Ninilchik boys basketball coach Nick Finley still recalls the first day of practice he had with Austin White, then in eighth grade.
“I remember the first day of practice when he was going down and back with the ball,” Finley said. “He fell down a number of times dribbling the basketball.”
Fast forward about four years, to Sept. 16, when White, a 6-foot-8, 210-pound senior, celebrated his 18th birthday by verbally committing to play Division II basketball on a full-ride scholarship for the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“It’s really great,” Finley said. “It shows what hard work can do. He was a kid that hadn’t ever played basketball until eighth grade.
“Now he’s committed to a Division II NCAA school. I’m super happy for him. It’s a big deal for our community, and a big deal for me. It’s a big deal for the whole peninsula.”
White said it’s technically not true he never played basketball before eighth grade. He said he played for a few winters when he was 6 and 7 growing up in Idaho, but quickly lost interest.
White is the son of Wes White, who Finley said is 6-6, and Kelly White, who played NAIA basketball and is 6-0.
When the family relocated to Ninilchik before White’s seventh-grade year, White still wasn’t interested in hoops until one fateful day before his eighth-grade year.
“One day I was at a park near the school, and I looked through the doors to the gym and saw a bunch of people playing basketball,” he said. “I said, ‘Let’s get me signed up, mom.’”
Finley said interest in White started to pick up last winter, when the center led the Ninilchik boys to the first Class 1A boys state title in school history.
White had 25 points and 19 rebounds in the championship game, a 41-37 overtime victory against Nikolaevsk.
But White still had to prove he could play with competition from bigger schools, and Finley said White did that this summer with 907, a traveling team from Alaska. White has played with the team the past two summers.
While some can look at White’s height and say he was destined to play college ball, Finley knows such things don’t just happen.
The coach said White constantly works in the gym and weight room, and when the gym isn’t available, Finley said White will even work out in the pool.
“For me as a coach, it’s a pleasure to coach a kid so coachable,” Finley said. “He always had this goal of playing college basketball.
“He didn’t know what level and I didn’t know what level. He just knew he was going to work hard to make it happen.”
White said his college decision came down to UAA and the College of Idaho, the NAIA school where his mother played. White said he loved the area in Idaho where he grew up, but in the end UAA’s facilities and the opportunity to stay close to his family won out. Plus, he said UAA was able to offer a better scholarship package.
When a Class 1A basketball player like White has clear upper-tier college prospects, it’s common for the player to transfer to a bigger school to play against better competition throughout the year.
But White said he has a lot of loyalty to Finley and Ninilchik.
“I really owe all of my skills and everything I’ve learned to my coach,” White said. “He’s been the one getting me in the gym, and opening the school up so I can get in and lift.
“He’s a huge part of my success. I felt I didn’t need to go anywhere else to get my skill level up.”
And so, before he plays for the Seawolves, the rest of Class 1A is on notice.
“I decided to stay here in school with my coach and try for a ring to decorate this other hand,” White said.