Culture / Sporting Life

True Tales From Fabian White Jr.’s Last Dance — An Empty Ring Box, Pain Games, The Play and Parents Who Center It All

Crazy Expectations and a Relentless Work Ethic Make Anything Possible For This Self-Made March Star From Houston

BY // 03.23.22

When you know every game could be your very last college basketball game — or another step towards that “natty” you’re chasing — a little pain isn’t going to stop you. Then again, University of Houston forward Fabian White Jr. always was stubborn about playing through things.

“Always,” Aundrea White tells PaperCity. “There’d be times I’d be looking at him: ‘Fabian, you sick?’ A mother knows. And he’d go out there and have his best game just to prove me wrong.”

Now that White is playing in his third Sweet 16 for Houston, pushing for his second Final Four and his first national championship, he’s not going to let a barking back slow him down. White’s back tightness is not serious or anything long term, but it’s also unlikely to get completely better without a few weeks of rest. White does not have time for that right now of course, not with a date with No. 1 seed Arizona looming Thursday night in San Antonio.

So he plays on. Like always.

“Always tough,” Fabian White Sr. says proudly of his son. “Tough as nails.”

Houston will need every bit of White’s toughness, not to mention his shot, his rebounding and his basketball IQ to topple a 33-3 Arizona team with an NBA lottery pick to be (Bennedict Mathurin) and a 7-foot-1 center in Christian Koloko who averages nearly three blocks per game and is coming off a 28 point scoring night.

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Fabian White counters with a sense of urgency that’s more than palpable, one that helps drive these 31-5 Cougars. Fabian’s parents gave Houston coach Kelvin Sampson an empty ring box when their son committed to UH six years ago in September of 2016. The ring box carries plenty of symbolism — and something of a message.

“When Coach Sampson was recruiting Fabian, he told us, ‘I don’t want to just date. I don’t want to just court. I want to get married,’ ” Aundrea White tells PaperCity. “So that’s what we did. We have a ring box.”

The Whites told Sampson that the empty box is waiting for a national championship ring. Now their graduate senior son is down to his last chance to secure that elusive ring. This is the last college run for Fabian White’s parents too. They come to every game, usually with Fabian’s sister Alyssa along as well. In an NCAA Tournament world where almost everything is magnified, this reality is often forgotten.

“He put crazy expectations on himself and left himself little room for failure. And went and did it.” — UH assistant Kellen Sampson on Fabian White.

While players like Fabian White know it’s their last dance in college, their families are also facing that reality, trying to squeeze in every memory they can. It’s not always easy either. The NCAA does not help pay for the travel of the parents of its athlete performers until the Final Four. So families like the Whites have to find their own way to places like Pittsburgh, the site of the first two rounds for Houston.

That meant a 5:30 am CST return flight home from the Steel City on Monday morning. But the Whites couldn’t even imagine missing any moment of this last dance. They’re still proudly wearing Cougar red at 5:30 am too.

“Always nerve racking,” Aundrea White says of watching these tournament games. “But if the guys come out and do what they’re supposed to do, there’s no issue.”

University of Houston Cougars basketball team clinched the American Athletic Conference crown with a win over Cincinnati, 71-53 at the Fertitta Center
University of Houston senior Fabian White Jr. has plenty of backing from UH fans. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

What Fabian White Jr. is supposed to do is lead this Houston team no matter what’s happening with his back, his shot or anything else. The 6-foot-8 forward who built himself into a 3-point shooter has something of a struggle against Illinois in the NCAA Tournament’s second round, shooting 1 for 8 and only managing to play 28 minutes. But White still makes one of the plays of the game, this UH basketball program’s version of Derek Jeter diving into the stands to catch a foul ball.

Late in the game, with the Cougars trying to put Illinois away, Fabian White chases down a loose ball on the sideline that almost no one thinks he can reach. Certainly not the Fighting Illini players. But White gets to the ball, tiptoe runs on the edge of the sideline and taps it ahead to Taze Moore for an easy layup in one motion.

“”I was just trying to make a hustle play, keep us scoring, keep us ahead,” White says when I ask him about the save assist. “That was definitely under the category of a culture play.”

Fabian White and the Power of Crazy Expectations

To Houston assistant coach Kellen Sampson, that play — in that struggle of a game for him — is pure Fabian White. “I was just so proud of him,” Kellen tells PaperCity. “He’s shown such great growth and maturity. On a night where it just didn’t fall for him — after we leaned on him for a month now.

“But for him to be able to compartmentalize his personal struggles and still get outside that struggle and still be a team captain, still be a senior, make the winning plays, I think shows the spirit of this team. When one way gets stopped, you can find another way to get it done.”

“When Coach Sampson was recruiting Fabian, he told us, ‘I don’t want to just date. I don’t want to just court. I want to get married.’ ” — Aundrea White on her son’s path to Houston.

Fabian White found a way to come back early from an ACL injury to give a Final Four team a boost last March. He found a way to make himself a better shooter even before he could put pressure on that injured leg, working on his form shooting from a chair. He found a way to push himself to heights many doubted he could reach in this, his last dance season. Fabian White Jr. isn’t just the winningest player in the illustrious history of the University of Houston basketball program. He’s the guy who squeezes every bit of potential out of his natural talent, the guy who’s always pushing for more.

“One of the coolest things that Fabian did this year is he didn’t run from expectations,” Kellen Sampson says. “He put some awesome expectations on himself. And honestly he did it while he was hurt. He knew while he was hurt what he was priming himself for.

“. . . Then he had awesome expectations on himself this year. And he didn’t shy away from it. And he wasn’t afraid to go after it. I think that’s one of the coolest things our young guys could take from Fabian. He didn’t run from expectations. He just didn’t want to be celebrated or let his success surprise everybody.

“He put crazy expectations on himself and left himself little room for failure. And went and did it. And that’s pretty cool.”

When I ask Fabian White what those expectations were, he quickly lists off winning Player of the Year in the American Athletic Conference, winning both the conference regular season and conference titles and winning a national championship. White didn’t win regular season Player of the Year, but he did win the AAC Tournament Most Outstanding Player Award as the Cougars swept both conference titles. As for that last goal. . .

“There’s still more to get done.” White quickly shoots back.

Just ask mom. Both Aundrea and Fabian White Sr. marvel at how much more vocal their son has gotten, how his voice is the one that often narrates Cougar games — and gets under the skin of opposing teams. They talk just as proudly about Alyssa, who gave up basketball to concentrate on school, as they do their son. There is no doubt Fabian’s last dance is a true family event.

“It’s definitely different,” Aundrea White says of this being her son’s final NCAA Tournament. “He has to go out there and play every game like it’s his last. We have a ring missing. We have the AAC Championship. We had the regional. There’s only one ring left and we have to go out and get it.”

The Whites will be there in the stands at San Antonio’s AT&T Center, as usual cheering and nervously watching every moment, waiting anxiously for that near 9 pm central Thursday night tipoff against Arizona. This last dance is for the whole family. For the whole team. For a whole city. For basketball dreamers with crazy expectations everywhere.

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