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Miles from diversion, White drove the Blue Hawks

Dickinson State's Scott Gymnasium--capacity 1,014--is mostly empty, a lot like some of those stinging winter nights this past January. Those considerable steel doors, recently closed on a basketball season that saw 20 wins for the first time in 1...

Dickinson State forward and Milwaukee native Marcus White surveys the court during a Jan. 20 game against Valley City State. (Samuel Evers / The Dickinson Press)
Dickinson State forward and Milwaukee native Marcus White surveys the court during a Jan. 20 game against Valley City State. (Samuel Evers / The Dickinson Press)

Dickinson State's Scott Gymnasium-capacity 1,014-is mostly empty, a lot like some of those stinging winter nights this past January.

Those considerable steel doors, recently closed on a basketball season that saw 20 wins for the first time in 12 years and a regular season title for the first time since 2001, remain open through the clinging winter months.

Besides a few Blue Hawks shooting idly under the far basket, DSU's Marcus White, gruff-faced with a basketball stuck in his left hand's palm, sits alone on the second step of the gym's retractable blue bleachers.

Six-foot-six with the sound of Milwaukee in his voice, he recalls, when prompted, the type of intrigue he was the envy of during his senior year at Milwaukee Vincent High School in 2014. One by one, he remembers.

"There was University of Wisconsin, Marquette, Oregon State," he said, "University of South Dakota, places like that."

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A nice account. 

So why, it seems fair to ask, did he spend the last season as the leading scorer of a team in the North Star Athletic Association, not the Big 10, the Big East, the Pac 12? It's an answer as simple as it is silly.

"It just came down to grades," he said.

Not an uncommon conundrum.

But why Dickinson?

Head coach Justin Wetzel knows why, but not exactly why.

He first heard word from a coaching friend in late February of 2016 that White, fresh off an NJCAA title at Salt Lake Community College that helped four teammates scatter to big-time programs, was a few credits short of NCAA eligibility. The next and only step was the NAIA, more lenient requirements and all.

Five or six schools, White estimated, reached out; most from this region, a lot from the Frontier Conference.

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But it was Wetzel, off a 12-hour car ride from Dickinson and a dinner for two at Chili's, who White deemed the best fit for this year and next.

A year later, after turning his team's fortune from 13 wins to 22 wins, a season that sent those so inclinced thumbing through the record books, Wetzel wagered a few different ideas as to why it was the Blue Hawks for White.

"Elbow grease, honestly. I jumped in a car and drove to Salt Lake City to have dinner with him, because I knew he was a quality athlete and a good guy," Wetzel said. "As soon as we found out he was going NAIA, we had to beat out damn near every NAIA school in the region. We just tried to sell him that this system could help him expand as a person and help him in the classroom, help him on the court.

"But I've never asked him why he chose us," Wetzel continued.

"I never have."

***

As a 6-foot-2 ninth grader at Milwaukee Vincent High School, a stockier and shorter version of his current self, White scored 30 points in his first game on the freshman team. With his parents in attendance, he was nervous during pregame warmups, but when the game tipped, he was a man amongst boys; the best play was a recurring one-give the ball to Marcus.

That was it for the freshman team. And the nerves.

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"It just felt easy, like I could just score at will. Coach said, 'Yeah we've got to put you on varsity,'" White recalled. "After that I started getting noticed more. I got better. I was kind of chubby, kind of fat, I had dropped some weight. I was about 6-foot-2 freshman year, then I sprouted up to 6-foot-6."

White teamed with future Iowa State guard Deonte Burton for his middle two seasons, and went on to star for MVHS the next four years, his most successful season coming as a junior, when he and Burton reached the state quarterfinals. As a senior, he averaged a team-high 22 points per game and received all the aforementioned college interest, but the grades, as would be the case two years later, didn't match up.

He entered that summer still without an idea of where he was going to play next.

Enter Silas Mills, a Milwaukee native who played 12 years overseas in the 1990s and early '00s. Mills was then and still is an assistant on the SLCC team, and knew about White from the hometown high school circuits.

White, he said, was on his mind when he found out the academics weren't at a four-year college level. Mills knew White's coach and he knew Milwaukee basketball.

"Marcus was hesitant to come because it was so far and he's a momma's boy," Mills said, laughing. "I had them come out on a visit with Marcus and once they saw Utah and how close we were to the airport and how beautiful the city is, it was a no-brainer. His mom got on the plane and said, 'You take care of my baby.'"

His first season there, Mills thought, was rough around the edges. School wasn't White's priority, and he was homesick, but his second season, the effort went up and the success came all at once. It was packaged in the form of an NJCAA title, with White as the starting small forward. The final moments of their postseason ride were special.

"If you watch the video when we won it," Mills said, "Me and Marcus hugged for about five minutes, because that was my Milwaukee kid."

But the magic of that season ended, and with teammates off to places like University of Utah and University of Hawaii, White was awaiting his final marks. They didn't cut it; NAIA it was going to be.

That was a low point, White thought-two chances to translate talent into a Division I dream, two chances gone.

In high school, it was a learning experience; a second chance on the horizon.

In Salt Lake, it was a new city with new distractions and exciting things to do.

"I just wish Marcus would have buckled himself down maturity wise," Mills said. "He could have been at Marquette."

The NCAA ineligibility was finally a wake-up call, and at that Chili's restaurant White thought about things logically.

He was impressed by Wetzel's pitch-his prior experience coaching in the old CBA, a professional league drowned out by the NBA Developmental League, and his commitment to help him improve what he needed to improve.

But had Wetzel, who left dinner that night unsure of his recruit's pending decision (White, he said, tends to have that effect), dared to ask why White committed, he might have been surprised to know it was location, location, location more than anything else.

After messing up in school, as White put it, for the last six years, he was looking for a place far from distraction. Dickinson-the dot on the map 10 hours from Milwaukee-in a roundabout way, was exactly what he was looking for.

"I wanted to be focused, you know what I'm saying? There's not a lot to do," White said. "I wanted to come out here and be focused, get my mind right. I've been doing bad in school, I knew if I came out here I'd be focused on basically school and basketball. I might go out to eat with a couple of teammates, but that's about it. School and basketball."

***

Reggie Fields Jr., a senior this past season, couldn't believe how reticent he was.

White, he said, didn't open up, that's the type of guy he was. In the early going, he would grab his stuff after practice and head home, the basketball part of his life over for the day.

So Fields Jr., agitator that he is, tried to get the dog out of him early.

"We had open runs, the first game we had, he's the new dude from a winning program. He had that alpha dog presence so we guarded each other. I was talking mess and he didn't really say much. He kept playing, kept his head down. I was like, 'What's wrong with this dude?'" Fields Jr. said. "I like talking mess, getting under people's skin. He didn't really react. Second day, I kept talking mess and he finally opened up and started talking back. I finally got a reaction out of him the second day. I was relieved, like, 'OK, this guy's human, this dude can hoop.' I didn't want him to be soft."

What helped White, Fields Jr. and all of the Blue Hawks this year, was a sense of togetherness, perhaps by necessity.

The "misfits," as Wetzel affectionately called them, didn't have brothers or cousins or any family in North Dakota; most had complicated stories about eligibility, reasons they were here and not there. 

"They get here from these areas, and this is all they have-their teammates," Wetzel said. "For us, it was getting a group of quality people from different parts of the world and putting them in Dickinson, North Dakota, for a common goal. I think that helped to organically build that."

Besides redshirt Tanner Davidson, all came from big cities far from the "God's Country," the ceaseless plains of North Dakota.

If it wasn't one another, who would they be close with?

"We're with each other every day of the week, so we just came close," White said. "We united pretty good. The chemistry was strong because we were just with each other a lot. We just came together. The mentality was, since we're already out here, let's just go hard and try to win a championship."

***

Marcus White, tall but slouched, still on the bleacher, has since switched the basketball to his right hand, still palmed.

Scott Gymnasium, where he scored 16.5 a night and hauled down eight boards a game, rattling the rim on the right occasion, leading a potent offense from his bunker in the high post, is the place his dream has arrived.

With Mills in mind, whose decade plus in overseas professional basketball followed a turbulent college career, White has an idea incubating. It started on urban asphalt and took a break here. 

"My plan, my goal is to cut some weight, come back next year and dominate, get my numbers up so I could go overseas or the D-League," he said. "Maybe play a year or two wherever and try to get to the NBA. Europe, China, wherever I have to go. That's the plan."

A professional basketball player has never come through those considerable steel Scott Gymnasium doors. Who knows when that will change.

"It's just a matter of when it's your time and when you get your opportunity," Mills said. "Because it will come, and Marcus knows it. He knows, that's why he's doing things the right way. He's going to get his opportunity."

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