Bigger than basketball: Whitt not defined by on-court play

By: Scottie Bordelon Scottie Bordelon's Twitter account
Published: Friday, January 31, 2020
Arkansas guards Jimmy Whitt (33) and Jalen Harris (5) react to a made basket during a game against Vanderbilt on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, in Fayetteville.
( Andy Shupe)
Arkansas guards Jimmy Whitt (33) and Jalen Harris (5) react to a made basket during a game against Vanderbilt on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — On the afternoon of Jan. 26, Jimmy Whitt thoughtfully crafted a tweet he thought he would never have to send.

Former Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, a five-time NBA champion and 18-time All-Star selection, his daughter Gianna, and seven others tragically died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif., earlier that day. The news sent shockwaves throughout the basketball world and beyond.

It struck hard the heart of Whitt, Arkansas’ star graduate transfer guard who holds Bryant as one of his idols and among the greatest to ever play the game. Asked the following day in a press conference about the significance of Bryant’s career in regards to his life, Whitt bypassed the MVP awards, world titles and countless accolades.

He was much more than those things, Whitt eloquently noted.

“I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and just what type of impact he had,” he added. “Obviously he impacted generations of basketball players. I think the biggest thing for me at least is that he taught me how to just be the best you can be individually, no matter what you’re doing in life so you can impact a future generation. You can impact the youth.

“I think that’s the biggest lesson that I’d like to pass on from him is to be the best you that you can be in any facet of your life. Take the Mamba Mentality and apply it to me as a basketball player, for you guys as journalists. Apply it to being the best at whatever it may be so that you can impact the person next to you and you can keep moving forward in life.”

A fifth-year senior in his second stint with the Razorbacks, Whitt is unique, a throwback-type player who thrives in the midrange with a shot taught to him by his father, James, and views himself as a thinker of the game.

While he has made a name for himself in 2019-20 and attracted discussion about a potential professional career, basketball does not define Whitt.

His goal is to impact the lives of those around him - teammates, coaches, fans, the average person - and spread positivity. There is a stigma on social media, he says, that athletes are self-centered and selfish.

Whitt, working toward a masters degree in Adult and Lifelong Learning, wants to break the mold.

“If someone were to ask about me, basketball would be the last thing on my list I’d want them to know,” Whitt told WholeHogSports. “At the end of the day, I want people to know what my character is like, who I am as a person. I want people to know me by how I interact and treat other people. I’ll talk to anyone.

“There’s enough time in the world, like, if you want to sit there and a fan wants to talk to me after the game for as long as they want to talk, I’ll sit there and talk to you for 2-3 hours. I just want to be a positive and someone that people can look up to. That’s my biggest thing.”

When Whitt is away from basketball, he completely disconnects. He might watch a college game if a friend is playing, or an NBA game. But Whitt is an avid gamer and plays Fortnite with a group of friends regularly.

He tries to get away from the game, which is important, he says, and mentally reset.

“A lot of people nowadays, basketball is completely everything, and for Jimmy it’s not,” former Arkansas guard Manny Watkins said. “That comes from his family. He comes from a really good family, and they instilled in him that basketball is what you do, it’s not who you are. He’s taken that everywhere with him, and I think that helps him in his game.

“When you know this is just what I’m doing and this isn’t who I am, this doesn’t have anything to do with who I am, it flows a little bit easier and you’re not stressed about I have to do this, perform, this and that.”

Watkins, who now works in Walmart’s home office, and Whitt’s friendship dates back to when Watkins was a fourth grader in Columbia, Mo. He considers Whitt his younger brother. Not long after their parents met, Manny and Jimmy were attached at the hip, playing video games, and basketball in the driveway and at the Activity & Recreation Center on Saturdays.

Matt Zimmerman, on Mike Anderson’s staff at Missouri alongside Melvin Watkins, recalls the two as fun to be around growing up.

“I remember being in a room with he and Manny when they were young, young guys in the sixth and seventh grade at coach Watkins’ house, and I remember them goofing around and coming in and saying,’ Hello,’ and they were playing video games,” he said. “I couldn’t get them to look up. I couldn’t get them to talk to me.

“They were just hollering at each other, having fun and screaming at each other through video games. These are kids you didn’t have to worry about. They were doing stuff the right way.”

Whitt and Watkins were thrilled to get to play together at Arkansas in 2015-16. Whitt spent the entire summer prior to his freshman season at Watkins’ place, and they were roommates on road trips.

Sometimes they would stay up too late the night before a game. It was like they were kids again.

“That was a good time,” Watkins said. “We soaked it in.”

In those summer workouts, Whitt, who joined a roster that included Dusty Hannahs, Moses Kingsley and Jabril Durham, stood out above the rest in Zimmerman’s eyes. He was growing into a player the staff could count on, and Zimmerman figured he would be a key piece for four years.

After averaging 6.1 points per game for 16-16 Arkansas, Whitt opted to transfer and ultimately landed at SMU. Watkins was sad to see Whitt leave, but understood at the time it was in his friend’s best interest.

They stayed in touch, though, visiting one another and maintaining a tight bond. And on May 27 when Whitt announced he would return to Arkansas, Watkins was ecstatic.

“I thought it was cool because, like, I’m here,” said Watkins, who lives in Rogers. “This is awesome. I get to see my boy every day.”

This season, Watkins and Zimmerman have looked on as Whitt has flourished on the floor. They’ve had a courtside view, too, with Zimmerman holding color commentary duties on the Razorbacks’ radio broadcast and Watkins calling early season games on SEC Network+.

They also know Whitt on a deeper level and what makes him special aside from the per-game averages and consistent pull-up jumper.

“He’s really matured in the fact that he’s not just about him anymore,” Watkins said. “You see that when people get older. Now he’s come back and he’s a lot older, and I feel like he’s just in teaching mode. He wants people to understand, look, you can do things differently.

“He’s using that to his advantage.”

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