Iowa State’s White had to leave home to grow

MINNEAPOLIS — Staring out from Royce White’s right shoulder is a red-eyed lion, multicolored and stretched over rippling muscles. “THERE ARE NO PACTS BETWEEN LIONS AND MEN,” it reads. It’s both philosophical and disturbing, the drawing a little too real and the words a shade too vague.

It’s as if the lion, the tattoos, something, anything might devour White at any moment.

White is 6-foot-8, hulking, tall. A normal-sized person is on eye level with his chest, with those red-ink eyes. They’re angry, aggressive, hungry. They’ve likely expanded in recent months as White’s shoulders and chest have ballooned into NBA shape. Maybe they weren’t always so prominent, so haunting. Or maybe that’s the point.

They’re so different from the set just a few feet above. Where they are piercing, White’s are distant. Where they bulge, White’s smile.

And yet it works. It’s the tattoo of someone fiercer than Royce White the person. It’s the tattoo of Royce White the Iowa State basketball star, the flawed teenager turned 21-year-old pro prospect. It’s the tattoo of a fighter, of a person hungry for something beyond just what he’s due.

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An athlete becomes a star through distinct moments. They make careers and doom the thousands of men who’ve faded into has-beens. They’re championships and improbable victories as often as they’re mistakes from which it’s impossible to recover. 

When an athlete makes it, the public moments shine. The mistakes are there, too, but they’re the instances that so few remember, so few even knew of.

Not for Royce White.

As White prepares for the NBA draft on June 28, perhaps the most important day of his career thus far, he’s grasping at more and more national relevance. Royce White the college star was born this winter, capped off by a second-round NCAA tournament loss to Kentucky during which he scored 23 points. It was Iowa State’s first tournament berth since 2005, and the redshirt freshman could claim a good share of the responsibility for his team’s success. A few performances like that, and there he was, appearing in mock drafts and among the names of candidates for major awards.

Yet no one had really seen him develop, not in the way most players of his caliber compete their way to the top. Because even as White travels the country, working out for a succession of NBA teams who will ultimately decide where he’ll fall next Thursday, he’s still remembered for the moments he faltered, the ones that should have been failures.

White has struggled in public and flourished while hidden, tucked away in Ames, Iowa. He’s known for everything that hinders him, the struggles and the mistakes, and yet somehow, he’s one of the most poised and talented players in this year’s crop of prospects.

It makes so little sense.

White is Minnesota’s native son. He’s the 2009 Mr. Basketball, the star who won Hopkins High School a state championship in his senior year. But he’s also the teenager who transferred from DeLaSalle High School after three years and a state championship, a kid who hadn’t quite adjusted.

He’s the should-have-been Gophers star who never got the chance to begin his career for Tubby Smith’s team. He’s remembered for a shoplifting incident at the Mall of America that earned him an indefinite suspension from the Gophers program in October 2009. He’s remembered for his association with a laptop theft a month later and his YouTube video titled “Royce White-The Last Interview” that unofficially announced his departure from the University of Minnesota that November.

He’s remembered for the story that he couldn’t muster enough nerve to travel to Kentucky to sign with John Calipari’s top-tier squad. First, it was rumored to be because of White’s anxiety disorder, then later that it was because he was soon to be a father at 19.

Royce White is remembered for all the things that should have made him fall into oblivion, his name the stuff of fraying, faded high school championship banners and little else. The people and environment that prevented that downfall were obscured, tucked out of the spotlight in Ames. They were too mundane, apparently, to garner notice — until now.

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Michigan State’s Draymond Green has been working out with White throughout the predraft process. They were together in Minneapolis on June 12, each familiar with the other after initially being recruited to Big Ten schools. They’ve been competing against each other in gym after gym, forced together during the most crucial weeks of their lives.

They work out together, drive to airports together, fly together.

Yes, fly. The magic word.

In March, White made news when he elected to drive with his grandfather to Louisville for Iowa State’s tournament games rather than fly with the team. White and Iowa State had become national news with their tournament berth, and talk of White’s anxiety renewed. It was such a spectacularly different story that it was hard to ignore, and yet the debate strengthened at a time when White had long moved past many of the demons of his disorder. The issue had become public months before.

Even now, as White stands before scouts and general managers across the country, in locations that would be impossible for him to reach in such rapid succession without stepping foot on airplanes, the questions haven’t stopped. Of course he took a plane to get there, unless of course he relied on NASA. Or magic. It’s all getting redundant, not just to White but even to Green.

“He’s been fine on the planes,” Green said. “It’s not my business to sit there and watch him on the plane. I have things that I do on the plane as well. We’ve just got to worry about when we get there, how we compete with each other.”

For now, anxiety has to take a backseat to reality, to the goals White is so close to achieving. But no matter how many times White talks about his struggles, no matter how open he is about them, the questions remain — even if they have now become something of a blessing to the 21-year-old.

White was one of the best interviews at the Chicago draft combine, and part of his ease in such situations is a direct result of going public with his anxiety. Instead of hiding it, he owns it. It’s a condition that’s shaped his career, and he’s obviously at no loss of words to explain and debate it.

So he does. The teams ask, and White answers, as openly and honestly as he can.

“I tell them what I know, which is not much,” White said. “I’ve only known I had it for three years, and I’m still learning. Everybody’s kind of still learning about it.”

That approach worked well with Minnesota Timberwolves general manager David Kahn, who said that he came away from his interview with White under the impression that the forward has his anxiety under control and that it won’t be much of an issue.

“Royce, to his credit, is very up-front about it and very candid about it and willing to talk about it,” Kahn said. “It’s not as if you feel there’s a lot of things to be learned by talking to secondary sources. I think that he’s very comfortable talking about it himself.”

White’s anxiety has shaped him, but he’s never allowed it to break him. Of course the stories of abandoned plane rides and 10-hour cross-country drives are the ones that stick, but White remains solidly among the top prospects in this year’s draft in spite of it all. Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said that going public with the issue helped White immensely, and he’s channeled his anxiety not only into helping himself but also into working to inspire others with similar problems.

“I’ll say this: Royce is in a pretty good place right now in his life, and I think some of it is the fact that he’s gone public and talked about it,” Hoiberg said.

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On June 14, just two days after White’s workout for the Timberwolves, Fred Hoiberg expected him in his office. White is using Ames as a home base as he travels around the country for draft workouts, returning to the place where he surreptitiously transformed from a lost cause into the 2012 Big 12 Newcomer of the Year.

Dealing with his anxiety is just one part of the transition that’s brought White to the place Hoiberg described. In fact, Hoiberg played a large part in White’s growth, not only on the court but also into a person who’s equipped to deal with the challenges that could threaten his career.

During his two years at Iowa State, White was eligible to compete for only one season after losing an appeal with the NCAA to play in 2010-11. He still practiced, though, and watched. He was on the bench as the team finished with a 16-16 record that first season, but instead of moping, White used his second year away from competition as an opportunity to improve in a different way.

“I would say that sitting out really helped me a lot,” White said. “I was able to watch the game from the sidelines and see what made teams successful and teams unsuccessful. So that was more so what helped me, even more than getting away from home.”

So maybe it was less about escaping bad influences and memories in Minneapolis and more about the positive he found in Ames. Regardless, White began to broaden his horizons beyond just the sport, playing the piano often after teaching the instrument to himself after he left the University of Minnesota. He also spent hours talking with Hoiberg, wandering into his office and debating “everything in life except for basketball,” the coach said.

It was in those years that White learned to deal with his anxiety. He began to talk about it, first with Hoiberg and then with people outside of the program, others who were going through the same thing. As he got a break from the pressures of being Royce White, the hometown star who’d messed up, he thrived. No one was asking what had happened to him, worrying about his mistakes or talking about what should have been. He wasn’t quite forgotten, but he got a few moments to hide.

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No one got to see White grow into a star. He was suspended and departed the Gophers’ program in his hometown, where the spotlight is cruelest. He shipped off to a school that hadn’t been a contender since the late 1990s, and that was it.

It’s so easy to forget White had been talked about as a potential first-round draft pick since he was in high school, that so much can change with environment and attitude. With that in mind, it’s easier to believe the way in which White burst onto the college basketball team last winter. He led the Cyclones in points, assists, rebounds, blocked shots and steals. He was also sixth in the Big 12 in assists and second in rebounds, posting numbers in those categories similar to those of Kansas star Thomas Robinson.

The numbers were one thing, but for White, the chance to play overshadowed everything else.

“It was fulfilling,” White said. “It definitely filled the void that I had for the year before and a little bit before that.”

White can’t take any of this for granted, and he knows it. That’s why at this point, he said, he’ll be happy if he’s drafted 60th. He’s done everything he can to assure teams that his past issues aren’t obstacles, but it’s out of his hands.

In fact, for someone who’s supposedly so wracked with apprehension and nerves over things he can’t control, White is handling the draft process well. He’s the kind of player who can fill so many roles, technically a power forward but versatile enough to play small forward, Hoiberg said. Between White’s versatility and teams’ shifting needs, it’s impossible to predict where he’ll end up on June 28, but with Hoiberg’s experience in the NBA and White’s talent level, he’s prepared as best he can be.

In recent weeks, White has expressed a desire to return home and play for the Timberwolves. Although Hoiberg, who worked in the Timberwolves front office before taking the Cyclones job, hasn’t talked specifically to Kahn about White, he does know of his player’s desire to return home. It can’t come as much of a surprise.

Home has always been central for White, even as he left for the first time in 2010. Hoiberg always sensed that he chose Iowa State because it was just a three-and-a-half-hour drive down I-35. White may have needed to escape, but he never wanted to go that far.

Now, two years after he left, White would love nothing more than to get a second chance to play in front of hometown fans. These are the people who cheered him in high school, the ones who were supposed to come to Williams Arena to watch his debut in 2009. He wants to get another shot at playing for them after he lost his first chance.

These are the people who watched as Royce White came so close to crumbling. They’re the ones who remember him leaving, who watched that YouTube video he posted. They know about his mistakes and his suspension. They watched it all, examined it and lamented it.

Now, he wants to give them new memories. Royce White is a college star, and so far nothing more. He could just as easily be picked by the Celtics or Kings (or Spurs or Bucks or Heat or anyone else) as the Timberwolves, but there’s still a chance. However small, there’s still a chance for him to become Royce White the NBA star in front of the people he most wants to please.

He’ll do it right this time.


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