Basketball is love for Fedonta “JB” White Jr. — but it is also so much more.
The sport already has given plenty to the 6-foot-8 junior prodigy from Santa Fe High School. It offers national notoriety from college recruiters; local recognition as one of the city’s most gifted athletes in decades; a scholarship offer from, and verbal commitment to, the University of New Mexico’s men’s basketball program.
But for the kid whose nickname stands for “June Bug,” hoops has been something more elemental: A sanctuary in a childhood that hasn’t always been easy.
As his mother struggled with substance abuse issues, and his grandmother became his protector, it’s been clear that basketball allows JB White to keep his trusted circle of friends and mentors small, safe and comfortable.
“JB just wants you to care about him,” said Santa Fe High head boys basketball coach Zack Cole. “He wants to be loved. He’s pretty much to himself, so he’s not going to do something to make you notice him. But if you show him that you care, he opens up to you.”
Knowing that his basketball future is just beginning to flower, it’s not hard to find White, 17, working on his skills. He’s constantly at Toby Roybal Memorial Gymnasium, honing his game. If he’s not in Santa Fe High’s arena, he’s at Genoveva Chavez Community Center, just a couple of miles from his home in south central Santa Fe, where he lives with his grandmother, Jude Voss, and his mother, Bianca Vega.
Voss, with whom White has lived since he was a sixth grader, said her grandson’s choice to commit to UNM over better-known programs that include Utah, Oregon State, Colorado and Arizona State, was an example of how security — more than sizzle — matters most. Lobos coach Paul Weir and his coaching staff were the first to show interest in White and were the first to offer him a scholarship in 2018.
“I think love is very important to him,” Voss said. “From a basketball perspective, he wants to connect with coaches and feel that he is cared for and wanted. He doesn’t want to go transfer to another college.”
The roots of White’s need to have a close circle began early. He was born in Dallas in April 2002 and lived there until 2008, when his mother and Voss moved back to Santa Fe. White and Voss said JB’s father, who lives in Dallas, has not been a consistent presence in the teen’s life.
While in Texas, White’s favorite sport was football, and as a youngster, he saw himself roaming the gridiron rather than the basketball court.
“I was for sure gonna make it to the NFL,” White said. “I wanted to play football, and I love playing football. In Texas, that was everybody’s main sport. You’d go outside, and everybody was tackling each other in the street.”
That changed when he reached the third grade and Voss got him involved in basketball — in part because her son Noah Cosey also was playing the sport.
“I was kinda of the team mom,” Voss said. “So it was easy for me to get him involved. I love being in the gym, being involved with them. It’s not like a chore for me.”
Voss said she started playing a larger role in her grandson’s life as her daughter struggled with drug and alcohol abuse that began when she lived in Texas. (Vega declined to be interviewed for this story.)
White said his mother tried to hide her substance abuse from him, but it came to a head when he found her overdosing on the bathroom floor the day before he began sixth grade.
White said he remembers hearing a thud in the bathroom, and he broke open the door because it was locked.
“I busted through it, and I saw her laying down and her face was purple,” he said. “My phone didn’t work, like I couldn’t call or anything, but I dialed 911 and it went through. I told them what happened.”
Voss, who confirmed White’s account of the incident, moved him into her home that day. It wasn’t an easy transition, as an extended family of six shared a three-bedroom house, with White sleeping for a time on a living room couch.
“He was very attached to his mother, but he came and moved in with me,” Voss said.
It wasn’t until Cosey graduated and left home in 2017 that White had his own room. Vega moved in with her mother and son in 2016 as she started down the road to recovery.
As he tried to adjust to the changes, White said he found support in close friends, Victor Gomez in particular. They have known each other since the fourth grade. Gomez is a kindred spirit, and the two spent hours together, riding bicycles and playing basketball.
“I think it was just to keep his mind off of things,” Gomez said. “We’ve gone through similar things, so I think that’s what has kept us friends.”
All the while, Voss got White more involved in basketball. He played for a local club team, the Style, plus another at Albuquerque’s Frey Basketball Academy. Voss said her grandson was an honored guest with whatever family he stayed with when he competed at tournaments in Albuquerque.
“They all welcomed him with open arms,” Voss said. “All of the dads, they tried to be a good father figure in his life. He’s been blessed to have good men in his life.”
White’s height comes courtesy of genetics; Voss said White’s great-grandfather was 7 feet tall and his dad was about 6-4, so it was no surprise he was already over 6 feet by middle school and 6-4 as he was about to enter high school.
White had a choice between playing at Capital or Santa Fe High, and he thought he was going to be a Jaguar — until Cole came into the picture.
Cole took the head coaching position at Santa Fe High in 2016. He also happened to be married to the former Adrienne Vega, Voss’ niece. White said Cole’s arrival played a key role in deciding to play for the Demons.
“There was no second thought to it,” White said. “Once I knew he was going to be coach, I was going to go to Santa Fe High.”
Though White made the varsity squad as a freshman, he struggled at times. He had been central to his club and middle school teams. White said he couldn’t understand why he didn’t have a bigger role.
“I was used to getting the ball down and scoring,” White said. “I also had to play in the post, and I wasn’t used to that. Middle school, I was point guard, a guard, a post, everything. I’d be hurt after games, but I had to realize that it’s not about how many points you put up, it’s about the ‘W’ at the end of the day.”
After his freshman year, the 6-6 White continued to work on his game and started to attract the attention of colleges during the summer of 2018. While UNM offered him a scholarship, Utah and Santa Clara also started to recruit White. He also began to play for Exum Elite, a high-profile club team based in Utah.
Momentum continued into the winter, as White helped Santa Fe High to a 13-2 start to the 2018-19 season while averaging 17 points and 13 rebounds per game. Then it all came crashing down when he dislocated left patella during a game against Clovis on Jan. 12.
Although tests revealed no structural damage, the swelling prevented White from returning to the court for the rest of the season. However, he was a constant presence in the gym and on the sidelines. He even took the Demons’ 61-58 loss to Albuquerque Atrisco Heritage Academy in the Class 5A championship game hard, weeping unabashedly in the locker room.
“I saw the footage of it and it broke my heart,” Voss said. “It wasn’t that he couldn’t play, but it was that he felt so bad for the seniors and the team in general.”
White was healing but his challenges weren’t done, though. He wasn’t cleared to resume all basketball activities until May. The process tested White’s patience and maturity and led to some dark moments. He said he struggled to do even simple tasks, like taking a shower, and he often was alone at home.
“I had maybe, like, two people come and see me,” White said. “And I was in my house for, like, two months. It really opened my eyes. And I asked myself plenty of times, ‘Do I really want to do this? Do I want to risk getting hurt like this again?’ ”
The answer, it turned out, was yes.
White returned to the gym and worked as hard as ever. Cole said White improved his balance and is jumping more often off both feet. Still, the swelling in his knee occasionally returned, and he couldn’t play as much with the team in the summer.
“It’s important for him to be successful,” Gomez said. “I’ve seen what he’s been through. Seeing him happy and doing something is good.”
When White resumed working out in August, Cole said the swelling evaporated. His star player is going full speed now.
“I think it was just too much, too fast,” Cole said of White’s early attempts to play after the injury. “The doctors just said to shut it down and I am glad they did.”
White’s health is of paramount importance to the Demons, who begin practice Monday for the 2019-20 season. Eight months ago, Santa Fe High made the state final without White. With him, they have a chance to win their first state title in 42 years.
“We’re gonna be back this year,” White said.
The spring in White’s step is helped by the addition of 12 pounds of muscle — and an extra inch in height. His doctor told him he’s still growing and there is a possibility he could end up as tall as his great-granddad.
White blanches at the thought of being a 7-footer.
“Nope,” he said.
But when it comes to love and basketball, though, big is always beautiful.