It would be easy to mistake coach Dan White for a member of the Pierson boys basketball team. The 24-year-old from upstate New York looks even younger than he is, especially when he is throwing up long range three-pointers in the Pierson gym in nylon shorts and high-top sneakers before running practice.
But after listening to him talk about basketball—his game plans, his philosophy, his overall enthusiasm for the game—it becomes quickly apparent that White possesses a maturity beyond his years. The results thus far in just his second season at the helm for the Whalers speak for themselves. White led Pierson to its first Suffolk County Championship since 1994 last week, a thrilling 34-32 win over Stony Brook.
The last time Pierson won a county title, White was just 7 years old.
White’s success has created a buzz in Sag Harbor that has been missing for some time. Fans have packed the gym to watch the Whalers play this season, and their brand of defense and team-oriented basketball may not be flashy, but spectators have had plenty to cheer about. White has earned the instant admiration of locals not only for putting up W’s, but also for pulling off the rare feat of beating rival Bridgehampton three times—twice in the regular season and again for the Class C/D Championship.
Success at such a young age is rare, but it comes as no surprise to those who know White best. Dan Calhoun, who coached White during a standout career as a point guard at Hoosic Valley High School, located about 20 minutes outside of Albany, knows White perhaps better than anyone. In addition to being his teacher and coach, Calhoun also employed White during the summer at his farm.
Calhoun raved about White and the many characteristics that have made him a great coach—strong work ethic, great basketball intellect, a natural penchant for leadership—but said the simple fact of the matter is that White, whom he affectionately calls “Whitey,” has just always been obsessed with basketball.
“He came down to the farm as an eighth-grader looking for a job and I told him we pay $5 an hour and charge $7 an hour for baby-sitting,” Calhoun said with a laugh. “But he always had that work ethic.
“He was there every single day, starting at seven, and never missed a day,” he continued.
“We’d be delivering a load of hay somewhere and he’d be saying, ‘Coach, what do you think our record will be three weeks from now?’ Everything always had to do with basketball.”
White’s journey from the farm fields near the state capital to the East End of Long Island almost didn’t happen. After playing basketball at Springfield College in Massachusetts, where he was the starting point guard and team captain in his junior and senior seasons, White began looking for a teaching position in one of the toughest job markets in recent memory.
Frustrated after narrowly missing out several times, White was set to return to Springfield as a graduate assistant with the team. But one month before starting that next chapter, White got a call from the Sag Harbor School District, and, a short time later, accepted the position as a high school physical education teacher. He coached the seventh grade team for a season before taking over the varsity position last year.
Adjusting to life in the Hamptons took some time, White said. Though he grew up in a small town, he admitted that there were a few differences between his home and Sag Harbor.
“Main Street in Hoosic Valley is a Subway, a gas station and a pizza place, and there is the school and a park,” White said. “In the summers, all I did was work and play basketball. When I walked onto Main Street here in the summer, I had never seen so many cars in my life. I was thinking, ‘There’s no way this is such a small school.’ I didn’t realize how big the summer thing was.”
White quickly realized his biggest obstacle in reviving the basketball program was laid at his feet before school was even in session. “The hardest challenge was getting the kids to play year-round instead of going to the beach,” he said.
But White found a way, and that, perhaps more than any other reason, is why the Whalers have had success. White has created a culture of year-round commitment to the sport, getting most members of the team to participate in summer leagues and tournaments, and he says the benefits have extended even beyond the results of this season.
“They have fun hanging out together and it builds camaraderie and shows I care about them,” he said. “They know I’m not just here to win. I care about the kids and I want to see them do well.”