SLAM 58: In David Lee and James White, Florida had the 2001 version of Phi Slama Jama.
by Ben Osborne
There’s just minutes left as the University of Florida basketball team trounces host New Hampshire in a game set up so fans can pay homage to NH native and Gators starter Matt Bonner, and all pretenses are over. With Florida freshman David Lee on the free throw line moments after ending a pair of recent possessions with a two-handed facial on a UNH power forward and a one-handed, tomahawk putback, many of the 7,000 fans-having seen the home team get down by 40 and having already given Bonner the requisite standing O-start yelling for the visitors: “Miss your second one, David! That way we can see another putback!”
But Lee lets them down by swishing both FTs, and so the fans turn their attention to Florida’s other high-flying rookie, James White. Every time White touches the ball the fans rise in anticipation, their dreams finally realized when the 6-6 two guard steals an inbound pass and dribbles the length of the court before delivering a lovely cupped-in-one-hand, spread-eagled slam at the buzzer, running off the court to a crescendo of applause.
Yep. As fans around the country will learn as we get deeper into the college basketball season, it’s like that when the Florida Gators come to town. Leave your seat to buy a hot dog at your own peril, for Lee and White are always prepared to pull off a dunk that-literally-you may never have seen before.
Sitting in their hotel room in nearby Portsmouth, NH, Lee and White are more than happy to explain the art of dunking a basketball, a skill they’ve both come awfully close to mastering before their 20th birthdays. Let’s put it like this: Any number of talented, brilliant freshmen enter college each year. If two Westinghouse Science Scholarship winners came to the same school, roomed together, and began groundbreaking work on the human genome project, you can be damn sure that Scientific American would want to record their thoughts. In this case, the groundbreaking is being done with a ball and a rim, and we’re SLAM. Enough said.
“We are the 2001 Phi Slama Jama,” Lee exclaims mid-interview. “Does anybody realize that?”
“Yeah,” answers White. “When it comes to dunking, we’re the most exciting two players on the same team in the whole country.”
Of course, both bring a lot more to the table than the fact that they can raise up higher than Petey Pablo. They’re both solid students and extremely amusing young men. They both rep cities (DL from St. Louis and Flight from Washington, D.C.) that get little hoop love compared to the likes of New York and L.A. And they were both McDonald’s All-Americans last spring, with the NBA waiting for them as soon as they shape up their bodies and round out their games. But all that stuff is hard to bring up once these two roommates get talking about dunks.
“A good dunk changes things,” professes White. “You could shoot 1-for-37 in a game, but if that one was a nice breakaway dunk, you can change the course of the game. People will be like, ‘Good game,’ even though you were 1-for-37. It’s just the most exciting play and I love to do it because I feel like I’m a showman out there.”
While the 6-9 Lee has what White calls “sneaky bounce” and an above-the-rim history that is relatively young, the Legend of James White has been growing ever since his freshman year of high school. Coming up just outside DC in Prince George’s County, MD, young James played mad sports. “My dad had me involved in football, Tae Kwan Do, anything that would keep me out of trouble,” recalls James White IV. “I didn’t get serious with basketball until maybe 13, when he would take me to different playgrounds, or maybe wake me up early to play with his postal worker friends. I was taller than the other kids my age were, and my dad is 6-5, so he was teaching me low-post moves, mostly. But I realized I could dunk too, and I probably caught my first around that age, when I was 6-1.”
Combining the relative polish of his low-post game with extreme athleticism and some strong bloodlines (besides his talented father, James occasionally balled with his cousin Rodney White, now of the Pistons), White was quickly seen as a prospect. “The summer going into my sophomore year, I got to play on the DC Assault AAU team with Keith Bogans, DerMarr Johnson and all these other great players,” says White. “I knew I was a great dunker because even though I didn’t play one second the whole summer-not one second, and I went to tournaments with them in Vegas, California and D.C.-I was getting mail from all the top schools. Just because of what they had seen me do in warm-ups! And all these guys on my team were like, ‘Hey, young fella, you got bounce! Can you do this dunk? Can you do that dunk?’ And I was like, DerMarr Johnson is telling me this? Then I must really be all right.”
White spent his sophomore and junior years at Newport High School in Kensington, MD, and most of his summers around DC, doing his thing on various playgrounds and in the Kenner League. As a senior, White attended Hargrave Military Academy, a strict boarding school in Chatham, VA. On one level, White’s various prep experiences-far from the raucous public school scene in PG County-kept him below the radar. “I think if I had played public school ball I would have been a serious legend in DC, because it seemed like some people never knew who I was,” James says. “But [going away to school] was best for me since I was able to focus on basketball and school. I’m a pretty distractible guy and the attention might’ve gone to my head.”
Private school or not, White’s name was bubbling in basketball circles like Mos Def’s used to in hip-hop. As Lee explains, “When I started my senior year of high school I had never even seen James play because we played at different camps and tournaments, but I had heard about him. There were people that don’t hardly know anything about basketball, and they were on the street talking about James, and how they heard he can dunk from the free throw line with two hands. It’s amazing how these legends grow.”
After committing to Florida just before the start of his senior year, and then finally meeting his future roommate at UF’s Midnight Madness in the fall of ’00, White cemented his rep in high school circles during the week of the McDonald’s Game. He may have lost to an athletic-and gimmicky-Lee in the dunk contest two nights before the game, but White had fans of all ages searching their memory banks for images of anyone else who had ever pulled off a two-hander from the charity stripe. Needless to say, there weren’t too many names popping into people’s heads.
Today, the skinny, 180-pound White is the first or second man off the bench for a nationally contending Gator team (conveniently, his roommate is usually the other of the first two off the pine), expected to provide perimeter scoring and defense as well as a highlight or two every time out. Through the season’s first six games, UF was 5-1 and White was averaging 22.2 minutes and 6.5 points per game on 50 percent field goal shooting, along with 2.3 boards and 2.2 assists per.
“As he showed at Midnight Madness, James’s dunks are just silly,” begins Florida head coach Billy Donovan. We know, Coach-we’ve got the tape. James went from just inside the foul line with one hand, grabbed it with two hands, pumped it across his chest and dunked it with the two hands. Then he had to duck his head so he didn’t hit it on the base of the rim. And by the way, James White’s hands are too small for him to properly palm a basketball. Scary. Silly. Unbeatable? “If there’s a contest with something on the line,” teases Flight, who has called out Vince Carter by name, “then I don’t think there’s anyone-anywhere-who can beat me.” Shit, the dunking has distracted us again. We’ll let Donovan finish now. “But there’s a lot more to James than his dunking. He’s a very unselfish kid who doesn’t take many bad shots and is a great passer.”
As well as White passes the rock on the court, he’s equally good at passing along compliments, which he does to Lee as eagerly as the white boy has done to him. “Dave pounds it on ‘em, man,” says White. “He’s the type of guy, if you a black dude, you look at him like, ‘Man, this dude is sorry, with his shaggy hair and all that.’ And then all of a sudden he posts you up and dunks on you.”
Lee concurs, saying, “Yeah, let somebody get lax and I’m going to crush on them.”
While Lee-a 230-pound power forward who will need more finesse before he’s as NBA-ready as his boy James-may dunk with a little less beauty than White, he had more than enough flavor to make St. Lunatics out of the fans who watched him in the Show Me State. “I grew up kind of on the outside of St. Louis, but I used to always go into the city and play on teams that were mostly black,” remembers Lee. “That was where the best competition was, and I felt the only way to get better was to play with the older and better players in the area.”
Eventually, Lee worked his way into the inner circle of top-level St. Louis ballers. “I got to know guys like Darius Miles, Larry Hughes, Jahidi White and Loren Woods, and eventually they started asking me to come to their games,” Lee recalls.
As much as the local pros and pros-to-be appreciated Lee’s ability to bang on the blocks and his near ambidextrous shooting skills (thanks to his sophomore season at Chaminade Prep, when he broke his natural left hand and finished the year shooting righty), the real reason they called Lee was to feed him for some jams. “I dunked for the first time the summer before ninth grade, back when I was only about six feet,” shares Lee. “I wasn’t able to get known and get in the good games until after 10th grade, though, because by then I’d grown five inches. I was big, and I could still jump. By my junior year in high school, every time I’d get out on a two-on-one break, the people would be getting up out of their seats to see what I would do.”
His local rep intact, Lee used the rest of his junior year and the AAU season that followed to cement his name on a national level. “I think it took me a whole extra summer to get noticed because of being from St. Louis,” Lee says. “For instance, when my AAU team, the St. Louis Eagles, played the Southern California team with Tyson Chandler, Cedric Bozeman and those guys, they’d have four of the top-25 ranked players in the country, and that motivated me because it seemed like it was a lot harder for the talented players from our city to get noticed.”
One person who obviously noticed was Donovan, who shrewdly got Lee to commit along with White and Kwame Brown. “We lost that third guy, of course,” smiles Donovan, “but I was still thrilled to get these two guys. I think James and David both found our style of play very appealing.”
Thus far, Lee’s productivity has been comparable to his roommate’s. In 18.7 mpg through the first month of the season, Lee was averaging 7.8 ppg on 53 percent from the floor, complemented with 5.0 rebs and 1.3 steals per. And Lee owns a matching dunk contest claim to boot. “There’s no debate between James and I-he’s the most amazing dunker ever to come out of high school. But if there’s ever an all-white competition, nobody’s going to be up there with me.”
Obviously, Vinsanity ain’t taking on Flight anytime soon, and there’s no Brent Barry-David Lee contest on the horizon either. But there are some 20-odd games left in Florida’s schedule. Just remember not to leave your seat.