HANCEVILLE — Strutting onto the floor from the team bench after a half-court basket by Jasmin Lucas ended the first quarter, Neal White raised his arms and high-fived every player who walked by.
Returning to the bench at Tom Drake Coliseum on Tuesday, Athens’ volunteer assistant coach removed his charcoal-colored jacket, revealing a purple shirt and matching tie.
Every time an Athens player took a shot, White raised his hands. Every time a jumper went in, he cheered loudest. And every time players were out of position defensively, he yelled at them.
From the opening tip, he coached, encouraged, even brought water to players when they needed it.
Known around Athens as the “People’s Coach,” White, 26, suffers from cerebral palsy, which is causing his legs to bow. He has to wear shoes two sizes too large and at times struggles through pain to walk.
But if the Eagles are playing a big game, White said, “I’m going to be there no matter how much it hurts.”
He’s been involved with the girls’ basketball program since he was a middle school student and has three state championship rings.
White, a 2007 Athens graduate, attended his 11th regional tournament with the Eagles on Tuesday. And even when it became apparent they wouldn’t win, he kept cheering and encouraging the players.
“You play to the end,” he said after the game.
Athens senior guard Destiny Bailey said having White on the bench is comforting.
“It’s always good to look on the bench and see him, because he’s always positive,” she said.
White’s association with the team started in the mid-1990s when Randy White (no relation) coached the girls. The coach taught physical education at Athens Middle, where Neal White was a student in the special-needs program.
His teacher, Bill Swindle, suggested that Randy White let him help the team.
The coach did, and the girls started winning.
With Neal White on the bench, Athens won a state championship in 1999. Two seasons later, the team started a winning streak that reached 69 games and included two more state titles.
Neal White was there for every game — doing whatever was “needed to help the team win,” the coach recalled.
“I was superstitious, so my wife or I would pick him up,” Randy White said. “He was my good luck charm, and I wanted him to be there. There were some of my players I would have left home, but Neal was going to be there.”
Neal White laughed at the comments.
“He needed me to coach,” he chuckled.
In 2007, Neal White got his only technical foul when Athens Middle was playing Brookhaven in Decatur.
Dewayne Shoulders coached the middle school team.
“I called the official over because I wanted to know the number of the player he gave the technical foul,” Shoulders said. “He said it was my assistant coach.
“When I turned and looked for Neal, he was on the other side of the court.”
Neal White laughed as Shoulders recalled the story outside the Athens locker room.
“We won the game with Brookhaven by one point, but the technical foul didn’t help,” the coach said.
Neal White moved to Decatur in October to live with a cousin, but he said his heart belongs to the girls’ basketball program at Athens.
Shoulders transports him from Decatur to most games.
“Something about the bench doesn’t seem right if Neal is not there,” he said.
Deangelo McDaniel can be reached at 256-340-2469 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
High school basketball regionals
Location: All Northwest Regional games played at Tom Drake Coliseum, Hanceville.
9 a.m.: Austin vs. Hoover
3 p.m.: R.A. Hubbard vs. Falkville
7:30 p.m.: R.A. Hubbard vs. Parrish
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