On March 6th, Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love published “Everyone Is Going Through Something”, a personal essay on coming to terms with an anxiety disorder. A week earlier, Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan revealed in an interview with the Toronto Star that he has been living with depression and anxiety throughout his NBA career. Love, inspired by DeRozan’s courage to speak, chose to go public and give context to a peculiar moment from earlier in the season when he left a November game during the third quarter. Love reveals in his essay for The Players’ Tribune that he was, in fact, having a panic attack.
DeRozan’s and Love’s honesty have had a thunderously positive impact: athletes and non-athletes alike have come out in droves, thanking them for being genuine on a topic generally understood as taboo in sports–ironically, a topic that afflicts tens of millions of Americans yearly.
If it’s okay for an MVP candidate in DeRozan and an NBA champion in Love to be candid about mental health, it’s okay for anyone to be–right? In 2018, it’s looking to be true. But in 2012? Not even close.
Royce White was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder at age 17. At the same time, he was en route to stardom. Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball 2009 could have kept quiet about his condition, faked a smile for the cameras, and carried on like any tough, masculine jock pining for recognition by the NCAA. Thankfully, White didn’t do any of these things. Royce was open about his mental health from day one, learning to control his symptoms for the sake of his wellbeing and in the context of basketball.
White would find his way to Iowa State University, where he’d put to bed any suspicion about a diagnosed mental illness affecting outstanding skill and pure love for the game. Royce proved in no time that the combination of proper self-management of his G.A.D., consultation with therapists, and–most crucially–cooperative teammates and accommodating coaches was the key to his personal achievements, and ultimately Iowa State’s success. In one year of play for the Cyclones, Royce White would become the only player in the nation to lead his team in all five major statistical categories; he was unanimously voted Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, and led the Cyclones to the third round of the NCAA tournament. In March 2012, Royce declared for the NBA Draft.
NBA fans may remember Royce White as a bust of a draft pick by the Houston Rockets. White is surely memorialized by some as a stubborn, entitled rookie undeserving of an NBA salary; a young buck with a debilitating fear of flying; a waste of Daryl Morey’s energy. In truth, Royce White’s public narrative was manipulated and his NBA career sabotaged. And in truly twisted fashion, it took Kevin Love’s victory of a mental health confession to bring Royce White back to our NBA consciousness.
On March 20th, Royce White appeared on Dave Zirin’s Edge of Sports podcast to clear the air and tell his truth. White discusses his version of the falling-out with the NBA.
Royce reveals that being open about his anxiety disorder in college was a great choice: he received an outpouring of support from his Iowa State family. He does, though, attribute this to his good play and the team’s subsequent success. If Royce were less talented, perhaps he’d have been received differently by his college community. In any case, he was warned often: “this is gonna hinder you going forward [into the NBA]”. White, initially projected to be a top-5 draft pick, recalls the media spin on his life; he started to believe he wouldn’t be drafted at all.
Royce White disclosed his anxiety disorder long before the draft. NBA scouts had plenty of notice, and ample opportunity to learn about how Royce’s mental illness could be managed in an NBA framework. But the NBA’s absent mental health policy and complete ignorance of potentially affected players dominated Royce’s narrative.
During a pre-draft workout with the Miami Heat, the first thing Royce was asked about was his anxiety and fear of heights. His condition often affected his ability to fly, but flying wasn’t Royce’s be-all end-all. He was concerned with more than just planes and buses. However, the prospect of being bused to games, as opposed to flying with the team, was shot down before White could even ask about it. He was told by an unnamed member of the Heat organization, “you wouldn’t even be able to drive to Orlando” if drafted by them. This was contemptuous and clear intimidation, rooted not in consultation with a single medical professional, but in irrational fear. White reveals that many within the NBA feared White “setting a precedent” that would influence other players to fake mental illness to get out of playing while still collecting a paycheck. Royce found this idea alarming, as anyone should. But he is thoughtful enough to consider the notion, and argues that any player who would go to such a length “may just not have the tools to articulate why [he wouldn’t] want to play”, further indicting the NBA’s negligence.
Royce White didn’t slip into the late second round like the media compelled him to believe he would. On June 28, 2012, White was drafted by the Rockets with the 16th pick. Thus began the next chapter of his basketball life, but not without controversy.
Royce tells Zirin that members of Houston’s front office approached him to discuss options for team travel and not much else; it was suggested that the NBA was struggling to develop pertinent mental health policy. It was decided among Rockets officials that special conditions would have to be set up for Royce, and he could possibly travel by bus to and from away games. White describes Rockets general counsel Rafael Stone as a remarkably helpful ally, much different from the rest of the business team. But White further explains that Stone was overconfident that the rest of the league would agree to the Rockets’ arrangements for Royce.
Royce was later told that bus travel would, in fact, be impossible. According to Rockets officials, the team would be subject to penalties including millions in fines. Making accommodations for a preexisting medical condition was suddenly a “salary cap infringement”. Royce points out that it’s not as if he was requesting a private jet or a Lamborghini–he was courageously requesting measures in order to take care of himself and contribute to an NBA team desperate for roster improvement. The NBA made it clear: they chose to abuse their abhorrent conceptualization of mental health instead of dealing with the specific health-related needs of one player. But at the end of the day, it’s not just about Royce. It’s about every NBA player, past, present, and future.
Long-term, Royce White was ready to effect structural change to the NBA. It wasn’t about a bus. It was about a general ignorance of mental health and the denial of a space for him to uncover that ignorance. White would have liked to collaborate with the players’ union and the league office in order to validate mental health as equally important to physical health. Anxiety disorders afflict 40 million adults in the U.S.–that’s nearly one-fifth of the population. It’s statistically preposterous that Royce White was the only NBA athlete living with anxiety in 2012 (and today we know he wasn’t, thanks to DeRozan and Love). He was the most open and honest, but hardly alone. His trailblazing would have opened channels for his colleagues to talk, listen, and alter the status quo.
Not to mention, he would have been a pretty damn good NBA player too.
Kevin Love is reaping the benefits of speaking up without backlash. DeMar DeRozan is as well, but because of his demure nature and the different approach taken by Love, it’s Love who has become the poster child for the NBA’s brand-new approach to mental health.
But in the context of Royce White, Love should not be demonized. None of this should be controversial. Royce is “totally in support” of Love and DeRozan coming out about their battles with anxiety and depression, but laments that it took this long for other players to feel comfortable speaking up. Less than a week after Love published his confessional, it was announced that the NBA and NBPA would hire a Director of Mental Health and Wellness.
Royce White deserves to feel frustrated and disappointed. He’s also entitled to question the NBA’s intentions: is the league office only acting now out of fear of being exposed? White condemns NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and NBPA Director Michele Roberts on Zirin’s podcast, explaining that their mental health policy plans didn’t come out of the woodwork–parts were literally written by Royce, for them, three years earlier. And neither Silver nor Roberts has reached out to Royce since.
Still, Royce wants to see the NBA change for the good of his NBA brothers. He argues that Kevin Love, a 10-year veteran with league-wide clout (and not to mention a conventionally attractive white man who appeals to a whiter NBA audience), has validated Royce’s concerns of six years prior–Love is kind of the perfect victim. Royce also points out that DeMar and Kevin, All-Star veterans, have proven that players with mental health issues can, in fact, be “reliable”. Reality is far removed from that absurd myth of players faking illness to sit.
Royce, as a 21-year-old rookie, made demands for structural change when he had no status. It was easy to keep him quiet, and soon enough push him out of the NBA.
Before playing a single game for the Rockets, Royce White was relegated to the G-League. He refused the assignment. A year after being drafted, White was traded to Philadelphia. He was waived. A short stint in Sacramento and a brief Summer League appearance for the Clippers later, Royce was out of the NBA entirely by August 2015.
He would find a home in London, Ontario, where he plays for the Canadian Basketball League. In his first year in the NBL, Royce led the Lightning to a championship and was voted league MVP. The NBL and the NBA have little in common; the London Lightning are no Houston Rockets. But in London, Royce can play and live in peace.
White is active on Twitter and continues to speak on mental health issues. It is crucial to remember his story as the NBA progresses on the topic of mental wellness.