Men’s basketball forward Reggie Willhite ’12 was not always destined to wear the Yale jersey. Upon graduation from Woodside Priory School in Portola Valley, Calif., in 2007, Willhite contemplated enrolling in the United States Air Force Academy and taking his basketball talents there. Willhite took a postgraduate year because he started the recruiting process with Air Force a bit late, but two weeks into his postgraduate year at Exeter in New Hampshire, Willhite committed to play for Yale.
Four years later, Willhite is not only a standout player on the team, he is also the team’s captain who has earned the admiration of his teammates.
Teammates said Willhite is a competitor who makes big plays and inspires those around him. They attribute his success on the court to his work ethic.
“The freshmen and sophomores have confidence in themselves because he has confidence in them,” center Greg Mangano ’12 said.
Guard Austin Morgan ’13 explained that announcers call him ‘Highlight Willhite’ because he always makes the play that is the highlight of the game. In Yale’s Feb. 4 58–54 victory over Princeton, Willhite brought the crowd to its feet when he dunked the ball. The following week, he was recognized on the Ivy Honor Roll for his 20 points and nine rebounds in the game.
And in the Bulldogs 59–58 win at Columbia on Feb. 11, Willhite scored 24 points over the course of the game to help the Bulldogs come back from a 21-point deficit in the last 12 minutes of the second half. With 13 seconds left on the clock, his layup secured Yale’s one-point victory.
“He provides energy for the team both with his play and his leadership,” said head coach James Jones. “He leads by playing hard and doing everything the right way.”
But for Willhite, this confidence on the court has not always come easily. Willhite faced numerous injuries in his freshman season at Yale, scoring four total points in eight appearances off the bench.
Willhite said that he went home to Elk Grove, Calif. after freshman year determined to hone his athleticism. He spent the summer running and training in a program with international basketball professionals.
And his work paid off. By his sophomore year, Willhite saw his playing time increase, and he finished the season fourth on the team in steals with 37. Unfortunately, Willhite faced another setback when he tore his LCL after the season. Willhite overcame the injury and again pushed himself over the summer. By his junior year, Willhite began to prove his capabilities on the court, Mangano said. He finished first in the Ivy League with 28 steals in conference games and scored a career-high 21 points to lead the Bulldogs to a 87–81 double-overtime victory at Columbia. Willhite started all 28 games and received the team’s most improved player award at the conclusion of the season.
“Since freshman year, he has improved every facet of his game, from his shooting to his ball handling,” Jones said.
As a senior, Willhite is second on the team and eighth in the league in scoring with 12.5 points per game. He leads the league with 2.2 steals per game.
Willhite, a political science major and Morse College resident, has not put an expiration date on his career. Throughout college, Willhite has trained with everyone from New York Knicks guard Landry Fields to Olympic gold medalist Christian Laettner. These athletes have given Willhite unique opportunities to improve his skills. Willhite is determined to follow in the footsteps of these professionals. His dad, Reggie Willhite Sr., whom Willhite calls before every game, is helping him to pursue a professional basketball career. Willhite said he could possibly play overseas or get tryouts with NBA Development League or NBA teams.
But enjoying his time on the court and helping the Bulldogs to complete the season is his current focus, Willhite said.
The Bulldogs are ranked third in the Ivy League and take on sixth-ranked Columbia at home Friday at 7 p.m.