ABBOTSFORD — Ask Jayden White what it means for her to have walked the walk through a star-crossed high school basketball career, and she’ll show you this photo of the inside of a Gatorade bottle cap containing the bone chips surgeons extricated from her knee back in 10th grade.
“The biggest one is the size of a loonie, and the other is the size of a quarter,” she says of the remnants of the injury which in the end, contributed in large part to about three months of total playing time over the final three years of her high school career at Abbotsford’s Yale Secondary. “I was still on medication after the surgery when they showed them to me. I cried and I told them ‘Put them back.’”
Then ask Jayden White about her definition of being able to talk the talk, and she’ll profess her love of sign language, which she first took up at the age of five as a means of reaching out to a special-needs student unable to communicate with the rest of her kindergarten classmates.
“In pre-school, talking with other kids and being able to tell each other stories… that’s how friendships are made,” she explains of the bond she was able to create through sign language with a girl named Kallie Hinton who had suffered a seizure at 18 months and was facing many health challenges when the pair first met as pre-schoolers back in the fall of 2008.
As our tribute to the graduating B.C. high school Class of 2021 continues, we today bring you a story of incredible perseverance and compassion.
Through the hundreds upon hundreds of submissions we have received in advance of our July publication of Varsity Letters’ annual B.C. Recruits List, a small detail on White’s stood out as curious.
Not only was she set to major in education and play basketball in Edmonton at the University of Alberta, she was also set to minor in American Sign Language.
One quick e-mail response later, and the layers of curiosity were revealed in a story of triumph so needed in these tough and trying times within the provincial high school community.
FINALLY FINDING HER STRIDE
Jayden White isn’t sure precisely when it happened, but at some point along her rough-and-tumble basketball journey, she banged the area around her right knee in such a fashion that a few chunks of bone became dislodged.
Soon after, it became evident that something wasn’t quite right, and based on the nickname she picked up during her years at Abbotsford’s W.A. Fraser Middle School, it was pretty evident to all.
“In previous years, if you’d seen me run up the court, it was like a chicken with its head cut off,” begins White, whose family had moved back to the eastern Fraser Valley after spending much of her elementary school years in Prince George.
“I was actually nicknamed Baby Giraffe by my middle school team because that’s what they thought I ran like,” she continues. “My knee seemed to always be messed up. I couldn’t fully straighten it. My right leg would drag… it would go around in a little circle and then get to the front. It looked really stupid.”
Yet while she may have been the self-admitted antithesis of a hardcourt ballerina, there was a grace, honour and workmanlike-attitude to her game that was impossible to ignore. In fact as ninth grade gave way to 10th at Yale Secondary, coaches at the school realized she held the potential to become one of the program’s most physical players.
Yet just two or three weeks into the 2018-19 junior season, in a game against arch-rival W.J. Mouat, White banged knees with a Hawks player.
“That game it got knocked out of place,” White says. “It was all hanging by a thread and that was the final punch.”
By mid-December, her Grade 10 season was done, but an actual diagnosis didn’t come until January and surgery to remove the two bone chips took place in February.
White attacked her rehabilitation with gusto, often times working out against both her 6-foot-1, 270 pound dad Chris, and burly former UFV Cascades post Kyle Graves.
Yet raring to play heading into her 2019-20 Grade 11 season, Yale senior varsity head coach Bobby Braich wisely limited her minutes over the first half of the campaign.
By mid-January, however, in just her second game back logging regular starter’s minutes in over a year, White had her breakout, scoring 12 points and grabbing 24 rebounds in a league win over Langley’s Brookswood Bobcats.
“She went from hobbling on her knee and thinking to herself ‘I don’t know where I fit on this team’ and ‘I don’t know if coach has confidence in me,’ to becoming a starter,” remembers Braich.
That game signalled the start of six straight double-doubles heading into the Eastern Valley AAAA championships where White was selected a first-team all-star.
Then, just days before the pandemic would hit B.C., White confirmed to all that she had become the player she knew she could be, her 28 points and 18 rebounds leading the Lions to a 74-52 win over Riverside and a berth in the provincial AAAA Final Four.
Yale lost its semifinal to Terry Fox, but rebounded to beat Walnut Grove and finish third overall.
“When she had those monster games, man, you are just beaming ear-to-ear,” says Braich, “because you have seen someone who has been working and waiting so long for that moment.”
Added White: “It’s all just made me more confident as a player knowing that after a year of not playing, that I could come back and get recognized because I put in all of the work.”
Of course, all of that momentum was halted in its tracks by a cancelled Grade 12 senior season, one in which a Yale team with White and three other U Sports’ recruits, would have been among B.C.’s top AAAA teams.
HOW HIGH THE MOON?
In what has become commonplace during COVID, many high school recruits have yet to meet both their future coaches and teammates.
White, for her part, feels lucky to be able to count one face-to-face meeting with her soon-to-be Pandas’ head coach Scott Edwards, that coming over the Feb. 24-25 weekend of 2020, when Alberta faced Trinity Western at the Langley Events Centre.
“I went and met Scott just before they played Trinity, when the two teams were on the floor warming up,” remembers White, who along with York House’s hugely-talented guard Nadeen Wu, each join the Pandas this fall. “I couldn’t stay to watch because I had to join my team that night, and it’s still the only time we have met in person. Every other time has been Zoom calls, phone calls… but I just really enjoyed talking with him. I think it will be a very good fit for me in the future.”
For his part, Braich loves the kind of presence Edwards and the rest of the Panda staff will be getting from a player who did not reveal her true identity due to injury until about the final six weeks of her high school career.
“She is really tough to play against because she is unorthodox with her player movements,” he says. “She is tough, right. In practice, nobody wants to get hit by her, or run over by her. Jayden fakes left, fakes right and those elbows are swinging around and you don’t want any part of it.”
Post players take longer to develop at each level than the rest, yet because she blossomed so late in her Grade 11 year, before being challenged like all the rest over her Grade 12 year, the height of her particular ceiling in Edmonton becomes a great curiosity.
“We love her energy, her toughness and her rebounding,” notes Edwards, the Duncan native set to begin his 16th season at the helm this fall. “She has the tools to be a really good post player in our conference. Now, it’s about refining her skills and giving her that opportunity.”
THE SUREST SIGNS OF CHARACTER
Back in the fall of 2009, as she started pre-school classes during her family’s stay in Prince George, a five-year-old Jayden White became fast friends with classmate Kallie Hinton.
Wheelchair-bound, unable to speak and facing numerous physical and mental challenges, Hinton could nonetheless understand some sign language, thus the teacher decided to help the rest of the class learn American Sign Language.
White went even further, asking her mother Katherine to buy her books on the subject to help accelerate her learning.
Kallie Hinton passed away at the age of eight back in 2011, and White has honoured her in a very personal way every year on both her birthday and the anniversary of her passing.
“Her mom’s nickname for Callie was Callie Cupcake, so twice a year, my mom picks up cupcakes for us and that is our little memorial to her,” White explains.
The date of Hinton’s passing in early December comes just as high school basketball season has begun, and back in 2019, the Whites shared cupcakes with players and fans at a Yale senior girls basketball game.
This December marks the 10th year of her passing.
From its beginnings as a way to simply reach out and invite inclusivity with her kindergarten friend, to now having a more refined capability to use American Sign Language with others she has met, including club basketball teammate Olivia Pero, a senior guard with Port Moody’s Heritage Woods Kodiaks, White — who has always had full command of all of her own senses — is excited to continue her studies at Alberta.
“Becoming an interpreter is definitely one of my career choices, but I am still trying to figure things out,” she says, adding that the ASL classes available at U of A played a role in her heading north to Edmonton.
Next season, perhaps a thousand or more B.C. student-athletes will navigate the most difficult high school-to-university transition on record.
In fact White, whose older sister Brooklyn is a veteran presence on the Victoria Vikes, will be one of four Yale girls basketball players making that very same move.
Marissa Rodde will open her career in Regina with the Cougars, Karishma Rai in Kamloops with the Thompson Rivers WolfPack, and Julie Dueck across town from White with Edmonton’s MacEwan Griffins.
For her part, Jayden White declares that finicky right knee to be “100 per-cent healthy.” To her, the only thing that hurts is thinking about how she finally got healthy, how she was finally ready to play a full season, and how the pandemic crushed those dreams over her high school swan song of 2020-21.
“Once I got into my groove (in 2019-20), I was finally able to be the player that I had always wanted to be,” she begins. “We can all imagine and say what we might have done, but we’ll never known for sure what could have happened in our final year together.”
Yet if the what-ifs are everywhere throughout this strangest of sports seasons, there are also constants… the kind based on time-honoured principles.
“When an athlete has something that goes beyond the game, something in which they are investing in themselves, something which challenges them to push to their capacity,” begins Scott Edwards when asked to speak about White in relation to the roots of her academic inspirations, “all of that is just a great testament to them as a human being.
“It’s the type of drive in somebody to have the ability to see beyond the end of their own nose and to think of others in such a compassionate way,” he adds. “We’re just so lucky that we will be able to help support Jayden through that journey.”
And what a journey it’s already been for one whose walk and whose talk have always come from a deeper place.
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