One afternoon a few years ago, my mom called me into my parents’ room.
She was sitting on the bed when I walked in. My dad was outside in the front yard.
My mom told me to take a seat, and then she started in. At first I didn’t understand what was going on. We’d all been struggling after getting the news a few months earlier that my dad had been diagnosed with liver cancer, and as I sat there my mom just kept talking about how he was doing, and how all these tests were being done and whatnot. But it was the kind of thing where she was speaking a whole lot of words, and at the same time … she wasn’t really saying anything.
“Mom!” I said finally, breaking in. “What is this? What are you trying to tell me?”
She took a deep breath.
“Dad’s cancer … Coby … It’s not going away.”
She was talking slowly. Really struggling to get the words out.
“And one day soon … that cancer is going to take your father from us.”
At that point, I totally broke down. It was just straight sobbing.
I remember trying to respond but I just … I couldn’t talk. My brain was telling my body to talk, but no words were coming out of my mouth.
When I was finally able to speak, I shouted out at the top of my lungs …
“THIS IS NOT REAL!!!!!”
And I don’t know exactly how or why, but right at that moment my sadness basically transformed into straight-up anger. It was like my whole body got completely filled up with rage.
And then, all of a sudden, without even realizing what I was doing … I punched the wall.
Hard as hell, too. Like as hard as I could. Full force.
I didn’t even feel it when my fist hit that wall, honestly. But the impact was so loud that my dad heard it from in front of the house and came racing in. He tried to console me, but I took off outside, sat down in the grass and cried some more.
It was just anger on top of anger then. I’ve never been so mad in my entire life.
And, you know what? I’m not proud to admit this, but …
I wasn’t angry at the cancer, or my dad, or even about knowing that I was going to lose him soon. I was mad at …I wasn’t angry at the cancer, or my dad, or even about knowing that I was going to lose him soon. I was mad at … God.
All I could think about was how I was a person of incredibly strong faith, and now I was about to lose my father. Everything I had known and believed since I was a little boy seemed to be crashing down all at once.
I kept thinking, If he’d wanted to, God could’ve stopped this. And in my head I was letting him know how pissed I was. It was like …
Why are you taking my dad from me?
I’m a 17-year-old kid.
I need my dad!!!!!
I was just sitting out there on the lawn, tears streaming down my face, asking over and over again …
Why, God? Why?
Ever since I was a little kid I remember my dad being the rock of our family.
He always did everything he could to provide for me, my brother and sister, and our mom. It was never easy — he worked the graveyard shift at the factory near our house in Goldsboro, North Carolina — but he never complained about anything. That wasn’t his way.
My dad was also the first person to put a basketball in my hands. He played hoops at North Carolina Central back in the day, so he loved the game and got me into it early. Pretty much as soon as I could hold a basketball, he had me out on the street in front of our double-wide shooting at the hoop he’d set up. And he’d tell me all these stories about going off for 40 back in the day, or dunking over people.
I ate it all up.
There’s this one he’d tell about how he threw an alley-oop to himself off the backboard and dunked the ball with so much force that the ref didn’t believe what he saw, and then …
“The whistle he had in his mouth just fell out and landed on the court,” my dad would say. “He was so blown away that his mouth just shot open.”
I have no idea if that’s true or not, but, I mean … you tell eight-year-old Coby that story and you’re pretty much gonna be Superman in his eyes.
Courtesy of Coby White
Every day I’d come home from school, do my homework and then … it’d be out to the front street to shoot. Dad would have to sleep during the day because he worked at night, but usually when he heard that ball bouncing around he’d head out and challenge me to a game of HORSE.
He was a little older than most dads, so it didn’t take long before I could beat him. Once I was able to shoot from a little deeper, it was over. He was more of a mid-range dude, if you know what I mean — an old head. So he always tried to keep me from shooting from deep, or from doing trick shots.
“Why you gotta be shooting from all the way back there?” he’d always say. “That’s cheating!”
When we weren’t out front getting up shots, my dad and I watched a ton of TV together. We definitely watched some hoops, for sure, but his big thing was actually the Rocky movies.
My pops was so used to working at night that he’d just stay up all night on the weekends watching TV. And even when I was little, and even after my mom would yell out into the living room and tell me to get to sleep, I could always count on my dad to look over at me with a smile and be like … “You ain’t gotta go to bed yet.”
On those nights, he’d always somehow be able to find a Rocky marathon.
My pops loved how Rocky came up from humble beginnings and didn’t have much of anything, and how no one thought he’d amount to much, and then how he just basically showed everyone what was up in the end.
Rocky wasn’t supposed to beat Apollo or Clubber Lang or that gigantic Russian dude, but he worked his ass off and beat down those guys and shocked the world.
My dad loved every minute of it. And so did I.
No matter how many times we’d seen those movies, we’d still cheer, or do a fist pump in the air, when that knockout punch landed.
It never got old.I could always count on my dad to look over at me with a smile and be like ... “You ain’t gotta go to bed yet.”
In high school, when my friends started coming around more, my dad had a field day. He was the type of person who loved to tell stories and crack jokes, so it couldn’t have been better for him when my friends and I would hang out. There would be times when my boys would come over and they’d spend more time with my dad than they would with me.
Everyone called him Doc, and so my friends would call to talk to me, and after a while it’d be like, “What’s up with Doc? What’s he doing?”
At one point, my pops even started calling them. Like out of the blue. It was so ridiculous. And because our house was so little, I’d be in my room and I’d be able to hear him dialing the house phone. Then it’d be my dad saying, like, “Hey, what’s up, Corey? What you doing?”
I’d hear all this laughing and whatnot. Then there’d be a text from my friend 15 minutes later like, “Bro, your dad just called me.”
But, you know what? As embarrassing as that stuff always was, it was impossible to get mad at him about it. Because he was just old-school like that. He always just wanted to be close with people and connect with them, I think. And with me, that meant he constantly let me know that he loved me.
He said it every day. Multiple times a day.
And he’d kiss me on the cheek, too. Not just like on my birthday or New Years or whatever … I’m talking everywhere. In public. Around people. He didn’t care. He had no problem letting everyone know that he loved his son.
You just don’t see a lot of fathers these days kiss their sons on the cheek.
But looking back on it now, you know what: That’s actually a pretty dope thing for a dad to do.
Right around my sophomore year of high school, when I started to get a lot of press for playing basketball and some big-time coaches were coming around, something really weird started happening.
My dad would pull me aside at random times and give me this super strange talk. Each time it would be a little different in terms of the wording, but it usually started out something like this:
“Coby, I’m not gonna be on this Earth too much longer….”
Like that was the opening. Can you imagine?
We’d be watching TV, or be out in the yard, and he’d just go in like that. Then it’d be …
“So I’m going to need you to take care of your mom and make sure she’s O.K. And hopefully I’ll get the chance to see you play college basketball, but if I don’t, I know you’re going to do great.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, or why he’d say stuff like that. This was before he found out about the cancer, back when he seemed pretty healthy. I guess maybe he sensed something was wrong, though.
Every time he’d do this, I’d just be like, “Bro, shut up! What are you doing? Quit saying that stuff. What is wrong with you?”
I’d get so angry about it, because I just had no clue.
But he wouldn’t stop. And it really left a mark on me in so many different ways. Maybe the biggest impact it had was on my recruitment and the decision about where I was going to play basketball in college.
Courtesy of Coby WhiteEven though I didn’t know what was up, or what my dad was talking about, I definitely knew there was something going on, and that I wanted to stay close to home just in case these terrible things he kept saying actually came true.
When Coach Williams invited us up to Chapel Hill for a visit, everything just lined up for me in every way. UNC was super close, and I loved everything about the program and the arena and the school.
And my dad really hit it off with Coach Williams.
Those two, they’re both so old-school and down-to-earth and just … genuine. I remember when we got in the car after we all had just finished up a long conversation during that visit, and I asked my dad what he thought.
“I like good ol’ Roy,” he said, all country.
“He’s a fine man. Good ol’ Roy! My man!”
So three days after that UNC offer arrived, during my sophomore year of high school, I committed to play for Coach Williams and the Tar Heels.
My dad couldn’t stop smiling.
Peyton Williams/UNC/Getty Images
Not too long after that, I finally realized what those weird “I’m not gonna be around too much longer” conversations were about.
My dad went from being a healthy, fun-loving guy to someone who was just always feeling sick and rundown. When he went to the hospital, they diagnosed him with liver cancer.
And it spread fast.
At one point he had surgery to remove some tumors, and it seemed like he was healing up O.K. I was convinced that he would beat it. It was like, This is my dad. He can do anything. He’s not gonna let this take him down. No chance.
But then my mom called me into her room. And I punched a wall. And everything changed forever.Then my mom called me into her room. And I punched a wall. And everything changed forever.
After that, things went downhill in a hurry.
Over a two-month span, I saw my dad get worse and worse each day. He lost a ton of weight. He was weak and couldn’t really walk on his own. At one point, he started getting his days and nights mixed up.
Basically, little by little, we were watching my dad die.
It got to the point where I would look at my father and he didn’t even recognize me. That was the hardest part for me — looking my dad in the eyes and knowing, actually being able to tell that … he didn’t know who I was.
This was my hero. Superman. The person I always looked to for … everything.
And he didn’t even know me anymore.
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesI was about to get on a plane to L.A. for the Nike Skills Academy when I got the call from my mom.
“Coby,” she said, “your dad passed away this morning. He’s gone.”
I just started bawling. Immediately. Uncontrollably.
My brother drove me back home from the airport, and when we got there, before they took my dad away, I walked into the room where he was lying down, and I just lost it.
My mom told me later that I cried so much that there was actually a puddle on the floor.My mom told me later that I cried so much that there was actually a puddle on the floor.
But in that moment I was just standing there looking at him — head hung low, sobbing — and really not knowing what to say or do.
My mom broke the silence.
“You know, you can kiss him if you want to, Coby.”
I mean, at that point, I could barely breathe I was sobbing so much. But I bent down and kissed my dad on his forehead.
Then I talked to him in a low voice, almost like a whisper.
“I love you, Dad. With all my heart. And I know you will always be with me, no matter what.”
When you lose someone close to you, things change.
Big things. Little things. Medium things.
Nothing is ever the same.
Time may help you feel better, and help to lessen the grief. But it never totally goes away.
For me, this past year at UNC was an example of that. We had an amazing season, with so many incredible moments – a conference title, two huge wins over Duke, a No. 1 seed in the tournament. It was one of the best years of my entire life.
At the same time, though, it was just exceptionally difficult because … Pops wasn’t around to share those moments with me.
To be completely honest with you, I struggled all season long trying to cope with that reality.
I remember this one game in particular, we played Miami at home and we were down the whole second half before we went on this run where I really kind of took over the game. I just couldn’t miss. I was hitting everything.
We ended up somehow getting the game to overtime, and then we pulled it out in OT. In all my years of playing basketball, I had never been part of a come-from-behind win like that. I finished the game with 33 points, and scored 20-something in the second half.
I was on top of the world when the buzzer went off at the end of that one.
And then, I get back to my room and I’m just sitting there by myself, and … I start crying.
I should’ve been happy. But I was just so sad.
Lance King/Getty ImagesI wanted my dad to have seen that game, and to have him tell me how proud he was, you know what I mean? And that was how I felt often during the season. I’d love to say it was no big deal that he wasn’t around or that I was fine with it or whatever. But that just wouldn’t be true.
It affected me. It hurt.
Even after I started talking more about the loss of my father, there was still just so much I kept bottled up inside from day to day.
I tried not to let it affect those around me, but my teammates and friends … they could tell that sometimes I wasn’t myself.
It’d be like, “Oh, I see Coby’s not talking today,” or “Coby’s in one of his moods right now.” But all the while, I was just totally messed up on the inside thinking about my dad.I was just totally messed up on the inside thinking about my dad. And missing him.
And missing him.
My teammates would say, like, “Coby be looking angry right now,” and I’d just take a deep breath and be like, “Nah, I’m chillin’.”
But, man … I definitely was not chillin’.
The more I opened up about everything, the better it got. But there would still be times when I was happy and laughing and making jokes, and then five minutes later I’d be just really sad and not talking.
And no one ever knew what that was about. I never went to my teammates and told them why. I just wasn’t able to.
This is actually the first time I’m even talking about it.
So now they know, I guess.
Hopefully they’ll understand, and forgive me … and know that I was just really going through some stuff on those days.
As tough as it’s been for me over the past two years, one thing I’m proud to report is that I’ve been able to reconnect with my faith and stop being angry at the Lord for taking my dad away.
It definitely didn’t happen overnight, though.
Looking back on it now, for a few weeks after my dad’s passing, I wasn’t really living. I wasn’t enjoying life. I would wake up with this overwhelming sense of loss, and just a ton of anger to go along with it. But eventually it got to a point where I was just like: I gotta break out of this. I need to stop living this way.
What really helped me the most was just talking with people in my life who had gone through tragedies of their own. My mom and sister both talked to me about loved ones they had lost years ago and admitted to thinking the same things I was wrestling with.
They had questioned God. They had been angry at the Lord. Just all the same things.
They both told me that there’s no one way to find solace and to feel better. There’s no easy answer. You just have to do your best and allow for the healing and improvement to come whenever it does.
And they were totally right.
So I just started talking to God a lot more, and praying every night, and after a while, I started to get a sense of relief.
Ultimately, I think that, through all this, I have actually gotten a lot closer to God. I now feel more connected than ever. And it feels really good knowing that, and being secure about it, as I embark on the next chapter of my life.
Courtesy of Coby White (Tattoo by Keron McHugh and Cardinal Tattoos LLC)No matter what happens with me from here on out, or what team I play for in the NBA, one thing you can be certain of is that my dad will be involved.
Anytime I post on Instagram, I include the letters FMF — For My Father — at the end. And this past year I got those letters tatted on me, along with the Roman numerals of the day that my dad passed. I will think about him before and after every single game I play in the league. That’s not even a question.
Now, of course, I need to get there first. And that all starts with the upcoming draft.No matter what happens with me from here on out, or what team I play for in the NBA, one thing you can be certain of is that my dad will be involved.
I can’t wait to see what happens.
It’s going to be the most exciting moment of my life, but at the same time, as crazy as it might sound, I think it’s also going to be the most difficult moment I’ve ever experienced aside from losing my father to cancer.
There’s going to be so much excitement within me when I hear my name called and fulfill the dream of a lifetime. But afterward, when I’m alone with my family, or just off to myself …
I’m going to break down and cry.
And it’s not like one of those things where, like, I don’t know. I might actually cry. I could see that happening.
I am going to break down. I will cry and be very, very sad. No maybes. That will be part of this experience for me.
Courtesy of Coby WhiteI know people will try to tell me on draft night that my pops is looking down from heaven — that he is seeing everything, and that he is very proud of me.
And I’ll nod and thank them for that and appreciate the kind words, but …
It’s just not the same, you know what I mean?
Not even close.
It’s just completely different. And I am going to feel that difference deeply on draft night.
I know that if my dad could talk to me in that moment he’d tell me that he loved me. That would be the very first thing out of his mouth. Then he’d say that he’s proud of me. And then we’d both just be incredibly happy.
I’d do anything to have him there with me on draft night, even if only for a split second.
Just to get one more kiss on the cheek from my pops.