on the referee’s signal to launch a lob to Williams at the basket, hoping for a dunk that would send a heated game into overtime. It was a major responsibility for Williams, who rarely takes potential game-tying shots. So when White shouted his name, Williams turned to listen with rapt attention.

“Pat,” White motioned at his own shorts, then pointed at Williams. “Tuck your shorts in!”

It took Williams a second to clock the glint in White’s eye, the half-concealed grin — and then he stopped, jersey half-jammed into his shorts.

Is this guy really f***ing with me right now?

The lob play worked well enough to draw a foul, but a potential game-winning shot by DeRozan went slightly wide. And Williams forgot about White’s antics by the time they reached the locker room — until White brought it up anyway, a smile creeping across his face even as he shouldered the frustration of the close loss.

“You was really pissed off, huh?”

A laugh followed, buoyant and boyish. Williams rolled his eyes, but he was laughing too.

“I swear, that’s every game with him,” Williams told the Tribune.

That’s just Coby. And it’s Donald too. Finding a way to get a nervous teammate out of his head, drawing a laugh even when no one else is in a joking mood.

“He’s exactly what we needed,” Williams said. “Whatever he sees, he’ll say it. You know it’s coming from a place of love. The main thing he wants is to win — and he wants you to win.”

It’s no surprise there’s a resemblance between father and son on the court. Donald was the first to put a basketball in Coby’s hands, packing him up at age 2 to trek around the East Coast for his older brother William’s travel games.

Coby studied William from the stands, re-creating plays from his games on a Nerf hoop hooked over the back of his bedroom door days later. But it was Donald whom Coby always hoped to both emulate and surpass on the court.

Donald was a solid hooper who played three seasons for North Carolina Central. But the version of him that existed on the hoop at home was more than that. He spun tales of 40-point games and passes thrown to himself off the backboard. Coby listened with equal parts disbelief and awe.

Eventually Coby grew past 6 feet to stand taller than his father, crafted a 3-point shot that could best his dad’s “old-head” midrange game in any pickup battle. But Donald’s stature never changed. Under that driveway hoop in North Carolina, Coby’s dad could take anyone.

***

When Donald learned his liver cancer had become terminal in July 2017, he set a goal: stick around long enough for Coby’s first game at North Carolina.

Sure, it was a long way off. Losses were piling up only months after his initial diagnosis — lost weight, energy, memory. And Coby wouldn’t make his freshman debut until November 2018, more than a full year later.

But it also seemed like such a paltry request against the backdrop of inevitable grief. Donald wasn’t asking for a miracle. Just a little more time. Just enough to see his son in Carolina blue and white, to witness the dream they’d built together as it finally came alive.

In the end, it was simply too long of a wait.

Donald died on Aug. 15, 2017. He was 65. Coby was 17.

Coby got the call while waiting on a plane to take him to the Nike Skills Academy. His brother drove him back to the house, where he kissed his father one last time. The moment had been coming for months and it broke him all the same. But Coby didn’t have time to mourn. He didn’t even have time to breathe.

He had spent the whole summer before his freshman year of high school persuading his father to let him attend the Greenfield School, an expensive private school one town over from their hometown of Goldsboro, N.C. Classes were hard. Getting behind was even harder. So Coby returned to his desk two days after the funeral, dazed but still present.

A teacher asked if he should be in class, urged him to take time if he needed. But Coby knew the truth. Days off were a luxury his family couldn’t afford. His mom and brother and sister were all back at work. He wouldn’t be the exception.

There was more to it, if he was honest. Coby wanted a distraction, an escape. He couldn’t bear to sit in the empty house where his father no longer lived. And it wasn’t hard to get lost in school and basketball and anything else that kept him from standing still too long.

High school basketball season started back up. The McDonald’s All-American Game followed, then the Jordan Brand game. He skipped high school graduation for a call-up with Team USA, then reported to Chapel Hill for summer practices two days after returning home from Canada with a FIBA Americas U-18 gold medal.

There was always something new to move on to: a flight to the Bahamas for a summer preseason tournament, his freshman season with the Tar Heels, pre-draft training in California, the 2019 draft, a new life as an NBA player at age 19.

“The ball kept bouncing, the ball kept rolling and I didn’t ever want to take the time to stop it,” White said.

For weeks and then months and then years, life was a blur. And then the COVID-19 pandemic brought the NBA season crashing to a halt on March 10, 2020, more than two years after his father’s funeral. The Bulls didn’t play a game for eight months.

And suddenly, Coby couldn’t catch his breath.

***

In the fourth quarter of a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in January, White decided he’d had enough.

Cavaliers forward Georges Niang had just caught him with a stray shoulder on the previous drive. So when Niang planted his hand on White’s chest after a switched screen, White threw it off. And when Niang pushed him back hard enough to earn a whistle, White was happy to meet him — fists clenched, shoulders drawn back, a smile already forming even as he barked back at his outsized opponent.

At home in North Carolina, Bonita leaned forward — out of familiarity, not concern.

“That’s his dad right there,” she said with a laugh.

Coby never has been one to instigate. He doesn’t talk much trash or mess with shoving matches. But this season has showcased an increased confidence to step to other players in defense of himself or his teammates.

It’s a trait Bonita is proud to see passed from Donald to Coby — the strength at the core of their kindness.

“They both have a breaking point,” Bonita said. “He is happy-go-lucky all the time and he wants everybody else to be happy, but if you’re mistreating him, he’s going to stop you. He’s not going to swing at you, but he’s going to let you know that you’re wrong. He knows his own strength and his own worth, and that’s the line.”

Coby is stubborn. It’s one of the first things coach Billy Donovan noticed about him when he took over the Bulls in 2020.

In their first one-on-one meeting, Donovan asked White to list his attributes. The 20-year-old guard provided a laundry list of on-court skills. Donovan then asked him to list the attributes of Chris Paul, a mentor and idol to White, who grew up playing in Paul’s Team CP3 AAU program in North Carolina.

White paused before giving his answer: “Ultimate competitor and winner.”

“How come you’re not describing yourself like that?” Donovan countered. It’s a question White has been trying to answer ever since.

It took time for White and Donovan to mold a shared image of who White should be on the court for the Bulls. He wanted to preserve the version of himself that felt best in his youth playing days: shoot first, ask questions later, carry the weight of the offense on his back. But Donovan needed more: a ballhandler, a playmaker, someone who could be consistent even on nights when shots weren’t falling.

As a result, they spent most of those early years in conflict. It never escalated to yelling. Even in his most frustrated moments, Donovan said, White wanted to understand. But he knew White couldn’t see the version of himself his coach wanted to unearth.

“When he believes he can do something, you’re not going to talk him out of it,” Donovan told the Tribune. “It was never that he wanted to forget the team or didn’t care about winning. It was more like: ‘I know who I am as a player, I know what I can do. I’ve got to go out there and be me.’”

This is a piece of Donald as well.

Donald worked the graveyard shift at a factory, so he spent most days sound asleep in his bedroom, curtains closed tight to shut out the sun. The bouncing of a basketball on the driveway served as his alarm clock, the daily signal that Coby had finished his homework and had headed outside to shoot.

There was always an underlying current of challenge fueling these otherwise casual shooting sessions.

“You can’t shoot it from that far,” Donald would say, laughing as he pointed at a patch of asphalt.

And Coby would scrunch up his face and line up his toes at the spot of disbelief and launch the ball up, up, up and through the net.

“My dad had a high bar for all of us, but especially for him,” Coby’s older sister Tia told the Tribune. “He was patient and he nurtured Coby, but it was that dynamic of like saying, ‘You can’t do this,’ and then him being like, ‘Watch me, Dad, I’ll prove you wrong.’”

Coby had a chip on his shoulder as a kid in part because his father put it there.

Donald was the first to believe in his son, but he was wary of overfeeding that confidence. It’s why, for instance, when Coby asked to transfer to Greenfield, his father was the only one in the family to say no. Coby was good enough to get in but not to get a scholarship — and the tuition cost as much as some local colleges.

Donald was against it. Firmly. But when the rest of the family won out, he was tasked with driving Coby to the campus one town over. So for that first month, father and son sat in stony silence through that half-hour drive, stuck in their own frustration.

Eventually, the silence broke. Coby got more playing time for Greenfield — and then he really began to hoop, creating the foundation upon which he eventually broke the North Carolina prep scoring record.

But the dynamic never changed. Coby always wanted to prove his dad wrong. And he always did. And Donald was always delighted to revel in his disproved doubt. So Coby stayed stubborn.

That worked through high school and AAU and college. But the NBA was a different challenge, one Coby couldn’t power through with brute determination alone.

In his early years with the Bulls, he felt disoriented by the way his doggedness wasn’t enough to elevate him anymore.

“You set all these goals for yourself, and when time goes by and you’re still not there, it kind of weighs down on you,” White said. “Especially when growing up your whole life, your identity is basketball. Your whole life, through high school, college, everything, you’re the man. For everybody else, you’re looked at as the man.

“Then you get to the NBA and you’re not the man anymore and everybody that looked up to you as the man growing up, now you’re just regular to them.”

White’s stubbornness shifted in the days after the Bulls lost a first-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks in 2022. He had just made his NBA playoff debut — and he played badly.

“Like, really badly,” he said.

In Game 3, White went 1-for-6 behind the arc. In Game 4, he logged more turnovers (two) than made shots (one) and missed every 3-point attempt. In Game 5, he scored a personal-best 17 points but only by going 4-for-13 behind the arc.

White wanted to be more. Over his first three seasons, he had moved from point guard to shooting guard, from the starting lineup to the bench and back. If he wanted consistency, he had to create it for himself.

So he presented a plan to his family. No more summers in North Carolina. His offseason moved to a training center in Thousand Oaks, Calif., to work with a variety of specialists, including skills coach Johnny Stephene. If they wanted to see him, they could join him out west.

Bonita issued teasing complaints. After all, what mom doesn’t want her kid under her roof more often? But the family embraced Coby’s desire to improve.

So their summers changed. Now William and Bonita fly out to Los Angeles, joined by Tia and her two children when they can. The family lifts weights together each morning — Bonita included — and shoots hoops in the afternoon. The Whites find time for other outings in their downtime, but basketball remains at the core.

And by the end of that summer in 2022, they began to catch glimpses of a new version of Coby.

***

Coby always wanted tattoos. By his rookie season, however, he had committed to only one piece of ink: the letters “FMF” in scrawling script across his right biceps over numerals marking the date of his father’s death.

In the fall of 2020, the itch began to get stronger. There wasn’t much else to do, after all. So Coby contacted tattoo artist Zackell Perry in North Carolina to start his first sleeve.

They began at the top of his right shoulder, a pair of hands folded in prayer above Philippians 4:6-7. It was a strange experience for its ease. If there was pain, he doesn’t remember it.

Within two weeks, his entire right arm was encased in ink. Each tattoo was dedicated to his family or his faith: “God’s gift” across his entire forearm, a dove spanning his elbow, “Family over everything” and a scroll emblazoned with Psalms 18:29 wrapped around the inside of his arm. The section of the sleeve most visible when White is on the court is a massive stack of block letters reading “Be You” along his triceps.

Coby always thought the concept of going numb with grief was just a saying. But that fall, he couldn’t feel a thing.

“I just kept getting them because they weren’t hurting,” he said.

For years, he had treated basketball as therapy. And now it was gone and he didn’t know how to hold off everything he silently carried for the three years since he lost his father.

“It felt like a weight that I was lifting every day,” Coby said. “I knew I was going through something that wasn’t normal.”

Bonita knew something was wrong the moment she picked up the phone.

Coby didn’t ask for help. He saw himself as the man of the house since he was 17. He was always the one checking in, always acting like the grown one for his older siblings and his mother.

But after six months without basketball, Coby felt like he was spiraling out of control. So when he called Bonita and said he needed his mom, she dropped everything to get to Chicago.

William was already living with Coby. Tia brought her children out a few days later. And with his family around him, Coby began to probe at the grief and anger that had simmered just under the surface for years.

“That was the only time that I’ve seen where he really needed us,” Tia said. “He’s always our light, he’s always our positive energy source.”

This is how Coby is often described — by those who love him, by strangers. His laughter is easily dislodged. This is, after all, the kid who skipped down the basketball court between plays at age 6, who earned the nickname “Smiley” from his Pop Warner coach at age 8.

But Coby was also angry. At God. At himself. He fell into moods, snapped at his teammates, copped an attitude, stopped talking entirely. Even last season, it bled onto the court, where Coby couldn’t shake off a bad quarter or a bad half, where his shooting slumps seeped from one game to one week to one month at a time.

There were days when Bonita texted Coby: I miss the player I used to see.

Coby missed that player too. He missed the freedom and the joy he felt as a kid playing the game he loved.

“My whole life, I put so much into basketball,” Coby said. “And I still put a s***-ton into it. But I got to the point where I felt like it was consuming me and I was letting it out on the people I love.”

Coby would like to say everything changed after that fall. That he defined his problem and started talking with his family and found his way back. But it didn’t. And it didn’t change all at once the next year, either, when he committed to summers in California and to finding a new way to play.

Even last summer, Coby didn’t feel fully in control — until a trip to Colorado shifted his perspective once again.

As part of his offseason programming, Donovan took the team’s young core — White, Williams, Ayo Dosunmu and Dalen Terry — to Colorado to meet with Jim Loehr, a performance psychologist whom Donovan first met while coaching Florida.

Loehr specializes in individual sports in which the mental challenge is far steeper than in team sports. In a tennis match or a track race, there aren’t any teammates to help out. Athletes’ mental fortitude determines the entirety of their outcome.

Coby came home inspired. For nearly two years, he’d been trying to improve his mental resilience through prayer and journaling and vision boards. Loehr offered more tools to instill daily mental discipline, routines that could center both his faith and his focus.

“It’s the mental that takes the longest to build up,” Coby said. “You might go to the weight room for two straight weeks and see progression. I feel like with the mental, you might work at it for two straight weeks and you still won’t see progression. That’s why it takes every single day.”

Every day, Coby follows the same routine. He reads a Bible verse and a passage from a devotional book. He writes a page of positive affirmations in his journal, then says them aloud: I will bounce back tonight. I will continue to be there for my teammates. I will continue to have positive body language.

Bad games don’t stick to Coby like they used to.

As a rookie, he was described as “streaky” — a backhanded compliment. But it was true. He was one of the most dangerous scorers in the league when he got hot, but he languished when he cooled off, frustration evident with each miss.

This season, White has a tactic for a bad shooting night. If his shots didn’t fall or the Bulls couldn’t pull off a win, he texts one of the player development staffers with a simple request: He needs to laugh.

This was another practice instilled by Loehr, who cited a boxer who listened to stand-up comedy specials after every lost fight to break out of his negative headspace. So when White feels frustration creep in, he puts on his headphones and pulls up a video by Druski or Desi Banks or Sketch to force himself to laugh.

“I know it’s weird,” he said, laughing again. “But I’m a weird guy. And it works.”

White fully shed that “streaky” label this season. He made at least three 3-pointers in 14 consecutive games from November to December and has only six games this season without a make behind the arc. He’s one of only 15 players in franchise history to tally more than 50 consecutive games with 10 or more points, a streak that now sits at 53. And with 186 3-pointers, he’s on track to set the franchise’s season record held by Zach LaVine (204).

After the All-Star break, White fell into a standard shooting slump, going 6-for-31 from 3-point range over four games. It hardly lasted a week. And when he ripped off five 3-pointers and 37 points in an upset of the Sacramento Kings, his teammates weren’t surprised. They knew it was only a matter of time.

For Donovan, this ability to respond from a bad half or a bad night is more important than any statistical progression White has made this season.

“He’s going to look at it,” Donovan said. “He’s going to get mad at himself. He’s going to get really bothered. He’s going to go through every detail. He’s going to look at every decision. And then he’s going to be OK. And then he’s going to get better. That’s the way he is now.”

***

When White crashed to the hardwood with barely 10 seconds left in regulation in Wednesday’s win over the Indiana Pacers, it seemed for a moment as if the Bulls were trapped in a recurring nightmare.

Both of his legs buckled the wrong way. He let out a yell, grabbed his right thigh, arched against the court in pain, dragged his jersey up to cover his face. And even after he lurched to his feet and limped slowly to the locker room, the fear was undeniable that this unexpected season was destined for a premature ending.

It took nearly half an hour for the Bulls to finish off the overtime win after White headed down the tunnel to be examined. By the time his teammates arrived in the locker room, he was waiting — grin wide, jokes already flowing even as he moved gingerly around the room.

This is nothing new. White has spent most of this season nagged by minor injuries and growing exhaustion. When he’s frustrated or tamping down a laugh or jogging back on defense, his hand creeps up to settle around the tape that binds his shooting wrist tight, evidence of an injury that has lingered since the opening weeks.

But White doesn’t want to talk about it. Seriously. He’s fine. Ask him if he’s tired or hurt and he’ll shrug it off: “Nah, man, it’s cool.”

It’s not that he never gets frustrated or angry anymore. That couldn’t be further from the truth. This has been a hard season. The Bulls have spent most of the last three months desperately trying to claw back to .500 after their 5-14 start, falling short every time they get within a game or two.

Some nights, White puts up 32 points and the team still loses. Other nights, he goes 1-for-9 from 3-point range and the Bulls win. It doesn’t always make sense. But this season, he feels he finally has the tools to always get back — to himself, to his positivity.

“It’s a choice to be happy,” William said. “And he chooses it every day.”

For Bonita, this season has felt almost nostalgic. Coby’s role is completely different. He runs the point for the Bulls, initiates the attack and plays more on-ball than he ever was asked to as a pro or college player.

But he’s back to a familiar version of himself. A leader for his teammates, a touchstone for the fans. Playing with joy rather than anxiety.

And Bonita knows this is the version of Coby that Donald always believed in. The one whom he drove all those miles for AAU tournaments, whom he tucked into tight hugs every day, whom he played defense against in the driveway, hand up and a challenge ready, daring him to shoot from a little farther out.

“I wish he could see it,” Bonita said. “He would smile. And he would say, ‘My boy’s back.’ ”