By: Daniel Reynolds
Royce White has a problem. Earlier this year the Houston Rockets, home of Linsanity and the Beard that is feared, drafted Mr. White with the 16th overall pick. A dream come true, right? Well, there have been complications.
Heading into the draft it was generally acknowledged that White, having averaged 13.4 points, 9.3 rebounds and 5 assists while shooting 53% from the field for Iowa State, had the potential to be a valuable contributor on a top level team in today’s NBA; a league that values players with multifaceted skill sets, speed, finesse, power and vision. I can imagine the delight passing over scout’s faces as they watched a 6’8” forward who could run the floor, rebound and demonstrate a keen court sense. But then, the draft came and White fell out of the lottery, he slid down to, as mentioned, the 16th pick; a place usually reserved for the hopeful gambles, the workaday players, solid backups. Sure, there are All-Stars drafted at 16, but there are a lot more busts.
The disconnect? White has been, and continues to be, very open about his struggle with anxiety disorder.
Now, you’re not going to believe this but the world of professional sports does not exactly have a sterling history of dealing with any health issues that fall outside of its usual knee-and-shoulder surgery purview. Hell, it is just now when pro sports leagues are getting around to dealing with the fallout from concussions; and, while the NBA has largely cleaned up the serious drug problems of the 70s and 80s, let’s try not to think too hard about how many primes were cut down due to miscommunication or apathy.
In this light, White represents something of an anomaly. Not in the ‘troubled but with potential’-sense, because Lord knows the NBA is not shy about drafting players that could be fearsome on the court if they could only get out of their own way, but because of his stunning openness and willingness to lay bare what most of the macho world of athletes are conditioned to keep private. There have been some noteworthy cases as of late, such as Metta World Peace and Delonte West, who have stepped forward to talk about mental illness; but one can’t help but notice that they chose to talk about their respective heads after their bodies had gone through the majority of a career. For better or worse, White is risking it all now, right from the start.
How does this story end for White? His crusade on Twitter has found many supporters but also detractors. And of course, many struggle with the idea that a talented young man, drafted into the peak of his profession, would throw it all away so easily simply because, as many believe, he won’t “tough it out”. For their part, the Rockets appear to be trying to open the lines of communication and I want to believe that GM Daryl Morey is trying to help and accommodate as much as the NBA business world allows. For example, much has been said about White’s apparent fear of flying, so the Rockets have tried to allow for road travel where possible, an unprecedented move (not counting the heady ABA days of old). The plot thickens however upon reading that White has apparently missed out on team obligations (practices, workouts, games) and recently declined – can a player even do that? – a demotion to the D-League. What does this mean? Are White’s assertions that the Rockets have misled him and not communicated properly correct? Is he taking a stand for fair treatment or is this, as Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski believes, just more entitlement?
One of the reasons that young professional athletes are told to get tough is not just because they can look forward to a routine of pummeling their bodies in practices, workouts and games but because the pro sports business world requires a certain thick skin. A guy like Charles Barkley, preternaturally talented but also caustic, clever and indifferent to criticism, can thrive, while a sad case like Greg Oden, gifted with a huge if fragile body and an even more delicate mind, could not. White has been tiptoeing this line, between Barkley (in boldness, if not talent) and Oden, in real time on Twitter; opening himself up to all kinds of abuse while searching for some sort of peace with, it appears, the Rockets organization, his inner state and professional sports as a job on the whole.
Moving forward then, perhaps White’s problem could become one of perception as he develops into a pariah on his own team and in his new city. He’ll be branded as the guy with all the talent who wasted it not by doing drugs, or committing some felonious crime, but rather, because he couldn’t deal with crippling levels of anxiety. Read that sentence again. We expect pro athletes, the young, rich and physically powerful, to be able to smash through any earthly limitation, to strive for excellence in the pursuit of using their God given talents (the talents denied 99% of the rest of the population) to their maximum. Maybe it is just hard for our society to accept that a man with everything to lose, would expose his weakness, fail to grit his teeth, and instead ask for help. It feels too human, a problem too common to be accepted.
So, what is Royce White’s problem? And more importantly, can the NBA, the Houston Rockets and White work together to solve it? Perhaps even more damning: what does it mean if they can’t?