I don’t mean to sound crass, even though I know I will. I don’t mean to diminish anything important, even though I know that’s how some will take it.
I am not criticizing Royce White for having anxiety issues. He can’t help that any more than someone can help having a strained quadriceps. He has shown considerable bravery in revealing his struggle to the world, and deserves the praise he’s received for that.
For this column to work, I need everybody to be able to hold in their head two separate ideas, and treat both of them equally.
1) Royce White deserves support and empathy as he seeks to overcome his mental health issues, and should be commended for using his fame as a basketball player to fight the stigma of a problem so many people are afraid to admit they have.
2) Royce White didn’t even make it to the very first day of the very first training camp of his NBA career because of his anxiety issues, which means Royce White’s problem officially became the Houston Rockets’ problem.
This is going to sound cold, but that’s only because professional sports are a cold world: The Rockets can’t be expected to deal with this any more than they should be expected to deal with someone with a heart issue or a blown-out knee. For practical purposes – and those are the purposes that matter in pro sports – Royce White is an injured player. He either gets healthy or he doesn’t.
The NBA waits for no man.
White has a two-year guarantee on a contract worth $2.8 million, so for at least the next two years it is in the Rockets’ best interest to do whatever they can to help White become a useful player.
Trouble is, there isn’t much the Rockets can do if he isn’t at practice. They can perhaps accommodate him in certain small ways, but ultimately they’ve got other players to coach, trades to make, games to play, an organization to run.
The Rockets can teach him to defend the pick-and-roll, but they can’t treat his anxiety.
Let’s not forget, this is the No. 16 pick in the draft we’re talking about. It’s an overstatement to say the Rockets were counting on White – they have two other young players who they drafted in nearly the same spot and play the same position – but you don’t take a flyer in the middle of the first round.
There is a telling scene in a documentary White did with Grantland. It is from his draft party, which he was too anxious to attend. While it was happening on a gym floor at Iowa State, White was up in the coaches’ offices. His agent called to let him know where he stood, and the news was not good.
“Philladelphia’s out, OK?” he said. “Houston’s out at 16, Dallas is out at 17. If (Kevin) McHale can pull this off, Houston’s a question mark at 18. The rest of the room is against you, OK? … The rest of the room, other than McHale, says you’re too risky.”
This is a player with top-10 talent. His game is as unique as his personality, and that had something to do with all this too. It is difficult to know exactly what to do with White, who is a bulky 6-foot-8 power forward with the ball skills of a point guard.
But he was a terrorizing force in the Big 12, and a tantalizing prospect in the draft. The only thing that made NBA teams worry was White’s tendency to worry. He is particularly afraid of conditioning runs (from having seen a teammate collapse during one at a young age), crowds and flights. As an NBA player, conditioning runs, crowds and flights make up about 75 percent of your daily existence. When he was 18, his doctor hold him basketball might not be the best path for him.
Remarkably – maybe heroically – White has overcome his disorder to this point. There are conditioning runs, crowds and flights in major-college basketball too, and he was an outstanding college basketball player. He has shown remarkable determination and courage, and here’s hoping he can show those things again and realize his potential in basketball. Maybe he’s back tomorrow and this whole thing is forgotten.
But it is one thing to play at Iowa State, and be the best player on the team, and live in a town of 59,000, where a local boy named Fred Hoiberg is the head coach, and where everybody knows their own success is unbreakably linked to your own. College basketball players are coddled like nobody else in sports. There are only about 15 of them per team to keep track of, and there are at least that many staffers keeping track. College basketball waits for some men, and White was such a man.
Regardless of which school they went to, former college basketball players always refer to that program as a family. Most of them experience some culture shock when they hit the NBA. Because guess what: That veteran forward you look up to? That lottery pick from the year before? They know you’re coming for their jobs.
As far as I know, Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris and Terrence Jones are all swell guys and they might even like White. He seems like a likable guy. But all four of them are not going to be playing for the Rockets two years from now, and they know that. They might not all be on the Rockets two weeks from now.
The proverbial plane has left, and White wasn’t on it. This was what Houston feared. This was why everybody in the draft room but McHale was against him. The fear that White could not overcome his fear.
So, naturally, we wonder what happens now. What do the Rockets owe White? What is their responsibility to him? Well, this won’t make anybody feel good, but here’s the situation: This is the business world. The Rockets owe Royce White $2.8 million, and Royce White owes the Rockets a forward.