(Rockets head coach Kevin McHale, left, and forward Royce White, right.)
Royce White wouldn’t be a player for the Houston Rockets if he didn’t have a mental illness. Another team would have snatched him up first. As Pablo S. Torre wrote for Sports Illustrated before the NBA draft, the rookie forward’s final season at Iowa State inspired Hall of Fame-level comparisons to the likes of Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, and LeBron James, as well as talk of Top Five talent. But White’s public struggle with generalized anxiety disorder scared off the higher-drafting NBA teams, enabling Rockets general manager Daryl Morey to scoop up the six-foot-eight, 260-pounder with the sixteenth pick. And when the team agreed to let White, whose fear of flying triggers debilitating panic attacks, take a bus to games when possible, it seemed the two sides understood each other.
White hasn’t played a minute for the Rockets this year, in part because that fear of flying caused him to miss training camp, and for the past week he has not shown up for work. Now his future with the franchise is in question, and the world of sports does not seem any more enlightened about mental illness. As the week wore on, the 21-year-old became cannon fodder for blog comments and tweets–he’s been called a “baby,” a “diva,” and someone with a “victim mentality”–though White has also been very vocal, sometimes aggressive, on his Twitter.
On Tuesday, as the Houston Chronicle‘s Jonathan Feigen reported, acting Rockets coach Kelvin Sampson told the media he didn’t know why White was missing. (Ironically, Royce’s unexcused absence comes at the same time head coach Kevin McHale has been granted a leave of absence for family reasons.) And team owner Leslie Alexander didn’t soft-pedal the possiblity that Houston wasted its first-rounder. “I’d feel bad for Royce, and I’d feel very bad for the team,” he said of that scenario.
White first gave his side on Tuesday, issuing this statement:
In hindsight, perhaps it was not a good idea to be open and honest about my anxiety disorder, due to the current situations at hand that involve the nature of actions from the Houston Rockets. As a rookie, I want to settle into a team and make progress; but since preseason the Rockets have been inconsistent with their agreement to proactively create a healthy and successful relationship. At this point the Rockets are aware of my position and the reason for my absence. Any other response is inaccurate. This is important to me. It is a health issue. I must advocate for my rights. It is a player-commodity league. The failure to meet my requests for support will end with me being unhealthy and that is not a consequence that I am willing to accept to play any sport.
The crux of the dispute seemed to be that, after White first called the team last week to say that he was having trouble, he refused to consult with Aaron Fink of Baylor College of Medicine, the club’s preferred therapist.
On Twitter, White complained that “Dr. PHINK” was only available by phone. (A few tweets later, White apologized to the doctor and revised his spelling). Then Feigen reported Wednesday that White was being fined for each day he stayed away or didn’t meet the therapist–$15,000 per day, according to that same tweet linked above from White, who also said that a phone consultation was not considered by the team “a ‘sufficient’ way to meet.”
Feigen also wrote that a “person familiar with talks” said White had begun to gripe about the fact that he was not yet playing, and that the Rockets were probably going to send him and two other rookies to their minor league team in Hidalgo.
Chronicle columnist Jerome Solomon criticized the Rockets for that leak, saying that if White was indeed suffering from “benchitis” as well as his anxiety disorder, that:
The worst known treatment for benchitis is telling the media on the sly that a player is suffering from benchitis…
Allowing fans and media leap to the conclusion that White’s problem is because he isn’t playing, is pretty low. If they have done so accidentally, and I admit that is possible, it is a sign of incompetence.
Rockets TV analyst Matt Bullard also fueled the fire, telling CSN Houston:
The comments that he’s been making on Twitter, to me, show that he does have a mental illness, because a lot of the things he’s saying don’t really match up with the reality, as I see it…
Get past that comment’s tone-deaf lack of sensitivity, and maybe Bullard isn’t wrong, which is what makes the situation so complex. Can you hold someone with anxiety disorder accountable for poor decision-making while they’re in distress? And if not, can that person make it in the NBA?
In a video interview with NBC, Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated said that privately, the Rockets “vehemently disagree with Royce White’s assessments that they have not been helping him. There’s a feeling going around the league that maybe Royce White’s commitment to basketball isn’t all there.”
On Twitter, Mannix was even more blunt, if sympathetic (as was one of his followers).
@chrismannixsi it’s a hard thing to deal with.I know how he feels.It’s as real as a broken bone.
— Torrey Ellis (@JazzHoops) November 14, 2012
“This is professional sports, and the cold truth is this: So far, he isn’t worth the trouble,” wrote Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports. He continued:
So far, he was a waste of a draft pick at No. 16, a waste of the time and care invested in him. Maybe that’s hard for him to hear, but it’s true – and only he can change it.
This isn’t a dismissal of mental illness. This isn’t a belittling of his struggle. This is simply a fact. As he rails against the Rockets’ insistence that he meet with one of their doctors when he’s failing to honor his contract to show up for practices and games, he’s losing sight that this is the one organization that’s invested in his mental health and development as a player.
ESPN.com’s Myron Metcalfe, who first covered White in high school, had a lot of applicable insight back when White did not report to training camp:
White had consulted with a family doctor he’s known since high school–the same woman who treated him for anxiety when he was first diagnosed with the condition nearly five years ago–about the team’s plan for his care. They decided that the bus was essential. No bus, no training camp.
White trusts that family doctor in Minnesota. She has been there from the beginning of his bouts with anxiety disorder.
Yes, the Rockets pay White a lot of money and have the resources to offer him the top psychological care in the world. But they’re still new.
White doesn’t always trust new.
Over the weekend, ESPN’s Colleen Dominguez reported that White would finally met with Daryl Morey today. White also acknowledged that it’s not out of the question that he won’t play in the NBA.
“At no point will I compromise my health in the interest of business,” he said.