COLUMBIA – On the floor in Jimmy Whitt's room is a black, plastic crate. Empty, it would weigh less than a pound. But now it weighs more, overflowing with letters from colleges across the country.
Whitt received mail from 12 schools that want him to play basketball for their program, and he said that number could become more than 20.
- Kansas State
- Northern Iowa
- Oklahoma State
- San Francisco
- Southern Methodist
- Wichita State
He gets mail from different schools every day. It used to be more exciting when he was first drawing interest, but now it's a daily routine: open the envelope, read what's inside and drop it in the crate.
He can usually list most of the 12. Sometimes he'll forget one or two. But he can pull out his phone and type his name into Google to refresh his memory.
"Oh, University of San Francisco," he said, forgetting the only West Coast school that has offered him a scholarship.
Whitt doesn't think about his college decision too often. He's only a junior at Hickman High School, but the 6-foot-3 guard is one of the most recruited high school players from Columbia.
With just more than a year of high school left, the decision has been on his mind more often.
Annelle and James Whitt, Jimmy's mother and father, said they'll support their son in whatever decision he makes. They think it's important to guide him to some extent but to also keep their distance.
"It's his decision, and you only get four years in college," Annelle said. "But you know, the coach is one of the main things I'm looking at with the schools. After all, he's going to be taking care of my baby for the next four years."
When looking at a school, Jimmy knows just about everything there is to know about the basketball program. What really interests him is experiencing the school away from the basketball court once he takes his five official visits in the next academic year.
Jimmy already had one family member play Division I sports. His uncle Paul Drayton ran track at Villanova and graduated in 1962.
Drayton, who died in 2010, also competed at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He won the silver medal in the 200-meter and ran the opening leg for the gold-medal winning 4x100 relay team, which set a world record of 39.06 seconds.
Jimmy is adamant that he will not run track in college.
"I don't know why anyone would run for fun," he says. "In practice, running is punishment."
When Jimmy goes to college, it will be his first time on his own, but he will always feel his mother's presence.
Annelle is from Long Island, N.Y., and has a self-described New York attitude: loud and always moving quickly. The only time her son moves quickly, though, is on the basketball court, gliding with each step and striding around defenders, as smooth as can be.
His father, James, is a laid-back Midwesterner who played college basketball at Indiana Tech. Jimmy gets his demeanor from his father.
Annelle acknowledges Jimmy is smooth in some areas off the court, too – he can sing and dance, though never in public. If she has a long day at work, he'll take his lanky arms and bring her head to his shoulder.
"Come on, momma," he says. "Just bring it in."
They hug each other tight, and Jimmy will sometimes wrestle his mother to the ground. Often, he will sing a little something, whatever comes to his head.
They'll get up and laugh.
They're always joking.
Annelle can't stand her son's hair. He is growing an Afro, constantly tending to it. He carries a comb around, running it through his hair while watching his older brother, Marcus, play basketball at Columbia College or while sitting on the couch with his family.
"I hate that thing," Annelle said. "It's a hot mess."
Her presence is acknowledged everywhere she goes. During Jimmy's games, she is typically up yelling. During one game, Marcus told her to calm down.
"I was thinking, 'Is he being disrespectful?'" Annelle said, recalling the moment. "But then I thought about it, and later we talked about it and he was right — I can't be yelling like that all the time."
Her attitude rubs off on her kids, and they have a close, respectful relationship.
But both boys are like their father, who typically takes his time.
Jimmy has a walk — slow, smooth, eyes wide open, seemingly noticing everything around him. That's just what people see. He'd be the first one to tell you he isn't thinking about much at all. He's not letting the whole recruiting thing get to him.
James and Annelle sat behind the Hickman bench at a recent home game while Burrell Watkins and her husband, Melvin, sat in the opposing bleachers.
Melvin Watkins is the Arkansas associate men's basketball coach, one of the bigger schools to offer Jimmy a scholarship. The Watkinses and Whitts have been close friends since Melvin was an assistant coach at Missouri from 2004 to 2011. Jimmy played basketball with Manuale Watkins, Marvin and Burrell's son, when Jimmy was 7. Manuale and Jimmy are close friends, and Manuale is now a freshman on the Arkansas basketball team.
NCAA rules prevent the two families from talking to each other while Arkansas is recruiting Whitt.
"I can't go talk to one of my best friends," Annelle said. "But that's just how it is."
If this relationship gives any indication of Arkansas being a front-runner in Jimmy's decision, he quickly shoots it down. He has no clue where he will go.
"During the day, I mainly think about school and females," Jimmy said, half joking but half serious. "You know, like a lot of teenage guys."
Supervising editor is Erik Hall.