Teams salivate over Royce White’s rare combination of talents. He’s a bruising big man with the handle and passing of a point guard. His girth belies a certain grace with which he glides around the floor. He’s a model of versatility (an increasingly valuable skill in the NBA), a swiss army knife of a basketball player.
Teams are also scared of Royce White. They’re nervous of his conditioning and his weight, whether he has a position in the league. But perhaps every team’s biggest fear of White, greater than concerns about his weight or his jump shot, is his anxiety disorder.
It all boils down to: White has an NBA-ready game, but can he live the NBA life?
“I know it will affect my status,” White says. “It’s a scary thing. All you need is 30 general managers to say, ‘I don’t know enough about this to take this risk.’ Or 30 owners to say, ‘We don’t know enough about this to take this on.’ And then you end up being out of the first round and out of the second round. Or you go late in the second round and go to summer league and they still have the ability to cut you.” — “On the road with Royce White” by Jonathan Abrams
Certainly, teams have a right to be concerned about White’s disorder. I myself suffer from generalized anxiety and have at times been so paralyzed by my own thoughts that I end up stuck in a fetal position. Unfortunate stories such as Delonte West’s and the more tragic tale of Eddie Griffin are case studies in how teams have been burned by players who suffered from mental disorders.
But Royce White isn’t Delonte West, nor is he Eddie Griffin. West didn’t seek help until he had hit rock bottom, and Eddie Griffin, unfortunately, never did. White has sought help. He’s cognizant of his disorder and is receiving treatment and medication that has by all accounts tempered his anxiety.
And it’s all very public.
“They’re (NBA teams) asking about all that,” White said about interviews with teams. “I’m just trying to be as honest as possible. I have found that being honest always helps to keep my stress low. Trying to keep up with lies is very difficult. It’s good for me to be able to talk about it.” – “The many shades of Royce White” by Jerry Zgoda
It’s never easy to discuss issues like anxiety disorder, especially in the hyper-macho context of professional sports. An injured back is one thing, but in the eyes of many, a psychological issue speaks to an inner weakness antithetical to the warrior’s life. But not talking about it, while perhaps a savvy strategy for a draft pick trying to assure potential suitors, hardly makes the problem go away.
White himself may not be aware that talking about his anxiety disorder isn’t just good for him, but for all athletes who suffer, either silently or publicly, from any mental illness. But his willingness to broach the subject with teams and media has brought into the light an issue we too often keep in dark.
It will be hard to know for sure whether White’s condition actually impacts his draft status. But if he slides, say, to the mid 20’s, it will be hard to argue that his lack of basketball skills or savvy is reason.
And if his stock tumbles, it will send a message to every player who struggles with anxiety disorders that they are better off keeping it to themselves, even denying its existence, rather than being open with teams and proactive in treatment.
“Every player in the NBA deals with mental illness on some level,” he says. “Anxiety is prevalent in every human being. It may not be a disorder. But then again, who’s always being honest when you take the test that asks, ‘Do you feel down a lot?’ Everybody checks no. But how many of us don’t feel down a lot? Life is a big hurdle.”
The more we honestly discuss something, the less stigmatized that topic becomes. I used to hate talking about my bipolar and anxiety issues. In fact, I’d lie about them. I’d lie to my friends, telling them I was fine when I was clearly anything but. I’d lie to my family, telling them I was taking my medicine when in fact I had stopped two weeks ago. The only thing to come of that lie was a breakdown in the middle of the school counselor’s office. The lies never got me anywhere, and they only made me feel worse. It was only until I started being honest, both with myself and my loved ones, that things got better.
The mistake NBA teams make with Royce White, (and perhaps on a larger scale, what most professional teams in any league miss with athletes who suffer from mental illness), is that they think their disorder controls them. That simply isn’t true, and Royce White showed that this season. He posted averages of 13 points, 9 rebounds and five assists. He played, and produced, in some of the most hostile environments imaginable in any sport, including Allen Fieldhouse, where he recorded 18 points, 17 rebounds, four steals and two blocks.
Of course the NBA is no charity. It’s not a team’s job to help a player, it’s their job to win. But the problem with mental health issues is that they are easy to hide, for a time, and tough to measure. There are no doubt players in this draft who privately struggle with depression and anxiety and who will disappoint their team once they enter the league. Shying away from a player like White because of his issues might paradoxically increase the chances of drafting a player with undiagnosed problems in the future.
It would be great if supporting open players like White can help improve mental health awareness not just for the public, but within the NBA. Over the longterm, that kind of thinking will lead to fewer mysterious busts for teams and broken lives for players.