Paul White walked into his cousin’s funeral and nervously scanned the scene.
At 6-foot-9, the senior forward on the Oregon men's basketball team could spot most of his friends and family members as they arrived to remember Rodney Jernigan, a 34-year-old who was shot at point-blank range while walking down a Chicago sidewalk on Oct. 19.
Funerals have become routine for White, who says he's lost count of how many friends in his hometown have been murdered. Jernigan’s service took on a different tone when familiarity dissolved into fear.
“That funeral was the first time where I was on edge and felt the anxiety that my life could be at risk,” White said.
White was in the sixth grade when he attended his first funeral, for Demarlon “Pookie” Jernigan, a cousin who was shot multiple times on a January night in 2008. Last month, almost 11 years later, White was excused from Oregon’s exhibition game against Western Oregon to attend the funeral of Demarlon’s brother.
Three days after Rodney Jernigan was killed, White’s friend, Gerald Glover, was the passenger in a car when he was shot and killed on Interstate 57. Quantis Smith, who played basketball with White at Whitney Young High School, was the victim of a drive-by shooting on Nov. 17.
“All people of good character, all relatively young, all in Chicago,” White said.
Two years ago, Saieed Ivey — who played against White at rival Simeon High — was shot in Los Angeles where he was playing basketball at a junior college. His death went national when Nike designed the FINAO shoe in honor of Ivey, whose favorite phrase was “Failure Is Not An Option.”
White recalled the death of another friend he knew as John-John before suddenly halting his list.
“Honestly, there are a lot of other friends who have been killed but it almost slips my mind to the point where it happens so frequently,” White said. “People I have gone to school with that lost their lives. People I grew up with. I wanna say ‘Forgive me’ if I am forgetting anyone else.”
The recent killings came at a pace that made it impossible for White to make it home for each funeral because of Oregon’s basketball schedule. However, missing those events gave White and his family a greater sense of security.
“These keep coming as surprises, people in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Martha Younger-White, Paul’s mother. “Paul is realizing that even when he returns home there are some issues with being out and about in some of those same areas. Paul has friends back here and he wants to see them, but we try to tell him that some of the areas he thought were safe, might not be. As a mom, I am concerned about that and glad that he does not have to deal with it being in Eugene.”
"I need to get out of here"
Martha and Tyrone White, who met in high school and have been married for 35 years, raised four children, including one boy who was known as “Tall Paul” almost from the day he was born. With his father coaching basketball at the local park district, Paul White was shooting baskets as soon as he started walking and was even recruited for a second-grade team while in kindergarten.
White grew up in the Hyde Park neighborhood, near the University of Chicago.
“It has always been a pretty good neighborhood,” he said. “I lived on 52nd and when you start to go about six blocks down, that is when things get real violent.”
Jernigan, Smith and Glover are among 428 people who have been shot and killed in Chicago this year while an additional 108 homicides are listed with an unknown cause, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Jernigan was on the west side of Chicago when a man walked up and shot him in the chest and head.
“Almost execution style,” White said. “From what I’ve heard, he was with the wrong people at the wrong time.”
Glover was a talented chef who recently started a catering business.
“He had the city buzzing, people knew about his cooking,” White said. “He was in a car on the expressway when another car pulled up and apparently misidentified them and shot up the car.”
Smith was a year behind White at Whitney Young and played on the junior varsity basketball team.
“He was in a relatively good area of Chicago coming from a family member's house when an SUV pulled up and people said they heard about a dozen shots before the car sped off and he was lying there left for dead,” White said. “The kid did absolutely no wrong to anyone. He kept his nose where its belonged. Just so sad that his life had to be taken away so fast, in the blink of an eye.”
White did not contemplate his own mortality until he returned to Chicago for Jernigan’s funeral.
“Being away from there and then going back into it, I felt the anxiety of knowing I had to pay attention to my surroundings at all times,” he said. “I had to be extremely cautious of where I was going and what I was doing. My whole life, I operated on the south side and have not had any fears of doing anything, but now going into certain places, I felt very uneasy.”
White’s concerns increased when he saw a newspaper headline about a shooting that occurred at a funeral in Chicago.
“I felt nervous that my cousin’s funeral might get shot up,” he said. “There are sickening things, a hospital got shot up recently in Chicago. It is almost as if people are finding that there are no boundaries to where violence can touch them. Outside looking in from Eugene, you don’t see that. You might hear a story about somebody getting robbed, but you don’t feel the danger of your life being at risk. It sucks because the rest of my friends do have to feel that way. They love Chicago, but the dangers that it represents makes you want to say ‘Damn, I need to get out of here.’”
White left his neighborhood to attend Whitney Young, a magnet school with a strong academic reputation. He led the Dolphins to a state championship as a senior while averaging 22 points, nine rebounds, six assists and four steals per game to be ranked among the top 50 recruits in the nation.
White went on to play at Georgetown, but transferred following his sophomore season to Oregon, placing him outside a large metropolitan area for the first time in his life.
“While I was living in Chicago, you would hear about murders and just wave them off,” White said. “That’s just regular. You read the headlines, 60 or 70 people shot on a weekend, and you just go along with your life. You don’t digest that information to a point where it affects you.”
On the weekend of Aug. 3-6, 11 people were fatally shot in Chicago with 63 others wounded, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Thirty people were shot in a three-hour span that Sunday morning.
“One day you might be talking to your friend, and the very next day you could be saying ‘Rest in peace’ or he could be going to jail on a gun charge,” White said. “It has become a convoluted system where kids feel like they need to protect themselves at all cost with an unlawful firearm. Then they get caught and go to jail and now they have a police record and truly feel like they need to protect themselves. Nobody should feel like their life is based on surviving. There are people in Chicago who can’t go outside their neighborhood or show up to public venues because you never know when somebody might show up and shoot up the entire place.”
"I want to make some impact"
White graduated from Oregon with a degree in sociology and is in the master’s program for planning, public policy and management. Despite safety concerns, he plans to return to Chicago when he’s done playing basketball.
“I want to make some impact, I don’t want to be a regular resident living day-by-day,” White said. “I want to bring up some people in the community with me and create some change so that we can stop the system of violence so people can understand there is actually more of a future than just the block you are living on, or the neighborhood you feel like protecting or the gang that has your back. There are more opportunities to life than gang-banging and violence.”
School and basketball provided the options for White, who played for Meanstreets on the AAU circuit and Nike Elite Youth Basketball before college.
“All those things contributed to his vision of where and what he wanted to be and for that I am thankful,” Younger-White said. “Those other influences are always there so as a parent you try to make sure they do not fall into those traps.”
White’s best friend, McKinley Nelson, recently started the nonprofit Project sWish, which hosted a charity basketball game at Whitney Young. White intends to work with Nelson when he returns home.
“He is trying to start a wave of promoting nonviolence through sports and other activities,” White explained. “They take underprivileged kids to NBA arenas and other places to see that life is bigger than violence and kicking it with your homies. He started to inspire me by taking the initiative of truly trying to change the culture and mindset of kids in those communities.”
Younger-White is set to retire from the Illinois Department of Human Services after working 28 years for the state. She will soon go to work at The Chicago Lighthouse, a nonprofit organization that serves blind and disabled people as well as veterans.
Younger-White was recently named the Disability Advocate of the Year in Illinois. Five years after her son graduated, she remains the president of the Whitney Young booster club and still serves on the board of directors for the Chicago Elite Classic, a charity high school basketball tournament.
“She’s an angel, for real,” White said. “She does as much as she can for people.”
Younger-White said that Paul “had this in his blood," noting that he is working on a master’s degree similar to hers in urban planning and policy and he could also follow his mom into nonprofit work and his father into coaching youth basketball.
“One thing I know about Paul is that he cares about people,” she said. “I have continued to reiterate to him that wherever there is opportunity, you need to give back.”
White plans to do that, but first he will finish up his career at Oregon where he ranks third on the team with 8.0 points per game during a season that keeps getting interrupted with bad news from back home.
“In a perfect world, you just want to be able to focus on what is in front of you,” he said. “When you have deaths or tragedies happening, there is an uncertainty of what is really going on because you are not there on a day-to-day basis. You are just relying on phone calls and you never know what will happen next. Such unexpected deaths take a toll on people. It leaves a rock in my stomach.”