Antoine White was surrounded by the bright lights of Las Vegas.
White, whose season as the junior varsity basketball coach at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., had just finished, was watching this year's NCAA Division I basketball tournament -- March Madness -- in one of the greatest places on Earth.
White's mind raced. Both the player and the coach inside wanted to be a part of that experience.
But he knew.
He knew that his playing days were done, that a shot at playing in an NCAA tournament - at any level - was gone. A torn meniscus and anterior cruciate ligament suffered in 2008 had finished those dreams. A promising career cut short during White's first collegiate game.
But to his credit, White remained involved in the sport he loves. His mind shifted to coaching and with a few years as a JV coach under his belt, plus a successful experience coaching a sixth-grade AAU team, White's coaching prospects seemed much better than his playing ones.
But then his phone rang. It was a call that seemed to come from left field -- one that White did not and could not have expected.
But in reality, it was a phone call years in the making.
First-year Southern Vermont College men's basketball coach Dan Engelstad, who turned 29 in October, remembers the first time he saw the now 24-year-old.
"I had just graduated from high school, and had been asked to coach the JV summer league team," Engelstad recalls. "I heard a bit about the group, but I didn't know too much. The group came in, and Antoine was a young freshman. He was scrawny, but he came in and you could tell he was eager to learn."
Over time, their relationship blossomed. Engelstad would return and coach the summer league team at Whitman while White climbed the ranks. The two kept in contact beyond the summer, too. With Engelstad playing point guard at Division III St. Mary's College, White was his equivalent on the Whitman squad. After games, White would call Engelstad to chat.
Engelstad became a big part of his life. As a junior, White won the regional championship at Whitman with Engelstad in attendance. When the final buzzer rang, the two embraced.
The next year, Engelstad hosted him for a school visit at St. Mary's.
Engelstad knew the process White was going through, and wanted to help as much as he could.
"He is definitely like a big brother to me," White said.
A state champion as a junior, White fell short as a senior - but went 38-15 as a varsity player. He averaged 10 points a game and earned an All-Gazette nod in his local paper, something that White described as "kind of a big deal."
But when it became time to make a college decision, White chose to sit a year out. He graduated from Whitman in 2007, and after a year came to Chesapeake College, a junior college on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay.
It was supposed to be the next step: Towards a degree and, hopefully, a step towards playing basketball at an even higher level.
White pauses. Recollecting his story, the words flow out fast and steady talking about his early days -- Whitman High, falling in love with basketball and first meeting Engelstad.
But when he gets to that first year at Chesapeake, he slows.
"It was the first game of the season. We were at a tournament in West Virginia," White remembers. "I tore my meniscus first."
White, already a captain, came out of the game, but shook it off and seemed OK, so he went back in.
No one knew the extent of the injury; it seemed like a tweaked knee. Something you just worked through.
His return was supposed to provide a spark. Instead, White's already-injured knee got worse, as he tore his ACL.
White was forced to sit out the rest of the season. He attempted to come back the next year, but something wasn't right.
"I tried to play but I was nowhere near 100 percent," White said. "I was playing on a bum knee. After that, I thought my career was over. I didn't even finish that season: That's how bad my knee hurt. I stopped playing basketball and I dropped out of college."
Watching from afar, Engelstad -- by this time an assistant at Division I Mount St. Mary's -- remembered the physical change.
"He turned into a power forward, he ballooned up after the injury," Engelstad said. "He looked different, his whole body. I think he gave up hope [of playing again]." White returned home to Germantown, and started weighing his options, trying to find the next step in his life.
Fittingly, it included basketball. A phone call from a friend revealed a sixth-grade team in the area needed a coach. It wasn't the most glamorous job, but it was still a position in a sport that White loved.
The season was a success. Sensing he was on to something, White formed an AAU team: the Bethesda Bobcats.
White, young for his grade, was only 18 when it all started. From the AAU team, he found a job at Koa Sports, a Bethesda company specializing in training young athletes. Then, White was asked to coach the Whitman JVs.
"I had my own AAU team, I was doing a lot of coaching and I had a [regular] 9-5 [job]. I was working. Basketball is something I love to do, so it's something I did to keep in contact with the game," White said.
He started to build a name for himself. After the 2012-2013 season ended, White hopped on a plane to Vegas for a needed vacation to watch March Madness.
Then his phone rang.
Someone didn't think his playing days were over.
Engelstad was hired on March 23 to coach the Southern Vermont College men's basketball team. After the past two years had resulted in three total victories, former coach Mike McDonough stepped down from his coaching spot and took on the new challenge as athletic director.
With the Mountaineers looking for a fresh start, the school turned to Engelstad, a fresh-faced coach who had been with Division-I Holy Cross the previous three years.
Engelstad, getting his first shot at a head coaching job, jumped at the opportunity.
After settling in at SVC, one question came to the forefront of the coach's mind: Who do I recruit to try and turn things around? Engelstad needed a veteran, someone who shared his basketball vision and someone trusted enough to turn the program around.
Immediately, he knew. He picked up his phone and made the call.
"I had known [his] situation, knew what he was about. I called him half-joking a bit, but in the back of my mind I thought ‘How wonderful it could be. ‘"
Remembering the phone call, White laughs.
"Coach called me and said, ‘I need you to come out of retirement,'" White said. "It was a good call; he explained to me what was going on."
He was intrigued, but White didn't immediately say yes. It was a chance to play basketball again, sure, but it meant giving up the life he was building. It meant giving up his coaching job. It also meant leaving Maryland, and moving away from his family, for the first time in his life.
There was also some apprehension on the other side, too. Engelstad knew it was a tall order. He wanted White to come lead his team, but knew that he was far from game shape. But Engelstad also knew White had dreams of coaching at the collegiate level, and he would need a college degree to fulfill those dreams.
"I knew he was out of game shape, but I always admired him as a person, a leader, a ball player," Engelstad said. "And I knew that he needed to get a degree. That came first and foremost. This situation was perfect. I knew it could be a good thing, but I didn't pressure him. I recruited him, yes, but I didn't force it."
When Engelstad's second call asked White to visit the Bennington campus, his mind was made up.
"Once I took the visit it helped me make my final decision," White said. "I liked what I saw up here, a real family atmosphere. It was tough for me to leave home; I was building a name for myself as a coach. It was a tough decision to make, but at the end of the day it was the right one."
But White wasn't coming alone.
Once his mind was set on coming to SVC, White told Engelstad about two players in the Maryland area that the coaching staff should look at.
White played with Izzy Melton at Chesapeake, but the two also played against each other in high school. The other was Rayshawn Taylor, who was playing for a coach that White had played under at Whitman.
"I'm grateful to be here, [White] is one of the reasons I came," Melton said. "He called coach and put in a good word for me. It's nice to be up here with him."
White says that the two are like brothers to him -- brothers making the same leap of faith that he did.
Together as a trio, it helped soften the unknown of moving from the metro D.C. area to the woods of Vermont. But it also softened the learning curve that SVC is going through this season on the court.
In the preseason rankings at d3hoops.com, there are 414 Division III teams. Southern Vermont was No. 410. The Mountaineers embraced the perceived disrespect, taking less than a month to shed that burden.
The Mountaineers are currently 7-3. The team has already taken home one trophy this season, winning the Tri-State Shootout over Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in November and has even received Top 25 votes in the national rankings. The Mountaineers also posted one of the greatest upsets in the team's history, toppling local rival, and perennial D-III title contender, Williams College 88-87 on opening night. Engelstad has started turned things around at SVC, and his sophomore point guard has led the charge.
"[White] is a guy that the stat line never matters," Engelstad said. "He will do everything in his power to do it the right way. He brings toughness to the team. He doesn't care if he has to score five points, or if he has to score 23 like he did against Sage (A 101-90 win). He holds people to a certain standard."
White recognizes that his role is different. With his experience behind the bench, White can act as another coach along with assistant coaches Dave Bromirski, AJ Mahar, and Terence White.
"I bring knowledge and wisdom," White said. "I know the game on so many different levels. That is one thing I feel like I can contribute to this team."
White has also been extremely helpful to his youngest teammates.
"He gives me tips on and off the court. From a coaching perspective, [he tells me] the right and wrong things to do on the court. I have learned a lot, and I am still learning a lot. He is a great mentor to me," said true freshman guard Davante Jordan.
White's contributions go beyond the stat sheet and into the very fabric that makes a bad team good, and a good team great.
"He brings experience, hard work, dedication, and a toughness that we need here," Melton said. "We really look up to him. He always works hard; he is dedicated and gets people dedicated to the game." White's knack for coaching still comes through. Amongst his teammates, White is called things from "old man" to Jason Kidd, the Brooklyn Nets coach who retired from playing last year, but he takes all of it with a smile.
"These guys," said White with a laugh. "I come in an hour before practice and get treatment. You get these guys who come in 10 minutes before practice, they don't need to stretch, they don't need to do anything, and they come in and are flying up and down the court. If I tried that, I wouldn't last. It's funny, but I can still get up and down with them."
Standing up, White goes over to a friend who was waiting for him. The two walk towards the exit at the Mountaineer Athletic Center, but before they can get to the door he stops.
"You know, Izzy is 23. A year younger," White says. "It's not like I'm that old."
Geoff Smith is the Assistant Sports Editor at the Bennington Banner. He can be reached at 802-447-7567 x120, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @GSmith_Banner.