NO one plays the game harder than Illawarra skipper Kevin White, so walking on the court thinking he’d rather be somewhere else was an utterly foreign experience.
It’s where the hard-nosed guard found himself at stages of last season, his first as Hawks captain, as he fought a long and private battle off the court.
Illawarra came into the season off a grand final appearance. Their talent stocks were deeper, the Hawks faithful let themselves believe they could go one better. But sometimes seasons – like life – don’t go to plan.
The Hawks got off to a horror start with White, for the most part, watching on from the bench nursing injury. There was the controversy around the demotion of good mate Cody Ellis and wider uncertainty around the club’s future.
All could, and did, weigh heavily on a new captain. However, it was nothing compared to what he and his family were dealing with off-court as his father David’s fight with early onset dementia entered it’s final devastating stages.
It led to one of the league’s fiercest competitors taking the floor and, for the first time ever, asking himself why?
“One of the things for me is I’ve always found basketball to be my release,” White told Game On.
“In the past, no matter what was happening off the court, any time I stepped over the line I’ve been able to separate everything. I think last year everything that was happening just fell on me all at once.
“I’d walk on the court at times and be so unsure about why I was out there. Towards the end of last year, even the middle part of the year when personal things had a strong hold on my life, I probably let the team down a little bit in being able to lead.
“As a leader you’re meant to stand strong and hold a front that everything’s fine. Off the court I was dealing with a lot of things that a lot of people didn’t know about.
“Sometimes you just don’t know how to deal with it and I didn’t know how to deal with that. It probably affected me on the court because I didn’t want to be there.
“Add in everything else that was happening and, yeah, it was really tough.”
It’s a situation anyone would struggle through, but the insidious nature of his father’s illness meant White also lost his greatest sounding board, the ear he’d always sought when things got tough.
“Dad couldn’t even attend games last year and that’s the first time that’s ever happened in my life,” White said.
“Even when I was over in Alaska he could watch games. Towards the start of last season I’d walk in and he didn’t even know I was playing.
“To walk in and not be able to talk to him about basketball… for me that’s my hero, he’s the reason I play the game. He took me to all those training sessions and coached me in the backyard.
“It just fell on me pretty hard and having to go out there and battle each night knowing that he wasn’t able to watch and wasn’t there was really hard.
“I think Bevo was really the only one who understood what was happening off the court. The only other one was Nathan Spencer, our strength and conditioning guy, who I’ve built a strong relationship with.
“To be able to share things that were happening with them made it easier but, in saying that, there were still times when basketball wasn’t a priority.”
There’s no manual for how to deal with such testing times, particularly for professional athletes in the glare of the public gaze, but if he could change one thing about the struggle it’s that – he’d have spoken up sooner. It’s also his message to others.
“You don’t really see what certain people are going through off the floor,” he said.
“I know there’s plenty of guys across the league who fight daily battles that no one knows about.
“If there’s a message I could send to anyone it’s if you are going through any type of battle talk to someone about it, just to take some weight off your shoulders.
“I never really let anything out until later in the season to Mitch Norton who’s one of my closest mates.
“You never know if it’s going to help, I never thought it would but, at the end of the day, to fight it internally is the toughest thing.
“You might think you’re doing all right but there’ll come a time when you’re really struggling. Being able to talk about it can really help.”
As it turned out, the response from his teammates proved incredible, rallying around their captain to deliver a 94-84 win over eventual champions Melbourne, less than 24 hours after his father’s passing in February.
“There’s nothing better than being in a team setting and having your teammates surround you,” he said.
“Once our group knew what was really going on with me, to see them battle and fight like we did in Melbourne and beat them in that last game is something I’ll never forget.
“You really only hear about those things, they’re stories in movies. To step on the floor with my brothers and get the win… to live through that was a pretty special moment.”
It brought a semblance of closure and it leaves White entering his second season as Hawks skipper chomping at the bit to get back on the floor.
“I think a lot of the time you take for granted the opportunity play basketball and it’s probably why I’m so excited about this year,” he said.
“I feel like a lot of weight’s been lifted off my shoulders, not just on the professional front but on the personal front.
“I’m just really excited to be back out on the floor doing what I love.”