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Between career and cause: the zero-sum game of Royce White

Royce White is anything but your average NBA player. For starters, he has a tattoo of Frank Sinatra, he has hands as wide as soup bowls and long, well-muscled arms. A 6’8 forward with the handle of a point guard and the rebounding ability of a big man. Who was the last guy who fit those parameters at the time of being drafted into the NBA? The biggest physical outlier in basketball today, LeBron James.

The GM of his current team, the Houston Rockets, called him one of the top-5 talents in the 2012 draft. And yet White was only selected 16th – and even called a gamble by the same GM – despite his unique skill-set. It’s because Royce White has a generalized anxiety disorder (‘personality issues’ or ‘headcase’, in common NBA parlance). And this, not basketball, is the most important thing in his life.

The NBA, like most professional sports, is underpinned by masculinist tropes. Weakness is unacceptable, as are other qualities held to be at odds with a parochial notion of masculinity and strength. As Truehoop’s Henry Abbott points out, players do get scared at times, some of them are likely homosexuals, some of them are weak and succumb to pressures, externally and internally.

The NBA is remarkably tolerant and understanding of physical injuries but mental illness is a no-fly zone.  The area no testosterone pumping athlete can venture into. Because masculinity refuses to acknowledge illnesses that make no sense, that can’t be trapped in a cast or sling, that do not show up in X-rays. And these, very often, are illnesses that take lives – through depression or psychosis.

2012 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot

The effects of anxiety disorders (and its accompaniments – panic attacks, depression etc.) can vary from person to person. They’re scary because of the intense viscerality of the  experience; they cannot be rationally explained away because the dis-junction between words and meaning is too great in these cases. How does White feel?

“Panic after panic after panic…It feels like you’re dying”, he says, in a thoroughly matter-of-fact tone. Royce White isn’t the first talented athlete to suffer from this. He is one among the few to publicly announce his illness before entering the NBA, thereby risking millions of dollars in salary. But his agenda appears to be something other than – and one is tempted to say more than – just basketball.

His Twitter bio reads: “Im #HUMAN 1st and foremost, THEN….Humanitarian, Writer and Imaginer.” That is how he sees himself, an ‘imaginer’. After a largely successful high school career, White enrolled at his home state University of Minnesota. He didn’t play a single minute of basketball there.

After being involved in two alleged incidents of theft and a fifth-degree assault on a security officer, White dropped out of college and spent the next six months locked up in a studio composing music. See, basketball was a lot of things, but it wasn’t his life, unlike the rhetoric of most professional athletes. He’s a ‘human first’.

Eventually, he got back to playing basketball for an Iowa State team that made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Royce posted ten double-doubles and one incredible triple-double (only the fourth in the school’s history), even holding his own against UK star and #1 pick Anthony Davis, posting 23 points and 9 rebounds in the second round loss. His talent is unquestionable. But, as Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski writes, “the NBA will never be played on his terms. He isn’t good enough.”

Since being drafted by the Rockets, White hasn’t played a single minute in the regular season. In fact, for the past month, he has not been training with the team. The Rockets, led by their unorthodox GM Daryl Morey, have been trying to figure out the terms under which White can practice with the team.

When White wanted to ride a bus to certain games on account of his fear of flying, the Rockets redid his contract such that the team would bear the financial burden for this. The team has attempted, constantly, to reach out to Royce, but for some reason a solution has not been reached.

A number of his detractors point out that Royce started skipping practices and workouts right after he was assigned to the D-league (the NBA’s developmental league). Perhaps this is a coincidence, they argue, but Royce’s refusal to comply with any of his obligations to the team only reflect his immaturity and refusal to accept his own mediocrity.

This mental illness, in such an argument, is little more than a crutch. Even if he does want to use his basketball fame as a spokesperson for mental illness, he cannot do that by not playing basketball. As the weeks have passed, Houston fans have grown tired of ‘Waiting for Godot’, and with good reason. Most other NBA teams would have bailed on White – perhaps not even drafted and signed him in the first place.

Houston Rockets v New Orleans Hornets

But the thing is, Royce White has time and again shown that he is about more than basketball. A little more than a month back, Royce (before a meeting with Rockets management) said in an interview to ESPN:

“I’d rather tell them on the front end and be honest and transparent and never play again for that than allow me to become one of the stories because I wasn’t able to communicate.”

Basketball may not even be his biggest passion. In an interview with Grantland’s Jonathan Abrams: “But at this point if I had to choose one or the other, I don’t know if I could choose basketball. Music is more worldly. It’s more effective. It helps more people.”

Above all, it’s clear that Royce’s first cause is not his commitment to basketball but to a global cognizance of mental illness and its  debilitating effects. His vision and imagination is humanitarian first, which may be at odds with the intense competitiveness we’ve come to ask of our sports stars.

#AnxietyTroopers is the hashtag he founded on twitter, and everyday his profile addresses issues related to mental illness. He is already a champion for the cause. The reason he most consistently gives for the inability to reach a compromise with the Rockets is the lack of a protocol in place to deal with injuries such as his. A tweet reads: “Workplaces without #mentalhealth protocol, potentially pose very dangerous threats for those who suffer & those who don’t.”

And Royce is completely right. The NBA is not equipped to handle a case such as his. The NBA is in a sense, like the army. Most players are expected to assimilate into a particular culture. Only the superstars – a handful of players – are bigger than the organizations. What happens to the likes of Delonte West and Ron Artest? Three strikes and you’re out! Teams routinely employ small legions of training staff for physical fitness. Perhaps there is one psychologist in their ranks (if that), and that is the support infrastructure available for people like Royce.

Perhaps Royce is not good enough to make it big in the NBA; one gets the sense that he doesn’t care. What is clear is that he joined the Rockets only on his own terms. His refusal to join the team is ostensibly political; he refuses to affirm the legitimacy of a system that cannot put in place viable ‘protocols’ to ensure the well-being of him, and others like him.It makes no sense that a player of his skill and potential otherwise wouldn’t just take the D-league assignment and eventually make it back to the Rockets roster. He’s too good to not be at least a rotation player in the league and it’s likely that he knows this.

At the same time, basketball is not bigger than his fight against mental illness. In other words, his commitment to the game is not the deciding factor in any decision. He doesn’t want to join the league and then act as role model or success story, he wants the league to improve its support systems before he will join it. He believes the NBA is not worth playing in otherwise. If this is the case, it is a noble and idealistic choice. But in the end, it could prove to be a choice that costs him his career.

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