TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Okaro White loved the food in Italy.
And he loved the people in Greece.
But after two productive – and lucrative – years in Europe, White felt called to come home, where he could pursue his dream of playing in the National Basketball Association.
The story of White, a former standout at Florida State, realizing his NBA dream is stuff movie deals are made of – an undrafted prospect who passed on big-money contracts to return to Europe instead takes a chance on himself, hoping to rise through the NBA’s Developmental League and earn a shot on the big stage.
Thousands of players believe it, but only a few are ever proven right. White is one of them. After two months with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, White earned a 10-day contract with the Miami Heat in January.
When that 10 days expired – and with the Heat on an unexpected winning streak – Miami gave him 10 more.
Finally, with the Heat forced to either sign White for the remainder of the season or allow other teams to claim him, Miami released another player and signed White to a two-year deal.
“It’s been amazing,” White said in a phone interview from Houston, where the Heat beat the Rockets on Wednesday. “Something I couldn’t have dreamed of, the way it went. But I’m glad it went the way it did.”
So are the Heat. Miami won its first 13 games with White on board, the longest such streak for a team under .500 in NBA history, and enough to vault the Heat from near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings and into contention for a playoff spot.
While averaging 4.2 points and 2.5 rebounds in 16.1 minutes per game, White has become something of a symbol of the Heat’s recent resurgence.
His name in particular lends itself to celebrating winning streaks.
“They were starting chants every game, like ‘7-0karo, 8-0karo,’” White said. “It was something I couldn’t imagine. We were undefeated for a full 20 days.”
White played at Florida State during one of the most successful runs in the program’s recent history. He was a freshman on the FSU team that went to the Sweet 16, and a sophomore when the Seminoles won the ACC tournament a year later.
By the time White, a Clearwater native, wrapped up his senior year, he ranked in FSU’s top 10 for career blocks (107, 10th), free throws made (401) and free-throw percentage (79.9, ninth) and 16th all-time in total points (1,402).
But despite a solid career highlighted by All-ACC defensive team honors as a senior in 2014, White didn’t catch on in the NBA the following season.
So White went to Europe, where he averaged more than 12 points and six rebounds in 33 games for Virtus Bologna of the Italian Serie A.
A year later, White crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Greece, where he enjoyed a breakout season with Aris Thessaloniki of the Greek Basketball League.
With 13.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, White was named the Greek League’s Most Spectacular Player while earning a spot on the league’s “Best Five” team.
“The two years I played over there (in Europe), I think it really helped me,” White said. “Just playing a different style of basketball and being able to benefit from that.”
He also got up close and personal with some of the most intense sports fans on the planet.
“Greek fans are very passionate,” White said. “We had some wild games over there. … We’ve got passionate fans over here, but they take it to another level. They’ve got the flares. I’ve seen real fires get started in the arena. They get pretty wild over there.”
But while White found a natural fit overseas, he couldn’t help but feel like he had unfinished business at home.
White still felt like he could play in the NBA, a notion only strengthened by his success in Europe.
To do that, though, it would require another stint in the D-League with no guarantee that he would reach the NBA.
And it would require White to pass on some financial security offered by European teams.
“I definitely turned down some big offers overseas. Some people were looking at numbers and were like, ‘Whoa, are you sure?’” he said. “But I always wanted to take that shot and follow my dream. I didn’t want to be 10 years from now and say I never tried or I gave up.
“I put all my faith in God and I took a chance on myself. And everything worked out how it was supposed to.”
On Jan. 17, White’s faith was rewarded: Beset by injuries, the Heat used a roster hardship exemption to sign White to a 10-day contract.
White called his mother, to relay the news. Two days later, he made his NBA debut in Dallas.
“It was an amazing moment,” he said. “It was a nervous moment, walking out on the floor. After I got up and down a couple of times, I was cool.”
White reached another milestone a week later, when he scored his first NBA points during a win over the Golden State Warriors.
He found the scoresheet in 10 of the next 12 games, and made his mark permanently with a late, go-ahead 3-pointer that helped Miami beat Brooklyn on Jan. 25.
“We like his DNA, the fabric that he brings,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told Tom D’Angelo of the Palm Beach Post. “He’s not afraid of the moment.”
Despite his busier schedule, White still has found time to follow the Seminoles.
He had dinner with the team during its recent visit to Miami, and said he texts with players and coaches regularly.
Like most FSU fans, White is thrilled with FSU’s success on the court this season.
“As long as they keep on playing together and playing unselfish basketball, there’s no telling where these guys can go,” White said.
The feeling is mutual in the Florida State locker room, where there are still three Seminoles – Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Michael Ojo and Brandon Allen – remaining from White’s last season in Tallahassee.
“I’ve been talking to him every day and I’m super proud of everything he’s doing,” Rathan-Mayes said. “He’s done a great job for himself and his family, and he’s making Florida State proud. We’re extremely happy for him.”