HCA Healthcare
March 14, 2019

SOURCE: Nashville Tennessean

AUTHOR: Joe Rexrode

Grant Williams hugged Tony White, one Tennessee basketball great from Charlotte, N.C., embracing another, and he had something else for him.

“I told you I was going to give this to you,” Williams said of the signed basketball. “I finally got it to you.”

White, standing Thursday in a room at the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at TriStar Centennial, broke into a grin, though you could tell only by the squinting of his eyes. He wore a mask over his mouth, this man fighting leukemia, two days after a bone marrow transplant that he hopes will save his life. Doctors have told him that if there are no complications from the transplant, he has a 70 percent chance of full recovery.

Tennessee junior Grant Williams, left, gives a game ball from UT's win at Vanderbilt this season to former UT great Tony White on Thursday. The Vols visited White, who is recovering from a bone marrow transplant, at the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at TriStar Centennial. (Photo: Submitted by TriStar Centennial Medical Center)

Now he had his guys with him, and the game ball from Tennessee’s overtime win on Jan. 23 at Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym, just a half mile away from where they gathered Thursday. Williams scored 43 points in that game, making a run at the program-record 51 points White had in a 1987 win over Auburn. Williams mentioned White that night at the post-game press conference. In this process of friendship through adversity, they have joked about that record – Williams saying he’s coming for it, White saying Williams has to stay out of foul trouble first.

Thursday’s tone was the same, one day before the Vols open play in the quarterfinalsof the SEC tournament at Bridgestone Arena. Pro and college teams often get involved with fans fighting life-threatening diseases, and they often get involved with former players. Rarely do they get both in one person. White told the Vols about the transplant – his brother, Gene, was the donor and a perfect match – and asked them to “keep me in your prayers.”

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And then it was time to start cutting it up. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes stood next to White’s wife, Barbie, as the UT players stood next to White. Barnes asked White: “When you were their age, how many of these guys could guard you?”

White laughed.

“I know Bone couldn’t,” Barnes said, gesturing to junior point guard and Ensworth grad Jordan Bone.

Tennessee basketball player Tony White in 1987 (Photo: AMY SMOTHERMAN BURGESS, Knoxville News Sentinel)

“What would you do to Bone and Lamonte (Turner)?” Barnes continued. “Take them on the block and punish them?”

“You’re putting me on the spot, Coach,” said White, 54, who proceeded to tell of the mid-range game and spin move that helped him score 2,219 points at UT from 1983-87 – still good for third place on the school’s all-time list.

Vols 'ain't got no more excuses'

They talked about White’s son Ronrico, who is a graduate assistant for Gardner-Webb and just helped that program earn the first NCAA tournament bid in its history – which means the Vols and Runnin’ Bulldogs potentially could meet in the first round. White would love to be there in person to watch his son and the Vols for as long as they go, but he’s going to have to watch from his hospital room in Nashville, where he will be for at least 30 days and as many as 100.

Tennessee basketball great Tony White scored 2,219 points from 1983-87 – still good for third place on the school’s all-time list. (Photo: Amy Smotherman Burgess/News Sentinel)

He will be watching closely. He believes these Vols can win the SEC tournament and the NCAA tournament if they go inside-out on offense, if they help each other and communicate on defense like they do when they’re at their best. The joking gave way Thursday to some serious words from White.

“This is it now. You ain’t got no more excuses,” he told the Vols. “Lockdown time, all right?”

The players nodded. White told them they make him want to get back out there on the court.

“The team chemistry y’all got, it’s contagious,” he said. “It’s very contagious.”

He told them what they’ve done for him.

“I’m very overwhelmed and humbled by it, and I appreciate it,” he said. “Y’all don’t know, man. It means a lot.”

Vanderbilt guard Barry Goheen, center, tries to get past Tennessee teammates Tony White, left, and Mark Griffith (33) during a game at Memorial Gym on Jan. 3, 1987. UT won 81-72. (Photo: Callie Shell / The Tennessean)

Then it was time to lighten the mood again, Barnes ripping on Williams’ private school basketball grooming in Charlotte. Barnes called on team chaplain Chris Walker to lead a prayer, and they all formed a circle around White and bowed their heads as Walker prayed.

Each member of the team hugged White on the way out, with practice at Lipscomb University next on the agenda. They parted ways to resume pursuing very different kinds of victory.

“We love you man,” Williams said, and then it was just White and Barbie again.

Leukemia and marriage

They are newlyweds, a honeymoon to Italy to be made up at a date to be determined. Friends for many years as co-workers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, they had been dating for three years when they got a call at their Lenoir City home from White’s doctor in September. They were watching “Monday Night Football.” The doctor asked if White was sitting down.

Persistent illness they took for pneumonia was in fact something they never could have imagined – acute myeloid leukemia M5, making White one of about 20,000 cases diagnosed each year.

“I’d never been sick a day in my life,” White said. “Now I’ve had almost every type of infection you can have.”

Former Tennessee basketball great Tony White met his wife, Barbie, while both worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. (Photo: Courtney Pedroza/The Tennessean )

He had 30 days of inpatient chemotherapy, too, at UT Medical Center, and he lost about 60 pounds. He and Barbie were wed on Oct. 16, their pastor making a special trip to the hospital to perform the ceremony. The support from family members, friends and the UT community has been strong all along but took a leap when ESPN’s Chris Low – a college classmate and close friend of White’s – wrote a piece about his struggle in February.

By then, the bond between White and Barnes’ Vols had grown powerful.

“If Rick would have come once, that would have been fantastic,” Barbie said. “But he just kept coming. He’s just a good, caring man, and you see that when he’s with this team. A player isn’t just someone who produces for him. You can tell he really loves those boys.”

White nodded his head as Barbie said this, repeating that he has been “overwhelmed” by getting to know these people who represent his alma mater. And it’s not just that they’re nice guys.

“You know what they do?” White said. “They play basketball the way basketball is supposed to be played.”