This is the second installment of our three-part Q&A with former Razorback guard Cannon Whitby (here's part one). In today's segment, Cannon, who now lives in Atlanta and is the senior vice president for sales at Sysco Atlanta, discusses his relationship with the Richardson family and the lasting impact that the late Yvonne Richardson has had on his life.
Expats: Your freshman season, you guys go to the NIT and barely beat Arkansas State. And then your senior year, you’re playing Duke in the Final Four. What was like to be a part of a program that was making such a steady climb?
Whitby: It was moving. It was impressive. I learned a lot about managing people, about recruiting talent. It’s helped me in trying to build a sales force and have one of the best sales forces out there.
Coach did a phenomenal job recruiting talent and keeping them on the court and coaching them to play as a team. It’s hard to coach talent to play as a team, in anything that you’re doing, but he was one of the best I’ve ever seen at doing that. You’ve got a gift when you can do that.
One person that really helped in those years was his wife Rose. We still call her “Mom.” She was phenomenal. She had all the guys out to eat at her house on Sundays. She pretty much mothered all of us when we were playing up there. She knew that we had all left home and left our moms. She knew how important that was.
Even to this day, she’s still very close to a lot of the players that I played with. That says a lot.
Expats: Are you still in touch with the Richardsons?
Whitby: Oh, yeah.
Expats: How often do you talk to them?
Whitby: At least a couple times a year. We were up there for a semi-reunion last year that [former Razorback assistant coach Wayne] Stehlik put together for a luncheon. But, yeah, I still keep in touch with them as much as I can with having my own children and a job.
Expats: Give a sense of some of the personalities of the guys that you played with. Who was the funniest teammate? And maybe who served as a mentor to you, or was somebody that you really looked up to?
I hadn’t seen him for probably four or five years when we went back up there for that reunion luncheon, and he hadn’t changed a bit. He’s back in Memphis, Tenn. You can’t stay around him and not laugh. He was by far the funniest.
As far as the players I looked up to, there were a few of them. But probably the person that I looked up to the most was Coach’s daughter, Yvonne Richardson. She was diagnosed with cancer at 13 and passed away at 15.
I would always continue shooting after practice. I would always look up at the top of the gymnasium and, for some reason, Yvonne and Mrs. Richardson were sitting up there watching. I always thought that they were just waiting on Coach to get done.
After one road game — I can’t remember exactly which one, only that I was unhappy with my performance — I’m on the plane and we’re coming back, and I’m frustrated and mad and angry – all of the typical symptoms.
I guess Mrs. Richardson knew it – she was on the plane with us. She said, “Little Whit, come here.” Yvonne nicknamed me “Little Whit,” and that’s what Coach calls me to this day. She said, “Did you ever see Yvonne and I up there?” I said, “Yeah, I thought you were waiting on Coach.”
She said, “No, Yvonne loved watching you shoot after practice because to her, she could not believe with your size that you could run and play at this level with these bigger kids. So, we would sit up there and watch you, and we would bet on how many you were going to hit and shoot and all that stuff.”
She said, “I think it’s time for me to tell you a story about Yvonne.” I said, “OK.” I tell a lot of people this story to this day.
She said, “Yvonne was in the hospital one night, and she looked at me, and she said, ‘Mom, I want to tell you something. I have never given up. I want you to tell Dad that I have never given up a fight, and I’m not giving up right now. But, I cannot stand to see what this is doing to you and doing to Dad. Dad’s traveling back and forth, and you’re here all the time. I can’t stand what it’s doing to you two. One of these days, I will see Dad going through Barnhill Arena and everybody clapping and yelling for him, and cheering him and loving him. But I’m not going to see it here. I want you and Dad to know that I love you, and I want you to let me go.’”
Her mom said, “I looked back at her, and I said, ‘Baby, I love you so if you want me to let you go, I’ll let you go.’” Yvonne then passed away.
The things that that story has taught me are unreal. You have a 15-year-old girl that cares that much about other people — I don’t know of any other story that I’ve ever heard that has stuck with me like that.
Her mom looked at me and said, “How much does that game really mean to you now? You’ve got your health, you’re on a good team, you’re a young kid, you’ve got a lot going for you. It’s not that big of a deal.”
It’s molded me to this day. I’m still pretty competitive. That’s why I like sales. But at the end of the day, it’s still about caring for people and keeping your eye on the big picture. I’ve got a wonderful wife that I met at the University of Arkansas and two wonderful kids and a good career, and I’ve got my health — it becomes hard to get down.
Yvonne was probably as big an inspiration to me as any player was while I was up there. She believed in me, and what she has done for me is pretty amazing.
When I went back for the reunion last year, I found myself sitting down and talking to Rose about Yvonne.
Expats: To what extent were you guys aware of the severity of what Yvonne was going through? How much could you see it weighing on Coach Richardson?
Whitby: He is really good about not showing his emotions, so you couldn’t see it in him that much. But you could feel it. You’ve got to admire him. I probably admire him more now because today I have a 13-year-old daughter, and I can’t imagine going through the career transformation that he was going through, the sickness with his daughter, and the challenges that he was facing all at the same time, and still fighting it hard enough to get through and come out on top.