The Japan Times features periodic interviews with players in the bj-league. Wendell White of the Sendai 89ers is the subject of this week’s profile.
Ht: 198 cm
Wt: 100 kg
Hometown: Los Angeles
College: UNLV (he starred at Antelope Valley College before transferring to UNLV)
Noteworthy: White was named the bj-league’s regular-season MVP for the 2009-10 season, when he averaged 22.0 points per game for the league champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa. Since then, he has starred for the Kyoto Hannaryz, Oita HeatDevils, Hamamatsu (again) and now provides a leadership and major-impact role for the 89ers. Through Sunday, White was averaging 20.9 ppg, No.2 in the league. He also represented the 89ers in the All-Star Game on Jan. 26 in Akita, scoring 14 points, grabbing 13 rebounds and dishing out six assists.
Growing up in Southern California, were you an instant fan of the Lakers when you discovered you had a love for the game? Or did you develop an interest in other NBA teams?
For me growing up in Los Angeles, you either love the Lakers or hate them. Indeed I was a huge Laker fan at one point in my life when Shaq and Kobe were together, but before Shaq and Kobe emerged on the scene I loved to watch Michael Jordan a lot. MJ was someone I wanted to be like on and off the court. So I guess you can say I was a Chicago Bulls fan as well.
What was your greatest thrill as a college player at Antelope Valley College and then UNLV?
The greatest thrill I had at Antelope Valley College was scoring 31 points in three straight playoff games to get us to the first state Final 4 in school history, and having one of the greatest head coaches, Newton Chelette. I loved him like a father and he treated me like a son. For UNLV my entire senior year was a thrill for me. Having my jaw broken wired and shut for a whole month, breaking my nose and still having to play through was thrilling because there was nothing that could stop me. The icing on the cake was winning the conference championship and getting to the NCAA Sweet 16.
Were you a standout athlete in other sports besides basketball in your scholastic days?
I used to play American football when I was younger and I wanted to be the next Jerry Rice. I wasn’t a standout athlete, but I definitely enjoyed playing the game.
Is there a mentor, or maybe a few, who was/were most instrumental in inspiring you or challenging you to give it your all and use your talents in basketball to elevate your game? If so, what did they say to you that you most remember?
When I broke my foot my sophomore year in college I was going to quit playing basketball. During that time I met my soul mate and future wife who showed me real love. She would always tell me to continue playing basketball and don’t give in. I also have to thank my brother Walter White for putting a basketball in my hand when I was in the seventh grade. He gave me the basketball in front of a crowd and told me to go dunk the ball on one of his teammates and that’s what I did. The feeling of dunking on someone in front of a crowd gave me rush. Ever since that day I’ve been playing basketball, thanks Bruh.
Looking back on the Phoenix’s 2009-10 bj-league title team, what was it about that team that really clicked as you and your teammates captured the championship?
First, I would have to say (coach) Kazuo (Nakamura) keeping us focused on the big picture and that was to a win championship. Second, our Japanese players were extremely discipline when it came to basketball IQ. Third, Dzaflo Larkai who gave us a post presence, which was something we were lacking that whole year. I can’t forget Masahiro Oguchi hitting 10 3-pointers in the semifinal against Niigata. We were all on the same page and tried to better ourselves everyday because we knew Kazuo expected greatness. Winning games wasn’t good enough, we had to be together mentally.
Who has been your most consistently difficult matchup assignment in the bj-league, going up against him as a scorer and defender? What makes him so tough for you?
Scorers that I love to compete against would include (Iwate’s) Josh Peppers, (Shinshu’s) Jeff Parmer, (Kyoto’s) David Palmer, and the newcomers of the league, (Akita’s) Richard Ruby and (Iwate’s) Scootie Randall. They all have their own unique ways of scoring which makes it a challenge to guard them. There is one person that I highly respect playing against and that would be (Ryukyu’s) Anthony McHenry. He’s an extremely smart defender and he prides himself on defense; it’s almost like he takes it personal.
Among current NBA players, name a few you feel your game resembles in terms of productivity and stats and style of play?
No one in the NBA today resembles my game. I would have to go with past NBA legends like Charles Barkley and Larry Johnson. They were undersized at power forward, fearless, could take control of the game at anytime, and didn’t back down from anyone. I think the most accurate comparison would be to Bernard King of the New York Knicks. Our style of play almost mirrors each other. I didn’t grow up watching him but was compared to him recently and I started watching some of his old games. I definitely agree that we are very similar on the court.
Having played for Hamamatsu, Kyoto, Oita and the Sendai 89ers, you’ve had a chance to become teammates with many Japanese players. Of those Japanese teammates, who are a few you’ve developed close friendships with?
I haven’t really developed close relationships with any one Japanese player, but I do still talk to guys like Shingo Okada, Masahiro Oguchi and Theo Hiroki Fujita, now the head coach for Gunma. I have always wanted to build friendships with ALL of my Japanese teammates but the language barrier get in between us. There will always be a mutual respect between myself and my Japanese teammates. I can tell that a lot of them wish they had closer friendships with me, too.
Tell me something that still surprises you about the bj-league nearly five years after you suited up for your first game in Japan.
I am still surprised that the referees aren’t being held accountable for their mistakes. There have been countless games that I’ve been in that haven’t been called fair. We even lost a crucial game this season against Akita because of an obviously bad call at the very end of the game. On a lighter note, I am very impressed that the talent has gotten a lot better in both foreign and Japanese players.
The competition is just as good as any other “overseas” league, maybe even better. The one thing that surprises me the most is that players hardly ever get multiple-year contracts. This is very important because we always have to come in as a new player. This is not the way dynasties are built. I would like to see a team sign me for multiple years and watch how well we come together.
Teams like San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, and Chicago Bulls didn’t become a dynasty in one season. These guys played together for years and built team camaraderie. They trust each other and know what each other are made of. That’s what surprises me most!
In your own words, describe yourself as a basketball player?
I genuinely love and respect the game of basketball. I hate to lose. I am a leader by example. I never give up. I never put my head down. I am a tough competitor. I score “at will.”
What best sums up your approach to the game?
Knowing that I don’t have any regrets at the end of the game, and playing every game like my life is on the line.
What are key aspects the 89ers can improve to be a force in the playoff hunt?
We can improve our team defense, working the ball inside out first, and trusting each other more. We’ve got to start dominating rebounds, boxing out, and not allowing our opponents second chances to score. It’s a long season, anything can happen.
Media coverage of the bj-league often focuses on games and results and not much in-depth material. That said, the impact of the large contingent of import players (more than 80) cannot be overlooked. For those who don’t know, how would you sum up the importance of foreign players to help challenge the Japanese to develop and grow the game here?
It’s really important for foreign players to help Japanese players because we bring out the best in Japanese players. In Japan, I’ve notice that you can’t be too confident in yourself when it comes to basketball. As an American, I try to instill confidence into my Japanese teammates at all times. They are a very important factor to having a successful season. We cannot win championships without them and they need us to make them fearless.
Off the court and away from basketball, what are a few of your hobbies and interests?
My first interest is my family. Growing up I didn’t have my mother and father in one household. I take being a father very seriously and we spend a lot of time educating our son. It’s really important to my wife and I to be a great example for Wendell Jr. and we do everything in our power to make sure he never goes without. I love meditating throughout the day, giving God thanks and praise. When I have free time I like to watch movies and documentaries, listen to music, and create future plans for my career moves after basketball.
Who do you consider the most underrated coach in bj-league history? Why?
Coach Yuki (Yukinori Suzuki) from Oita needs to be given more credit for the circumstances he’s been through. Even though Oita is having a good season this year they have been through a lot of hard times. Having played for him, I know he takes a lot of time preparing the team for the game and knowing the other teams’ plays and their tendencies. I tip my hat off to him for staying with the Heat Devils despite their past (financial problems) and for consistently putting together great teams.