Credit: KK Crvena zvezda | BasketNews illustration/M.Didė
Credit KK Crvena zvezda | BasketNews illustration/M.Didė

It was just another fast break situation in Aaron White's office. Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade quickly inbounded the ball after Panathinaikos' layup at a preseason game in Munich. Austin Hollins saw White sprinting up the court and made a perfect pass in transition.

Aaron White

Aaron  White
Aaron  White
MIN: 10.32
PTS: 0 (0%)
REB: 2
As: 0
ST: 0
BL: 0
TO: 2
GM: 1

White was running really fast, leaving five players in green jersey behind him. He was probably even too fast. 

White made plays like that his whole life since he could dunk. So he jumped high and dunked hard. Normally, he would hold on to the rim, and White's momentum would swing him in and back.

But White was going too fast and didn't have a good enough grip on the rim. Instead of holding on, he just flipped over.

White had a similar play in high school. He went up for a dunk on a fast break, hung up on the rim, and some kid dangerously undercut him really bad. White fell and went to catch himself on the floor, breaking his wrist. This time he also tried to catch himself on his wrists, but it went wrong.

White immediately looked at his arm. The left forearm of his non-shooting hand didn't look good.

"I was like oh shit, it's not straight," a 29-year-old American forward recalls.

He immediately understood it was broken. As if there was not enough drama, blood was all over White's face. 

There was a massive bump on his forearm. It was so painful that White didn't even realize how bad his head was bleeding until everybody around started to panic about it.

"Guys, forget my face. My arm is broken!" White yield full of emotions.

White smiles to this day. Afterward, it became an inside joke among Crvena Zvezda players.

But the game on September 11 didn't give many reasons to smile. The blood dripped out of White's face because he hit the scar above the eye. Although that was the slightest worry at that time.

Aaron White

Aaron  White
Team: Crvena Zvezda Belgrade
Position: PF
Age: 29
Height: 206 cm
Weight: 104 kg
Birth place: United States of America

White got stitches to stop the bleeding on the sidelines while waiting for the ambulance. Before the drive, White told Zvezda's physio to take his cell phone to let his family know everything that was going on.

White's family stayed in Belgrade but watched the game on TV.

"My kids... Especially my youngest, she's only two, she was freaking out," White, father of three, told BasketNews.

'I was mad'

The doctor wanted to make sure if White didn't injure his wrist. It has so many ligaments that it could be dangerous to go into surgery not knowing precisely what you're dealing with.

The fracture, blood on the face, and first shocking reaction looked so bad that probably most of us, who saw White's injury on video, thought it was season-ending material. Most likely everyone except Aaron. He had way different feelings before the surgery.

"I was mad. I was really pissed," White told BasketNews. "Which now looking back was maybe a weird emotion to have. But I wasn't really thinking how long I would be out, how bad is it. I was pissed that I was feeling like everything was coming together here. I was happy here (in Belgrade). So I just was mad."

Soon after the surgery, White received probably the best news you could expect after such an ugly injury. Broken forearm and no ligaments damaged, which means White will miss six weeks of action.

Mad on the play that happened. Mad on himself that he got out of control. Aaron White started thinking about the next step and what he needed to do to get back in rhythm as soon as possible after the first serious injury in his pro career.

But once again, he rewatched the ugly play that scared the hell out of basketball fans.

His wife even tweeted that people should stop sharing those videos. Too sensitive and inappropriate? White really didn't care about it.

"If they can show your three-pointers and dunks, then I'm not going to tell them they can't share the video of me getting injured," White admitted.

"I've watched it so many times now. I probably shouldn't... In the beginning, I was watching a lot, but then I was like I need to stop looking at it because it won't fix anything if I keep watching it," White smiled.

But he watched the play until the fall. He made plays like that his whole life since he could dunk. So Aaron wanted to check what made it so special that led him to an injury.

Before that crash in Munich, Panathinaikos big man Okaro White chased him down under the rim. Okaro slightly pushed Aaron in his back, which could impact his fall. The referee called an unsportsmanlike foul.

Even the slightest touch could have a very dangerous outcome at this speed. That's how Aaron White also felt in the beginning.

After the game, Okaro White texted Aaron. Zvezda's forward was still very emotional after that play. He was furious at Okaro because he thought there was a push. But when he watched the replay over and over again, he changed his mind.

"If you watch the clip, it's not like he pushed me or shoved me. But even going at that speed, a small touch could have changed something. But I don't have any feeling that was why it happened. I don't think it really affected it," White told. "The play happened how it happened. I don't think that there was really anything unsportsmanlike."

Not a typical European story

The rehab went smoothly. The only thing White didn't expect was losing the feeling of some of his fingers. 

Now he can lift pretty much the same weight as before the injury. There are no problems with strength. But to this day, his thumb doesn't feel the same. Nerve is different, especially at the top of it.

He spoke to a few specialists in the United States that said that you could have nerve damage that can last a year or year and a half. And it's not going to be 100% back to what it was before. That's an entirely normal part of the recovery, though.

But what impressed White the most was how Crvena Zvezda and coach Dejan Radonjic handled his rehab.

"It's the first injury of my career. I know stories in Europe where clubs and coaches push guys to come back. Here it was the complete opposite," White assured.

"Take your time." "You need to be 100%". "Why rush?" These were things being said to White, rather than "hey, when you're coming back?".

"There was no pressure at all. Even now, there is no pressure from Zvezda, which makes you feel way better as a player. You never want to be forced to play not knowing if your body is up for it," White explains. "I'm very thankful to coach and management for treating me really well."

Credit Klubo nuotr.

Radonjic surprised White in many ways. For example, he didn't expect Radonjic to ask him for feedback or advice. Whether Zvezda were playing Zalgiris or about any of previous White's experiences.

Other coaches have asked White this before as well, but when you come to a new club, you never know if the coach wants to hear if you have anything to say or not.

"It's always nice to have a coach who trusts you and asks your opinion," White said. "I felt we talked more than I talked any of my coaches in the past."

"We had more time to talk than we would have if I was playing. I was getting treatment, and he was coming to check with me. Now I think we have an understanding. He's a good person. I've enjoyed being here. I haven't even played, so it was nice to build that relationship."

Feels like home?

White will never forget his fairytale experience from 2018. In his rookie EuroLeague 2017-18, White and Zalgiris Kaunas surprisingly reached the Final Four, held in the Stark arena at Belgrade.

For small budget teams like Zalgiris, that's more or less once in a decade achievement. White was an essential piece of Sarunas Jasikevicius masterclass schemes throughout this incredible journey.

White visits the same hotel he stayed at during the Final Four three times per week. His daughter takes dance over there.

"Every time I walk in, that's what I think of," White smiles. "I can remember pulling up in the bus, seeing all the Euroleague signs, seeing such a big thing. When I go there, it's not like that, but that's a memory I have."

Belgrade has a lot more that reminds him of the best season in his career.

Just like Kaunas, Belgrade lives and breathes basketball. Just open your mouth about basketball at a historical basketball city, and you'll quickly get some hot takes from a taxi driver. There's a 50% chance this taxi driver played at some level.

Crvena Zvezda have one of the most passionate fans in the tournament, who create one of the most hostile atmospheres. Zvezda's style of game also makes it uncomfortable for every opponent.

This year, Crvena Zvezda brings the unique mix of physicality, discipline, energy, and teamwork that helps them keep in the playoff race with 6-8. No special drills from Dejan Radonjic. That's just their DNR, which turns these underdogs into fighters that grind for every single victory.

What White loves about Zvezda is that the majority of the locker room is full of local players who know each other basically their whole lives.

It makes everything much easier for foreign players like White, Nate Wolters, or Austin Hollins. They just have to fit in, and they don't need to do anything crazy. 

"I haven't been 100% as comfortable as I was in Kaunas. With Zalgiris, these guys, and a coach, there were many things that I felt like at home. I think I'm way better when I feel that kind of comfort," White explains.

"I'm more of a player that needs to feel together with a team. Because I'm feeding off the others, it's a lot about the chemistry. There's no selfish play. Everyone knows how to pass, how to shoot, everyone can do a little bit of everything.

You just play your game. If you're open, they'll find you. If you cut, it helps your team. It's not like a crazy puzzle. I feel really comfortable with that.

I struggled to get it since I left (Kaunas). I can't say I found it here because I'm not playing. But I'm hoping that I did. You always want to be your best self on the court. I learned a lot since I left Zalgiris. But I'm looking for a place where I can be 100% myself. And I'm hoping it's here," he continued.

When he left Kaunas, it's been the biggest challenge for Aaron to have everyone happy. When it's five of them in the family, it's not that easy.

A good life reminder

White takes this comeback step by step. He feels good. He just needs some time to get his rhythm back.

Last week he appeared in his first official game this year in Saint Petersburg and went scoreless in 10 minutes. He took a foul in a fast-break against Mateusz Ponitka. He stepped in front of his opponent and fell back on the floor. 

"I didn't even think about if I use my left or right arm to catch myself," White told. "That's the biggest thing for me. Just play free and know that everything is fine."

"Because it's stronger than it was before. Now it has a metal plate inside," White jokes.

After the game in St. Petersburg, White took a week off precautionary, but he's more than excited to share the court with his new teammates again. It will take some time to get back in his preseason rhythm when he poured in 23 points vs. FMP Belgrade.

He never took it for granted. But that ugly scary play reminded Aaron of a few critical things about life and basketball.

"How much I really like doing this," White said when asked what he took from this injury experience.

"I've never had an injury. I'll be honest, it's not easy to come to Europe every year... If you talk to somebody who doesn't understand basketball and tell them it's not easy to play professional basketball, they say what's wrong with you. But it's not easy to leave your family and to try to create a new home for your kids and your wife for ten months," White admitted.

"Sometimes you're like, 'shit, this is a lot.' But at this moment, during the injury, I realized how much I love basketball. I really do," White told. "I love being around it. I love being a part of the locker room. I love all the little things that go along with it."

"When you're injured, you're still on the team, but you're not on the same schedule as the other guys. You're going on treatment early at a different time, and you're not going on road trips, you're not on the video sessions in the beginning. I missed all of these things," White recalls. "From this experience, I want to take away that desire wanting to play when you're out and appreciate it when I'm healthy. I hope to do that when I'm back 100% and for the rest of my career. If you can play like that, you'll make things a lot better."

Aaron White gets the defensive rebound. He quickly passes the ball to Austin Hollins and sprints up the court. Hollins throws the ball back and White, faster than anybody else on the court, and there's only a rim in front of him. What would Aaron White do now?

"If I could do the play over again, I would dunk with one hand, honestly," White smiles. "Because you have better balance. I told the assistant coach that all my dunks are usually off the two feet. I'm a two-footed jumper. And this one happened to be off of one. Maybe next time, I gather myself and jump off of the two just to have more control.

"But you know, you can't let yourself think about like 'shit, this is just like that play.' It's not going to be like that. If that same play happened next week and I'm in the game, I will just play off my instincts. I'm just going to probably try to dunk jumping off the two feet, be under control, and not go as fast. You can't sprint as fast as you can to dunk. But other than that, I'm going to play my game the same that I used to."

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2022-01-10
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