WHITE SHIELD, N.D. — Even as a seventh-grader in a gym filled with basketball players from across the state, Jesse White always stood out.

Brad Kroupa saw potential in White the first time they stepped on the court together. Kroupa, who owns Flight 701 Basketball Club, was holding a skill development session when White was in seventh grade.

White’s drive and desire to be the best on the court was unparalleled — long before he became one of the most prolific high school basketball players in North Dakota history.

“You could tell that he had a true love for the game, because that's something you can't fake,” said Kroupa, who coached White for four years at White Shield. “He was a kid that was hungry, competitive, that wanted to improve individually. He had that winner’s mindset, and that’s special.”

It was never an extracurricular activity for White, a senior at White Shield. It was a passion, which began when he first picked up a basketball at Head Start as a kid.

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“I always wanted to get better every single day,” White said. “I immediately fell in love with the game and I just never stopped.”

White didn’t stop putting in work last offseason, even when the world around him did during the coronavirus pandemic. He bought weights and ab rollers to work out from home in White Shield, the Arikara community on Fort Berthold Reservation in west-central North Dakota.

On several occasions, he drove an hour and a half to Bismarck, where Kroupa lives. They’d find a local park with a basketball court, where White would get to work.

“It was extremely windy one day. I wanted to do some shooting drills, but it was too windy for that,” Kroupa said. “We had to modify the workout. It was cold and really windy, and Jesse had a winter hat on, but we were still outside working.”

White, who played his first varsity minutes as a seventh-grader, literally worked his way to the top this year. He finished his high school career with more than 2,800 points, the second-most all-time in North Dakota. The 5-foot-11 guard averaged 28 points and six assists per game. He also added five rebounds on average, to go along with four steals.

White Shield's Jesse White goes up for his signature behind the back layup against Powers Lake in the Class B, Region 8 championship game March 11, 2021, in Williston. Hunter L. Andes / Special to The Forum
White Shield's Jesse White goes up for his signature behind the back layup against Powers Lake in the Class B, Region 8 championship game March 11, 2021, in Williston. Hunter L. Andes / Special to The Forum

“Becoming the second-leading scorer in the history of North Dakota high school basketball was just a spectacular achievement for Jesse. Both special and historic,” Kroupa said. “I don’t think we’ll witness, or at least I won’t, an achievement like that again.”

White received first-team all-state honors, and was named the Region 8 Senior Athlete of the Year, Class B boys basketball Senior Athlete of the Year, as well as North Dakota’s Mr. Basketball. He had the highest scoring per game average out of the 16 all-state honorees.

White led White Shield to a District 15 title and 16-8 record this year. The Warriors reached the Region 8 championship, but came up short against Powers Lake. White never made it to a state tournament throughout his six years.

“It felt good for sure, but I mostly felt good about doing it for my community and my people,” White said on winning Mr. Basketball. “I really wanted to get to state, but I feel like that was just for them. To show the young kids in our community that they can do it, too.”

White was White Shield’s first Mr. Basketball finalist since the award’s inception in 1985.

“For the youth to see that — to see just because we’re from a small town, an Indian reservation, from White Shield — doesn’t mean we can’t be winners,” Kroupa said. “The youth are inspired now and believe in themselves more because, ‘Somebody from White Shield was Mr. Basketball, why can’t I do it?’”

Setting an example for MHA Nation and his community has been the driving force for White’s success, he said. It’s never been about the awards or accolades, but about being the role model he didn’t have growing up.

“That’s why now, I take pride in being the best role model I can be. Seeing all the young kids, it makes me really want to work hard,” White said. “If I ever give up, I’m not gonna feel like I'm giving up on myself, but I feel like I’m gonna be giving up on my community. They keep me going.”

White Shield head coach Brad Kroupa, right, coached Jesse White (5) for four years at White Shield. Special to The Forum
White Shield head coach Brad Kroupa, right, coached Jesse White (5) for four years at White Shield. Special to The Forum

White has reached his countless milestones this season with an underdeveloped left hand. He was born with a complete thumb, but the rest of his four fingers aren’t developed.

“He embraces that. He’s never used it as an excuse,” said Kroupa, whose daughter was born without a left hand. “He wants to be challenged with the left hand. During some ball-handling drills, he’ll ask if he can do all of the reps with his left hand.”

“You don’t even have to be a fan of basketball to be a fan of Jesse White and just love his story,” Kroupa added.

White Shield's Jesse White is the No. 2 all-time leading scorer in North Dakota high school basketball. Hunter L. Andes / Special to The Forum
White Shield's Jesse White is the No. 2 all-time leading scorer in North Dakota high school basketball. Hunter L. Andes / Special to The Forum

Kroupa said White has “raised the standard of success” in the community of White Shield and the boys basketball team, both on and off the court. White was recognized by the Senate in early March for his achievements.

"This crosses reservation lines. Now it’s indigenous youth from other communities seeing Jesse White in Bismarck talking to governors and people in suits," Kroupa said. "A lot of people I’m sure never imagined something like that being possible. And now we have one of our own doing it."

"I feel like I was in a movie," White said of the Senate visit. "I was kind of in awe of everything."

White generated social media buzz this season with highlight-reel blocks and passes. Overtime, a multimedia sports company with more than 771,000 followers on Twitter, posted a few of White’s most talked about plays, including clips of two 360-degree layups.

“Now in the age of social media, Native people and youth across the country are seeing these photos of what Jesse has accomplished,” Kroupa said. “It’s truly inspiring. People want to be like Jesse White. Even in non-Native communities, there’s players, kids, even adults coming up to him asking for his autograph and wanting to talk to him.”

White plans on playing college basketball, but as of Wednesday evening, March 31, he hadn’t decided where. He hopes to ultimately reach the Division I level and get a business administration degree.

“He has great court vision. Sees the floor extremely well. His instincts are very impressive when it comes to passing in the full-court transition,” Kroupa said. “Even when he gets to the paint, paint touches. ... I truly believe that he has only scratched the surface of who he is going to become as a player. I don’t think we've seen the best Jesse White yet.”