Bud Stallworth says he’s forever grateful that Jo Jo White preceded him at the University of Kansas.
“He’s the reason I am who I am today. When I was at music camp, he was the guy who told coach (Ted) Owens about me,” former KU basketball wing Stallworth, whose No. 15 jersey hangs in the rafters of Allen Fieldhouse, said of Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer and former KU guard White, who died Tuesday at the age of 71.
A native of Hartselle, Ala., Stallworth attended a band camp in Lawrence in the summer of 1968. It was the summer between Stallworth’s junior and senior years of high school and prior to St. Louis native White’s senior campaign at KU. When not playing trumpet at music camp, Stallworth ventured to KU’s Robinson Gym for pick-up basketball, where he was seen by White, who told KU coach Owens it’d be wise to recruit the sharpshooter.
“Jo Jo thought enough of me and cared enough about me to tell coach Owens about me,” the 67-year-old Stallworth said of White, a two-time All-American.
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Owens started recruiting the 6-foot-5 Stallworth and the rest — including Stallworth’s 50-point scoring outburst against Missouri — is history.
“I’m still at a loss right now. Jo Jo and I remained close our entire lives. He was a brother to me,” said Stallworth, responding to the news of White’s death in an interview with The Star on Wednesday.
“He’d tell me, ‘We’ll work out in the summer.’ He’d come back every summer when he played for the Celtics (where White won NBA titles in 1974 and ’76). We’d play pick-up, then run drills. We’d work on the fundamentals.
“He’d discuss how you go about guarding people, how you keep your body in great shape. I came from a small school and he knew I needed the work. He worked with me like a brother. We stayed in touch after we stopped playing. We never stopped communicating.”
White’s penchant for staying in excellent physical condition certainly made possible a 12-year NBA career, which included seven All-Star game appearances.
“He was always working … every second he was working on something. He said in order to improve yourself you take care of your body,” Stallworth said.
White lived an active life, even after basketball.
“I don’t think many people know this. I think he was still playing in his 60s,” marveled former KU forward David Magley, president and COO of the North American Premier Basketball League. White worked as an assistant coach on Owens’ KU staff during Magley’s senior season in 1981-82.
“He (White) showed me how to be a pro,” Magley added. “He showed me how to stretch, how to take care of your body, how to compete, how to stay focused, how to be a winner, how to be a champion at all times. He showed us individual stuff that only a guy his caliber would know.
“I remember one time we were warming up before a game. He said, ‘You are not sweating hard enough, David.’ I said, ‘Jo Jo the game doesn’t start for 15 minutes.’ He said, ‘When I trained I trained like a boxer. A boxer is in full sweat when he starts because he knows one punch and it can be over.’ He said if we work out hard before the game we can knock them out before they know what hit them.”
Magley said as a young KU assistant coach, White “loved to play and compete. My senior year, he wanted to play 1-on-1 after practice. He’s as competitive a player as I’ve ever gone against.
“He hated to lose. He was one of the greatest cheaters of all time,” Magley added with a laugh. “You could say, ‘It (ball) was off you.’ He’d say, ‘No it was off you.’ He wanted to win that much,” added Magley, who, along with his wife, remained close friends with White and his family for 37 years.
Former KU and NBA coach Larry Brown also marveled at White’s ability to play in the best possible physical condition.
“He had so much energy. He took care of himself,” Brown said of the 6-foot-3 White, MVP of the 1976 Finals. An Olympic gold medal winner in 1968, White had his jersey number retired at KU and by the Celtics.
“He wasn’t a point guard I don’t think. He was a guard,” Brown added. “At that time, we had guards, forwards and centers. Now we’ve got 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, stretch (forwards), point forwards. He was just a great basketball player. He could make a shot. He could guard. He could handle the ball. He just could play.
“The game has changed now. The analytics, the specialization. I don’t know where Jo Jo should play. I know he could play in this era and play pretty well.”
White, who worked for Owens for two seasons at KU, stayed on staff briefly after Brown became coach before the 1983-84 season.
Brown, who coached at Kansas for five seasons, said White helped him immensely in getting adjusted to Lawrence and KU.
“Jo Jo loved Kansas and the people in Kansas obviously loved him,” Brown said. “He made my transition so much easier along with Bob (Hill) and John (Calipari) and R.C. (Buford).
“When you are around people that have gone to school there you understand what being a part of that program means. It’s really really important. He made me aware of that. What happened at KU since Jo Jo went to school has been extraordinary. He has a lot to do with the tradition there and the greatness of that program.”
White enjoyed attending KU basketball reunions and surely would have relished the upcoming Feb. 3 reunion for all former players and coaches, Magley said.
“Jo Jo and Mr. (Bob) Billings had part ownership of a little lake east of Clinton. It was a great fishing lake,” Magley said. “One man I had taken to the lake one time to fish when he was a child called me out of the blue (Tuesday) and said, ‘I don’t know if you know, but Jo Jo White has passed away.’ Jo Jo had an impact on that person to the point he’d call me to tell me (of White’s death). There aren’t many people who have impacted as many lives as Jo Jo White.”
Stallworth said, “I can’t bring him back, but I will never forget him.” He added that White’s legacy lives on whenever good sportsmanship is shown in a game.
“He was the best ‘gentleman athlete’ in the world. I mean you look at the way he was respected by the other team. You never heard about him being in a fight, never heard of him getting kicked out of games,” Stallworth said.
“He’s someone I’ll remember forever not only because he was a great ballplayer but more so because of who he was.”