Tennessee supports ex-star Tony White, who faces fight of his life

Rick Barnes and the current Vols team has rallied behind Tony White. Chris Low/ESPN

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- As I watched Tony White gingerly make his way to the front of the Ray Mears Room deep within Thompson-Boling Arena, I couldn't help but think of our friendship.

More than 35 years ago, long before the days of cellphones, the internet and cable television (at least for me), Tony and I were connected by a mutual friend, and we hit it off immediately. Two boys from the Carolinas who, in the fall of 1983, found their way to the University of Tennessee and forged a lifelong friendship.

And, of course, there was our connection to basketball. We both played in high school, but that was the extent of any hoops comparisons between the two of us. Tony went on to become one of the most prolific scorers in Volunteers hoops lore before playing professionally overseas. I went on to become a reporter and cover college sports. It is a bond that has endured the time and separation that tests most friendships, always finding a way to reconnect.

Given those years of friendship, it was hard not to get emotional when I recently accompanied Tony to address the current Tennessee men's basketball team.

"The Wizard" is facing the fight of his life.

I learned of Tony's cancer diagnosis from one of his former teammates at Tennessee. A close mutual friend, Anthony Richardson (Slim Dog to those of us who know him best), was coming to town that weekend and heard Tony was in the hospital. After Anthony relayed the information, we all met at the hospital.

Tony entered the hospital on Sept. 18, 2018, the first of nearly 100 nights he has collectively spent at UT Medical Center. He received the cancer diagnosis, acute myeloid leukemia M5, the next day and immediately began 30 days of inpatient chemotherapy. In all, he has undergone four rounds of chemotherapy, is extremely susceptible to any kind of infection and has been confined to a hospital bed for much of the past five months.

It was sobering to see our buddy in such a weakened state and hooked up to all those machines in the hospital.

But ask anyone who tried to guard Tony back in the day. He might be 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds soaking wet, but he attacked the rim like he was 6-foot-9 and 275 pounds. And that's the way he is attacking this disease.

"Full-court press, baby," Tony said to me with that familiar toothy grin.

That's been his mantra ever since receiving the diagnosis, but it has pretty much been his mantra his entire life. The skinny kid out of Independence High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, wasn't offered a scholarship by Duke, North Carolina or NC State and instead came across the Smoky Mountains to carve out a legendary career at Tennessee. And it was a Charlotte basketball enthusiast, Sam Reavis, who reached out to a contact inside the Tennessee basketball office and made the staff aware of Tony's talent.

"And what a blessing it's been," said Tony, who grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in inner-city Charlotte with four other siblings and didn't regularly sleep in his own bed until he got to college.

As fiercely competitive as Tony was on the court, he loved just being himself when we were in school. That's what made our relationship so much fun. While we talked hoops -- and, yes, he's still peeved about some of those calls he didn't get in Rupp Arena and Memorial Gymnasium -- we also talked about all the frivolous things 19- and 20-year-old college kids typically talk about. We'd make our weekly Sunday night pilgrimage to Captain D's because all of the cafeterias on campus were closed or do our best impersonations of Don DeVoe, Tony's old coach at Tennessee.

DeVoe's voice is unmistakable, and Tony still has it down pat. "Ball, you, man, Tony. See the ball," ... Tony would start laughing before finishing the impersonation.

Tony would call me "Home Boy" when we were in school because of our Carolina roots. I worked for the UT student newspaper, The Daily Beacon, and it was always interesting to see the looks on some of the reporters' faces when Tony would greet me with his customary "Home Boy" in the interview room after games.

It seems surreal, but it was 32 years ago to the date -- Feb. 14, 1987 -- that Tony set Tennessee's single-game scoring record with 51 points in a 103-84 victory against Auburn. I was there that night in the old Stokely Athletics Center to see Tony put on a scoring exhibition with an array of pull-up jumpers, his patented spin move and an 18-of-19 performance from the free throw line.

(And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I was also there for the postgame celebration down on the Cumberland Avenue strip. Thankfully, there was no such thing as social media or camera phones back then, although it was Tony who mostly kept me out of trouble, instead of the other way around.)

He went on to graduate as the second-leading scorer in Tennessee basketball history and was named the SEC's Player of the Year in 1987.

From the time I first met Tony, the one thing that matched his incredible scoring prowess was his humility. The two-time SEC scoring leader agreed to play on my team during the annual Lambda Chi Alpha 3-on-3 basketball tournament one spring.

Just picture this: Tony going at it on an old rundown outdoor court behind what was then the Lambda Chi Alpha house with a bunch of frat guys, Tennessee football players and regular students ... and loving every bit of it.

But, then, that's Tony in a nutshell. It's why he has endeared himself to so many, namely this current Tennessee basketball team that's making the kind of waves that take Vol fans back to the "Ernie and Bernie Show" days of the mid-1970s when Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King were the toast of Knoxville.

"Tony is family and somebody who's made an impact on all of us," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "We're right there with him in his fight and blessed that he's part of our lives."

Barnes, a North Carolina boy himself, has been to UT Medical Center multiple times to visit Tony, and several other current and former players have visited or checked in with him in some capacity. Grant Williams, Dale Ellis, Michael Brooks, Gary Carter, Chris Lofton, Reggie Johnson, Steve Ray, Mark Griffin, Fred Jenkins and Clarence Swearengen, to name a few. Tennessee athletic director and former head football coach Phillip Fulmer has also visited.

Anthony Richardson, Tony's roommate at the old Gibbs Hall athletic dorm, made a special trip up from Atlanta this past weekend, and we watched the Florida-Tennessee basketball game together at my house.

"A lot of those guys I didn't even play with, and some I haven't seen in a long time, but Tennessee basketball is a brotherhood, and Coach Barnes has helped make that brotherhood even stronger," Tony said. "To see what he's done with the program and the way he's done it makes us all proud to be a part of it."

There is an old sign inside Tennessee's basketball offices commemorating Tony's 51-point performance, and Barnes plans to present that sign to Tony for him to keep. Williams, one of the best players in the country, recently told Tony he was going to take that sign (and the record) from him at some point, to which Tony shot back, "You can't stay in the game long enough to break that record."

Williams has battled foul trouble at times this season, and Tony scolded him about committing ill-advised infractions when Williams visited him in the hospital.

"Man, we need you in there at the end. Let those silly fouls go," Tony barked playfully at Williams, who fouled out and didn't play in the overtime period in the Vols' only loss of the season, to Kansas in November.

Of course, a few nights after Tony visited with the team before the Alabama game, Williams made a run at the record when he poured in a career-high 43 points in the 88-83 overtime win against Vanderbilt. One of the first things Williams did after that game was to give a shout-out to Tony during the postgame news conference.

"I thought about him during the night and told him I was going to try and break his scoring record one day," said Williams, who is also from Charlotte. "I didn't get there, but I just wanted to show him some love. I wanted to do something special for him."

The only Tennessee player in the past 50 years to score more points in a single game than Williams' 43 was White during the 1986-87 season when he scored 49 against Florida State at the Citrus Bowl Classic in Orlando and then his record 51 against Auburn.

"I don't mind passing the record from Charlotte to Charlotte," Tony joked.

One by one, the Tennessee players lined up to hug or shake hands with Tony and his wife, Barbie. Speaking to the players following a morning shootaround prior to a Jan. 19 clash against Alabama, Tony had bits of advice for just about every player.

Tony, admittedly running on fumes at times with the chemo being pumped into his body, received a warm reception from the crowd when he was introduced on the court during a first-half timeout and was in the victorious locker room afterward, a game the then-No. 3 Vols had to grind out for a 71-68 victory and their 12th straight triumph, a winning streak that now sits at a school-record 19 in a row entering Saturday night's showdown with No. 5-ranked Kentucky.

"It's inspiring, especially to hear him say we inspire him and to keep fighting. It really touched me and makes you step back and realize that it's bigger than basketball."
Tennessee's Admiral Schofield

"I'm going through a battle right now, leukemia, and just to see the joy that you guys play the game with and what you're doing lifts me up and gives me that fight and energy when I see y'all out there battling, and that's what it's all about," White told the team that morning.

"It's inspiring, especially to hear him say we inspire him and to keep fighting," Tennessee senior Admiral Schofield said. "It really touched me and makes you step back and realize that it's bigger than basketball. Life is hard and life can hit you in many different ways, and any way you can impact lives, through basketball, off the court or through your platform, you've got to be able to connect with people.

"For someone like him, a legend here, to say we inspire him -- and he's fighting something that's real. We're not talking about a basketball game -- that puts it all into perspective. It's just amazing to see the way he's taking something that's a lot bigger than we're facing head-on."

Tony has three sons: Marquise, Tony Jr. and Ronrico. Ronrico is a graduate assistant on Gardner-Webb's basketball staff and loves to joke with his dad that there must have been 100,000-plus in the building the night he dropped 51 on Auburn if everybody who tells Ronrico they were there were genuinely there.

"Stokely only held about 12,000 people, but I felt every one of them that night ... and still do," Tony said.

There are many within the Tennessee community who have also made generous donations to an account set up to help the White family with Tony's medical costs. The people donating money to Tony's cause include everybody from Mike Strange, a former sportswriter for the Knoxville News Sentinel who covered Tony at Tennessee; to former Tennessee assistant coach Jack Fertig, who recruited Tony; to former Tennessee sports information director David Grim; to former UT manager Bo Braswell; to random fans from Greece who watched Tony play professionally. Tony even received a phone call from former Indiana star guard and former UCLA coach Steve Alford. The two matched up against each other in the 1985 NIT Final Four.

"As we sat there and combed through all the different people who donated money, there were a lot of tears," Barbie said. "You just feel the love."

While it has been heartwarming to see the way the Tennessee basketball family has rallied around Tony, his most divine angel has been Barbie. She spends every night with him in the hospital, sleeps on the pullout lounger in the hospital room, gets up and goes to work and then returns that evening.

"She is my heart," Tony said.

Barbie echoes what Tony has told people repeatedly ever since he was diagnosed with cancer. They have leaned on their Christian faith, especially during some of the darker times and late-night trips to the hospital.

"God never promised us sunshine without rain," she said. "He just promised to be there if we call on him."

The encouraging news is Tony's cancer is in remission, but doctors have told him the type of cancer he has will evolve and come back even stronger if he remains solely on maintenance chemotherapy. The next step is a bone marrow transplant, which is scheduled for the second week of March at the Sarah Cannon Cancer Center in Nashville. Tony's brother, Gene, will be the donor after tests recently determined that Gene's marrow was a perfect 10-for-10 match. The entire procedure and recovery will keep Tony in Nashville for 100 days, and doctors have told him he has a 70 percent chance of living a normal life if the transplant is successful.

Through it all, Tony has usually been the one to cheer up everybody around him, even on some of his most difficult days, when a lymph node on his neck might swell up to scary proportions or when he's especially frail after going days without eating because he couldn't keep anything down.

For me, it is Tony's heart, his determination and faith that have been the best motivation for all of us who love him so dearly.

Emblazoned on the wall in Tennessee's new sprawling, state-of-the-art locker room is a passage from Proverbs 18:24 "... but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother."

"God never promised us sunshine without rain. He just promised to be there if we call on him."
Barbie White, on Tony's leukemia diagnosis

Tony looks at the passage and nods assuredly as he eases into one of the comfy couches in the Vols' locker room following the Alabama game. As a guest of the Vol Network, he watched the game from a luxury suite high atop Thompson-Boling Arena, much of the time while wearing a mask over his mouth, per his doctor's orders.

It was a long and tiring day, but one Tony wouldn't have missed for the world. He said it was the first time he'd really felt "normal" since learning that he had cancer in September.

"I've had a chance to travel the world and to play basketball all over the world. I've truly been blessed, but this is a day I'll always remember," said Tony, his voice oozing with conviction.

That makes two of us, Wiz. And there are going to be a lot more of those days, too.