The team manager who lives with autism has provided the Seahawks an emotional boost
It’s 2:45 p.m. when the click of an opening door echoes through Trask Coliseum.
For the last 20 minutes, Ashley White has been in the gym. She’s rolled out the ball rack and set up the clock. Now, the UNCW senior is just waiting for the women’s basketball team to start practice.
The first four players into the arena are redshirting. While the rest of the Seahawks are in film study, this group is killing time. After a few warmup attempts, a shooting contest breaks out. Everyone sets up on the perimeter. Seven misses and you’re out.
White lines up on the right side near the top of the key and launches. The ball banks off the glass and trickles through the net.
The game goes around as four players, an athletic trainer and White, a team manager, take shots. She doesn’t make it to the finals, but she’s not the first eliminated.
The action resets and starts over. The group is laughing and cutting up. The four players in jerseys don’t see the girl with autism. They see a teammate.
Finding a family
Like any mother, Carolyn McKinney had reservations.
White, who was born in San Diego, has lived in Wilmington since fourth grade. She graduated from New Hanover High School and Cape Fear Community College. When it came time to attend a four-year school, her daughter enrolled in distance learning courses at N.C. State. Monthly trips to Raleigh were required for some of the classes. Eventually, there would be no more distance learning and White would have to be on campus.
The family discussed a move to Raleigh before White met Dr. Sue Combs at UNCW.
During Special Olympics competition on the Wilmington campus, White was both a player and coach in unified basketball, where athletes with and without intellectual disabilities are teamed up. Combs got to know White and her family. She saw White’s passion for the sport.
“She felt like she saw a lot of potential in me,” White said. “That brought me back to Wilmington.”
Combs, who serves as the school's physical education and health program coordinator, talked with McKinney about the possibility of White working with the women’s basketball program in a small role. The idea was presented to former coach Adele Harris and her staff. They allowed White to come on as a volunteer, but sometimes struggled to fully integrate her into the program.
“(Having Asperger’s) really is not relevant to Ashley, but to some people, when you say that, it freaks them out. Women’s basketball was willing, but they were a bit hesitant,” Combs said.
That sentiment didn’t last long.
With a deep knowledge of basketball, White’s personality clicked with the team. She could talk about the game at-length with anyone. She was willing to do whatever was asked.
McKinney knew her daughter had found a special place when the UNCW women’s basketball team threw her a surprise birthday party at Olive Garden last year.
“It was one of those places where she felt like as far as the girls were concerned, she belonged. They loved her. She fit in and that was really cool,” McKinney said.
A new chapter
Halfway through reading the Instagram message, Karen Barefoot knew there was a good chance she would like White.
Upon being announced as the new UNCW women’s basketball coach, Barefoot got all sorts of well-wishes, but White's direct message intrigued her.
She talked about being a manager the previous season and hoped the new coach would give her an opportunity. Barefoot had asked her to come out for one of the first workouts and instantly put White to work.
White ran the clock during a competition where players stood at each end of the floor and shot to see who could make the most during a time allotment. By the time the first two players had finished, White was eager to offer Barefoot their percentages – not just their total makes or misses.
“She had already calculated makes and takes and the percentage before I could even turn my head. I was like, ‘Well this is pretty impressive,’” Barefoot said.
A short time later, Barefoot gave the team a water break, but the coolers were on the other end of the court. White bolted to them and pushed the cart towards the team.
“I looked at the players and said, ‘That’s the kind of effort I want for y’all.’ I talked about her and I said, ‘I told her I wanted some water and she sprinted across there to bring me water back. If you can match that, you’re going to be OK,’” Barefoot said.
Over the summer, White did her internship with the women’s basketball team. After that wrapped up, she was offered one of the program’s paid manager positions. When the staff informed White of the promotion, she fell to floor in excitement.
Amber Reeves, who graduated from UNCW last year and now serves as a graduate assistant, saw White’s passion for the game last year. Now, she’s been given a chance to fully express it.
“When you’re rebuilding a program, you need as much positivity as you can get, whether it’s from the managers, coaches or anybody like that,” Reeves said. “To have somebody who really cares is really important to the girls. It keeps their spirit up just to know that somebody really cares about them.”
The next step
With an arm pad on, White gives a nudge to UNCW post players who are cutting to the basket during a practice drill. She’s getting them off balance as assistant coach Tina Martin throws a ball off the backboard, making a rebound tough to come up with. White smiles as players tell her to him them harder.
She might not be in a uniform, but White finally feels like she belongs.
During middle and high school, she tried out for basketball several times. She was always one of the last cut.
Her dream of being involved with basketball felt like a long shot. Now, she can’t imagine life without it.
“Every chance I tell coach it’s truly a blessing to be part of something special and to have her to accept me as a person,” White said. “When (Barefoot) found out I had autism, she didn’t look at me in a different way. ... I was like, ‘Oh my goodness. There is somebody who will actually see I’m just more than this person.’”
Her work load is the same as any other manager. She washes laundry, sets up practice stations, runs the clock, shoots video and does any other task given to her to ensure things run smoothly.
She’s working towards a bachelor of arts in the recreation, sport leadership and tourism management program. She’ll graduate this summer after a final internship.
White plans to stay involved in basketball in some way. Her passion for the game and her teammates is unwavering. And to the Seahawks, that’s what matters most.
“She doesn’t let her disability or her lack thereof affect her and affect the roles we give her,” Reeves said. “She’s always asking can I do more, can I do this. That just shows us that disabilities can’t stop you from being just like everybody else.”
-- Reporter Alex Riley can be reached at 910-343-2034 or Alex.Riley@StarNewsOnline.com.