Dereck Whittenburg: The Heart of '83 Championship Team
Editor's note: This story originally appeared in "When March Went Mad: A Celebration of NC State's 1983 National Championship," by GoPack.com managing editor Tim Peeler (SportsPublishing LLC, © 2007). It is reprinted here with permission. Out of coaching for now, Whittenburg will be in attendance Wednesday night for the NC State-Virginia Tech game.
BY TIM PEELER
RALEIGH, N.C. – If bad things had not happened to Dereck Whittenburg in the winter and spring of 1983, good things would not have happened to NC State. Whittenburg's broken foot against Virginia on Jan. 12 of that year –an injury that was thought to be career-ending – forced the Wolfpack to grow up and grow together. His airball from 30 feet in the finals of the NCAA title game against Houston turned out to be the perfect setup for Lorenzo Charles's game-winning dunk.
Whether he was in the lineup or not, whether he was draining long-range jumpers or not, Whittenburg was the heart of the Wolfpack's championship team, a mature leader who wasn't afraid to kick a teammate in the pants, even with a cast on. He wasn't shy about intimidating an opponent with an icy stare during a game or a hard slap of the palm instead of a handshake during pre-game introductions. He brought an hard edge that was a perfect complement to fellow senior Sidney Lowe's heady execution and Thurl Bailey's soulful emotion.
The Glenarden, Maryland, native was an under-sized, high-flying, bombs-away shooter, a talented cousin of Wolfpack All-America David Thompson who infused a championship spirit into the Wolfpack. He came to Raleigh from Morgan Wootten's celebrated program at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md., as a prep All-America. Still, it took him longer than Lowe to find his exact place in the Wolfpack's lineup, and he was frequently relegated to "the other guard" status, a secondary piece to the Wolfpack offense because of his shooting inconsistencies. He was a reserve his first two seasons at NC State, playing behind Kenny Matthews. It was hard for Whittenburg, a streaky shooter, to keep a hot hand while coming off the bench. But when the ball started falling for him, he was a deadly weapon. "When Whit is on," Wolfpack head coach Jim Valvano once said, "there's nobody that I have more confidence in than him."
As much as he loved to fill up the basket, Whittenburg loved his role in shaping the Wolfpack. He was an intense leader who wasn't all that pleasant to be around at times. "If somebody wasn't working hard, I would jump them," Whittenburg said with no small amount of pride. "If they weren't warming up hard, I would jump them. If they weren't lifting weights hard, I would jump them. I was much more of the in-your-face kind of guy."
There is no doubt he scared people, his own teammates and cheerleaders included. "Whit was a nasty son of a gun on and off the court," said Terry Gannon, whose post-practice shooting games against Whittenburg are legendary in the annals of Reynolds Coliseum. "I love him dearly, but he was downright mean. He would intimidate everyone. I remember we were in the hotel in Ogden, Utah, and they were walking down the hall. Our cheerleaders were at the other end, and when they saw Whit, they literally veered into the next hallway to get out of his way. But he was a great guy to have as a teammate. He would jump off a wall for you."
Measured at six-feet and one-quarter of an inch and 193 pounds, Dereck Cornelius Whittenburg was a stocky package whose stature forced him to stretch his shooting range beyond conventional distances. That was fine with the unconventional Whittenburg, who played with his shirt untucked and his conscience unfurled. In his first three years at NC State, he longed for the ACC to adopt a 3-point line, because he knew it would be a great weapon for his game. But he was a bit disappointed when the league adopted the experimental arc 19 feet from the basket because he thought it was just too close. Any schmuck could make a jumper from there. Whitteburg was used to pulling up from 22-25 feet.
Growing up, Whittenburg was a three-sport player on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. He played quarterback in football, third base and pitcher in baseball and shooting guard in basketball. When it came time to pick just one sport, Whittenburg followed in the steps of his mother, Lillian, a five-foot, nine-inch basketball player in her younger days, rather than his father, Don, who was a standout high school football player. By the time he enrolled at DeMatha as a sophomore, basketball was the sole focus of his athletics career. He had always been a natural scorer.
"When I started playing at the Boys Club, I noticed I was the guy who scored all the points," Whittenburg said. "You watch a little league game and you'll see that kind of kid. I was that type. I could jump a little higher and run a little quicker than other guys my age."
His prep career was a preview of what he would do in college: as a junior, he and Lowe were reserves on a team that went undefeated and was declared the best high school team in the country. As a senior, he suffered a broken foot that kept him out of action for nearly six weeks, but came back just in time to help DeMatha defend its city and Maryland state championships. Even better, he finished off his All-America career by hitting game-winning shots in two star-studded high-school all-star games.
Norman Sloan recruited Whittenburg to play for the Wolfpack, as part of his D.C. trio of freshmen in 1979. Whittenburg was disappointed when the fiery coach left just after his freshman year to go to Florida, but he quickly took to Sloan's replacement, Jim Valvano. From their first meeting, the player and coach developed a bond that went well beyond his scoring average, his timely baskets and his clutch free throws. The coach liked Whittenburg from the first time the young player walked into a team meeting with a briefcase and took a seat on the front row, two things he brought with him from his regimented days at DeMatha. Whittenburg loved his battered briefcase. "It made me feel smarter," he said. And Valvano, the renaissance coach who did a little bit of everything, loved players who could follow more than just bouncing balls.
For years, as a player, a graduate assistant and an assistant coach, Whittenburg treasured the hours he spent talking to Valvano about subjects unrelated to basketball, especially serious topics that Valvano loved to dissect: literature, economic theory, politics. "The most vivid conversation I remember having with him was just prior to our senior year, when he showed me a nasty letter he got from a fan pertaining to the fact that we had an all-black starting five," Whittenburg said. "We talked about that extensively. What came out of that conversation was how important it was to get an education. He made me realize that I didn't want people to think I was just a dumb old athlete and that's all there was to me."
Whittenburg was one of the few members of Valvano's umbrella of followers who wasn't just around for the yuks. "I wasn't a funny kind of guy," Whittenburg said. "I wasn't there to tell jokes. I went to talk to him about life. I was interested in other things. He always told me that there is a lot more to you than bouncing balls. We talked about real stuff." The bond lasted until Valvano died of cancer in April, 1993. Valvano chose Whittenburg as the only former player to be a pall-bearer at his funeral. He has also been a part of Valvano's legacy as a member of the V Foundation's board of directors.
Whittenburg's relationship with Valvano inspired a detour from his intended path of going into the world of business. But after a season working with NC State as a graduate assistant, Whittenburg caught the coaching bug – not because he wanted to win championships, but because he wanted to influence young people the way his coaches had influenced him. Whittenburg admits that he was a little too fiery as a kid, and needed a guiding hand to keep his emotions from getting out of control. But he found joy, even as an underclassman, in teaching young kids about the game of basketball.
Whittenburg's journey to become a head coach began not long after his playing days were over. He was taken in the third round of the 1983 NBA draft by the Phoenix Suns, in those euphoric days after NC State's fairy-tale run through the post-season. But Whittenburg wasn't destined to spend the next couple of decades in the NBA. He got brief shot at playing in the NBA, but his relatively small stature and his fireplug body was not the prototype for shooting guards in at the highest level of professional basketball. That came the next year when Chicago selected North Carolina's Michael Jordan, the player who revolutionized the position and the sport.
It was obvious to Whittenburg there was no guarantee for his future as a professional play, at least not in the same way it was for the 6-foot-11 Bailey, whose silky smooth baseline jumper was a coveted skill for a big man. And Whittenburg was sure that he didn't want to follow the same path as his friend Lowe, who toiled for years in the Continental Basketball Association before getting a real shot at the NBA. "That is second-rate to me," Whittenburg said in a 1985 story in the Technician. But Lowe's playmaking skills were always a valued commodity. Whittenburg was an undersized shooter and he was honest enough with himself to know that the CBA, the European leagues and the NBA were all stocked with dozens of similar players. He spent a short time playing overseas in France, just enough for him to realize he had no desire trotting the globe while waiting for a chance to sign a 10-day contract every now and then. "I didn't want to run down one long tunnel all my life hoping somebody would give me a chance. Because what happens if it's a dead end? Then what do I do?" He wanted to get on with his life.
Whittenburg enrolled at NC State for the 1984 fall semester to complete the 17 hours he needed for his business administration degree, with the thought of becoming a sales representative for a major corporation. Getting that degree was always important to him. In 1985-86, he and Gannon joined Valvano's staff as graduate assistants. He out-lasted Gannon, the son of a high school basketball coach, in the profession when Gannon gave up his graduate assistant position to embark on his television broadcasting career.
Whittenburg had one-year assistant positions at George Mason and Long Beach State before he returned to NC State for a three-year stint as a full-time assistant under Valvano. His career took some inevitable steps backwards when Valvano was cut loose by NC State in the spring of 1990. He found a job at Colorado for three years, then moved back East with a one-year at West Virginia. In the spring of 1994, he found a way back to the ACC as an assistant coach for Georgia Tech's Bobby Cremins, a long-time friend of both Valvano and Morgan Wootten.
"I did not know Dereck personally, but he showed me that he had a great enthusiasm for the game and a great work ethic," said Cremins, who is now the head coach at College of Charleston. "I was impressed by his love of the game." Plus, the fact that Whittenburg's name was familiar to recruits and their families because of his role in NC State's national title didn't hurt. Whittenburg helped the Yellow Jackets land sensational New York guard Stephon Marbury.
Cremins eventually recommended Whittenburg for his first head coaching job, at Wagner College, a school on New York's Staten Island with no tangible basketball tradition. It hadn't won a conference title in its 15 years in the Northeast Conference prior to Whittenburg's arrival and had five consecutive losing seasons. His first team's only returning starter was a 5-foot-9 point guard named Yves, for crying out loud. None of that mattered to Whittenburg, who guided the Seahawks to their first NCAA bid in school history in 2003. After four years of improving Wagner's record, he was hired to rebuild Fordham, the private school in the Bronx that was in need of a similar turnaround. In 2007, as his long-time friend Lowe was leading the Wolfpack to an appearance in the ACC Tournament title game and a berth in the National Invitation Tournament, Whittenburg guided his team to the most wins in school history and its first winning season in the Atlantic 10 Conference."I am really proud of Dereck - he has done a fabulous job," Cremins said. "He has paid his dues."
Lowe, who once offered Whittenburg a job as an assistant coach when he was the head coach for the NBA's Vancouver Grizzlies, also believes Whittenburg will continue his successful coaching career. "We are cut from the same cloth, the way we approach the game, the way we think about the game, the players we like," Lowe said. "He does a great job. He's going to do well."
Whittenburg thinks so too, though winning a national championship is not his sole goal. Before he left Wagner, he had six players make the Dean's list and had the highest grade point average ever for the school's basketball team. "That's the equivalent of winning the national championship there," Whittenburg said. At Fordham, he has improved the team's record every year, including a 10-6 mark in the Atlantic-10 in 2007. But Whittenburg doesn't want to be measured simply on-court success. "I have a totally different agenda about why I coach," Whittenburg said. "I coach because I love coaching and what it does for kids, the impact it has on the kids and what it is going to do for their lives. That's what does it for me. My experiences at NC State made me want to go out and be productive in life, to be an example out in the community. The real story is what you are doing after basketball and how did your experience help you be successful in something outside of athletics. I think college basketball has lost its way with that; it's win at all cost and forget about the kids who graduate. I think coaching is not about how many championships you win, it's about how many lives you empower and how many people you put out there who can be productive in society."
Still, Whittenburg doesn't believe his NCAA Tournament legacy is done, no more than he believed that his playing career was over when he broke his foot in the winter of 1983. His Wagner team lost in its only NCAA Tournament game and he is still working to get Fordham there. It may take several more years and another rebuilding project to find the right team to replicate what the Wolfpack did in 1983. But he has worked too hard since his playing career ended at NC State with college basketball's most famous airball. His post-season story isn't yet finished. Lowe may have landed the dream job they both wanted but Whittenburg is certain his years of preparation will lead him back to the enchanted territory of the game's biggest stage.
"I will be back there some day as a coach," Whittenburg said.