Royce White will be called many things this season, but one of them should be brave. By publicly acknowledging his struggles with anxiety — and labeling it a form of mental illness — he has already cost himself hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps millions, after falling to 16th in the NBA draft, lower than a player of his basketball gifts would be expected to slip.
White also has put himself squarely in the public eye, which in the world of sports is akin to leaping into a snark tank. There will be fingers pointed, jibes about the special accommodations the Houston Rockets, who drafted White, are willing to make to allow him to ease his fear of flying among other anxieties. Because White is an athlete, someone will suggest that he just suck it up and tough it out.
As if a rookie in the NBA doesn’t have enough on his plate with a new home, new teammates and a new way of life?
What White, seemingly intelligent, aware and inquisitive if not troubled, has done is reveal himself as vulnerable, as human, something so few athletes are willing to do, at least until their career narrative is in need of a makeover.
LeBron James’ season of redemption came after he took a long, hard look in the mirror — eight years into his career and when his image was in the toilet.
Well, better late than never.
Among those keeping an eye on White will be someone whom the rookie also would be wise to watch, as long he learns from the missteps as well as the correct ones. Just don’t call Metta World Peace a role model.
“I’m an example,” World Peace said after a recent Lakers practice. “I’m not a role model. I want to be a role model and I’m definitely going to be, but it’s not a fact yet. Right now, I’m an example of what to do and what not to do — both.”
There may not be anybody in the NBA better equipped to understand what White has in store than the former Ron Artest. He is, by and large, one of the NBA’s greatest success stories, having transformed himself not just in name, but in image: from the anti-social, unhinged thug of Malice at the Palace infamy to reformed eccentric and NBA Citizen of the Year whose transformation is still a work in progress (see elbow, James Harden; and clothesline, J.J. Barea).
At the heart of his development has been World Peace’s willingness to get professional help — and make it OK for others to do the same. He is an outspoken advocate for mental health awareness, raffling off his 2010 NBA championship ring for $650,000 and donating the proceeds to various charities that focus on mental health.
World Peace, who also played for the Rockets, said that the NBA and the Players Association will be extremely helpful in making available counselors, advisors — anybody — who might help him. The problem, sometimes, is figuring out — as a public figure — just whom to listen to.
“It’s overwhelming,” World Peace said. “A lot of people want to help, want to give you advice, and there are a lot of people that don’t know what the HELL they’re talking about, especially a young up-and-coming psychologist, when this is a professional problem. You can’t be young and give professionals advice. It’s like the playoffs, man. You’ve got to be a really good coach. You can’t be some newcomer that doesn’t know what you’re talking about.”
World Peace said when he arrived in Sacramento six years ago, he was dysfunctional. He grew up in a family that did not communicate, so he rarely talked through things that bothered him, whether it was on the court or off it. He also had been unsure about what he wanted in life or basketball, what goals would satisfy him. Something — he could or would not say what — forced him to change.
He warmed to his coach, Rick Adelman, whom he respected and followed to Houston, and also to counseling. World Peace says he has seen 13 different counselors, finding his time with many of them essential.
“Keep getting good information,” World Peace said. “If something’s not working, get another psychologist and another one. A lot of them have different methods, and not all of them do the same things. People generalize too much. ‘You need anger management’ where maybe you need to become a better friend, a better brother, and that makes everything better. I knew something was wrong — when I wasn’t a good father, a good partner, that did bother me and not only did it bother me, it caused stress in the household and people saw this (in his behavior).”
Thus far, White’s anxiety over traveling on airplanes has gotten the most attention. When he transferred from Minnesota, where he grew up, to Iowa State, a major reason was because he could drive home. He missed the first week of the Rockets’ training camp while he could be assured that the team would allow him to take a bus, which he will buy, to certain road games.
World Peace said he overcame anxiety earlier in his career, though he declined to say what triggered it, and that a fear of flying is not uncommon among rookies. Turbulent flights, which terrified him as a rookie, still bother him, particularly when pilots do not alert everyone on the flight that it might be a rough flight.
“It’s definitely something you can overcome with different breathing exercises, different psychologists, different methods,” World Peace said. “It was very (expletive) hard, very hard, but I was able to do it. It takes years and years, but days turn into weeks and years and eventually it turns into clock. It’s perfectly normal to go through that, and not a bad normal.”
The road in front of him, much like the ones he travels by bus, will not be a straight line for White. There will be ups and downs and unexpected turns, but there is at least one example of a player who has asked for help and made good use of it. And that should be a comforting sign, that just because White is riding a bus instead of riding with his teammates, the destination ahead is not a dead end.