By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
Don DeVoe coached 12 NBA draft choices in his 11 seasons guiding Tennessee basketball.
Stars like Dale Ellis, a two-time SEC Player of the Year and a twice first team All-American. Ellis went on to play 19 NBA seasons for nine different teams as one of the best three-point shooters ever.
And there was Reggie Johnson, a two-time first-team all-American who was named team MVP three times before playing seven NBA seasons with five teams.
Since DeVoe’s first five teams advanced to the NCAA tournament, he recruited hard for big-time talent.
But in the case of the player that finished his four years under DeVoe from 1983-87 as then-Tennessee’s second all-time leading scorer (he’s now third in the UT list and sixth on the SEC list) – Tony White – DeVoe is not ashamed to admit something.
“Sometimes in recruiting you get very, very lucky,” DeVoe said last week from his Florida winter vacation spot. “And we were very lucky getting Tony.”
Tony White went from being a recruiting afterthought, a fallback plan because Tennessee had failed to sign a guard it originally wanted, to twice leading the SEC in scoring.
Even more remarkable is that Tony might still be regarded as one of the least physically imposing league scoring leaders, a lithe 6-2, 170-pound wisp that looked as if he never darkened the door of a weight room. It was almost as if he scored by magic, which is why he was given the nickname “The Wiz” (short for Wizard).”
But Tony will tell you the reason he is the only UT player ever to average more than 15 points in a career (17.5) while shooting at least 49 percent (49.6) from the field and at least 84 percent from the free throw line, is he played to his strengths.
“I knew I was a scorer, not a shooter,” says Tony, 48, who works in security at the Oak Ridge nuclear power plant just outside of Knoxville. “A shooter is someone who loves to shoot outside jumpers, who loves to shoot threes. A scorer is someone who can get points in lots of different ways. He can drive, pull up, draw contact and get to the free throw line.”
Tony also felt he was physically tougher than he appeared.
“My first love was football,” Tony says. “I played quarterback on my junior high team all the way through the eighth grade. So I didn’t mind the contact in basketball. Taking the hit, getting bumped, I was just used to it. So I took that football toughness into my basketball.
“On the playgrounds in Charlotte, I always played against bigger guys.”
Tony averaged 17.3 points as a senior at Charlotte (N.C.) Independence High, leading his team 26-3 to the state tournament semifinals. Yet recruiters weren’t climbing over each other to sign him.
“There were some other good players on my team,” Tony says. “I played with one guy who was Mr. Football in the state of North Carolina, and another guard who signed with Wake Forest who later went to Eastern Kentucky. I played on a balanced team and I got overlooked.”
And that included Tennessee, until DeVoe received a phone call one day from someone who ran one of the Charlotte area AAU teams.
“This fellow started calling coaches (about Tony) and he called us,” DeVoe recalls. “We needed a scoring guard. We’d never seen him play. We visited him. He visited us in Knoxville.
“Right before he signed, Larry Brown of Kansas tried to get involved with Tony. So we then felt we got lucky in signing him.”
When Tony arrived in Knoxville in 1983-84, the Vols were just coming off yet a fourth straight 20-win season. They had senior Tyrone Beaman returning as the point guard.
Beaman was just 5-11 and 155 pounds, even smaller than Tony, but Tony remembers Beaman punishing him in preseason workouts.
“I had to get used to the physical style and speed of college ball, and Tyrone was a great defender,” Tony recalls. “I went against him every day in practice. He was a very competitive guy, and there were some days where we really went at it with knockdown, drag-out practices. But he matured me in a hurry. I scored 30 points in an Orange and White intrasquad scrimmage, and it let me know I could play college ball.
By late January, Tony had moved into the starting lineup and delivered a 30-point game vs. Florida in the league tournament. In one season, he had gone from being one of three main scoring options on his high school team, to being Tennessee’s indispensable scorer.
“I put in a lot of hard work, but it was a situation where we needed some things to happen and I took that responsibility,” Tony says. “The players and coaches had confidence in me. They believed in me.”
DeVoe, a former assistant for legendary coach Bobby Knight when Knight coached Army before taking over at Indiana, had Knight’s philosophy that basketball games are won on the defensive end.
It was Tony who made DeVoe alter his stance somewhat.
“I never thought Tony gave a lot of effort defensively, but he certainly made up for it with his offense,” DeVoe says. “We were just in the frame of mind Tony was always going to score points.”
Tony certainly made up for any defensive deficiencies when the ball was funneled to him on offense. He knew exactly who he was – a scorer, not a shooter – often driving into the lane for pullup jumpers and floaters that drew fouls sending him over and over to the free throw line.
“I developed a midrange designed to take what the defense gave me. I tried to use all the dynamics of scoring. I always tried to think two or three steps ahead.”
As a sophomore, Tony scored in double figures for 24 straight games. Usually the difference in him scoring in the high 20s rather than the high teens was his inordinate amount of free throws.
“Tony was a totally focused offensive player who had a tremendous knack for putting the ball on the floor, and drawing fouls,” DeVoe says. “He wasn’t an exceptional long-range shooter. He was a middle-game driver who could easily get defenders up in the air, and he had a variety of shots off the glass to draw fouls. (Alabama coach) Wimp Sanderson used to tell me how much he dreaded playing against Tony.”
Tony, who shot 90.2 percent (165-of-183) from the free throw line as a senior, says it was strange to him that he could continue to draw fouls throughout his college career, even against guys he played against all four years that knew his game.
“Because people thought I wasn’t very big and thought they could block my shot, I would use that to my advantage,” Tony says. “I’d stop and give them a head fake and they’d foul me. I just reversed the role. Try and play me aggressive, and I was going to get them off their feet. Once I drew a couple of fouls, they’d back off and I’d shoot the open jumper.
“I didn’t have many shots blocked, because I would shoot the ball at the highest peak of my jumper. I could really get upon on my shot. I think it’s a lost art that today’s player don’t shoot at the highest peak of their jump shot.”
During his career, Tony scored 25 or more points 32 times, including 30 ore more points 16 times.
His senior season, 1986-87, was the year that college basketball added the three-point shot, and his point totals inflated even more. He twice had incredible scoring runs his last season, averaging 33.5 points in a six-game stretch in late December/early January (39 vs. USC, 49 vs. Florida State) and 30.5 in a seven-game stretch in late January/mid-February that included his school-record 51 points vs. Auburn.
“I always knew during the warmups if I was going to have a good night,” Tony says. “When you come out in the warmups and every shot you shoot is going in, you tell yourself it’s going to be a great game. I always tried to work up a good sweat during the warmups.
“There’s a method to warming up that a lot of today’s players don’t understand. You always start by shooting shots inside and then working your way outside. A lot of players today start warmups by shooting outside and working their way in. And I see a lot of players warming up shooting types of shots they aren’t going to shoot once the game starts.”
Tony says he had an occasional defensive nemesis, like Ole Miss guard (and later head coach) Rod Barnes, who had long, gangly arms and sharp elbows and knees.
“Rod did everything, he’d hold you and do anything not to let you score,” Tony says.
Nobody, not even if Auburn could have borrowed Rod Barnes for a night, could have slowed Tony when he went for 51 on Auburn, breaking Rod Widby’s school-record of 50 set vs. LSU in 1967.
“Everything went in that night and I even made 18-of-19 free throws,” says Tony, who also made 16-of-20 field goals including 3-of-3 threes. “But all the shots came in the flow of our offense, and they were shots I took and was making during warmups.”
After college, the Chicago Bulls took Tony in the second round of the 1987 NBA draft. He played for three teams in his rookie year, and then was waived by Golden State before his second year.
That started Tony on a journey as an international gun for hire. He played in a couple of U.S. minor leagues, but he played 15 years for various franchises around Europe.
“I was blessed with all sorts of opportunities to play the game I love in all sorts of places – Greece, France, Spain Israel were a few,” Tony says. “It gave me a chance to see parts of the world that I might never have gotten to see had I not played basketball.”
Along the way, his third son Ronrico, now a sophomore guard for Tennessee-Chattanooga, was born while Tony was playing in Belgium.
Back in 2009, Tony’s second son, Tony Jr., was a College of Charleston point guard and had a chance to play at his dad’s alma mater in a November game in Knoxville.
“I know I wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American in high school, and people didn’t expect much from me,” Tony says of his career. “But it really motivated me; it gave me a chip on my shoulder. I never feared anyone on the court. I just left everything out on the court, and I wouldn’t have traded my career for anything. I was happy for the opportunity to go to school and play for Tennessee.”