Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Here’s an interesting excerpt from an upcoming episode of Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel about Houston Rockets forward Royce White in which he talks about his mental health and No. 1 draft pick Anthony Davis. The episode airs on HBO Jan. 22.
Royce White, the 16th overall pick in last summer’s NBA draft, has yet to play for the Houston Rockets.
The 6-foot-8 power forward’s absence isn’t due to lackluster performance or injury, but an anxiety disorder that, among other things, makes air travel extremely difficult for him, something no NBA franchise has had to face before with such a high-profile individual.
Determined to ensure that the club, league and players association accommodate his needs, the Minnesota native refused to report to the team last fall until a “mental health protocol” was prepared and signed by all parties.
The situation reached a tipping point Jan. 6 when White was suspended for failing to perform his contract.
In this REAL SPORTS/Sports Illustrated collaboration, correspondent Bernard Goldberg travels to Houston to talk to White .
White starred at Iowa State where in the 2011-12 season he was the only Division I player to lead his team in points, blocked shots, assists, rebounds and steals. White details the depth of his anxiety disorder, how he copes with it and what he feels needs to be done to ensure he is provided a safe work environment.
ROYCE WHITE: “Mental health is a documented disability by federal law. It’s not brand new. It’s new to talk about. It’s new to admit. It’s not new.”
HBO V/O: There’s a good chance you’ve never heard an athlete certainly not one who’s just 21 years old talk the way Royce White talks. He’s either courageous or insufferable depending on where you’re standing. Which may explain why on the night of the NBA draft last year, despite his immense talent, it seemed no one wanted him. HBO V/O: Kevin McHale, the head coach of the Rockets, was Royce White’s best chance. After all, what team would want to risk a first-round draft pick on a kid like White with all his problems? HBO V/O: On the court, White has no anxiety problemsit’s one of the few places he’s comfortable. And last year, he was the only player in the entire country to lead his team in all five major categories – scoring, rebounding, assists, blocked shots and steals.In the 2012 NCAA tournament, White and Iowa State faced Kentucky, the best team in the country, led by Anthony Davis, who would become the number one pick in the NBA Draft.
BERNARD GOLDBERG: Can I show you something from March Madness?
ROYCE WHITE: For sure.
BERNARD GOLDBERG: You know how to hit play? Hit play.
SOT ANNC: He steals the ball. And here he comes again.
BERNARD GOLDBERG : What did you say there? (White shouting at Kentucky)
ROYCE WHITE: I’m the best player in the country.
BERNARD GOLDBERG: Did you think that at the time?
ROYCE WHITE: I knew that at the time.
BERNARD GOLDBERG: You dunked over Anthony Davis who was the number one pick.
ROYCE WHITE: I abused him all game. I didn’t just dunk over him. I just abused their whole team all game.
HBO V/O: White says he doesn’t want the coach or the GM – two people who aren’t psychiatrists – to make decisions about whether he’s well enough, on any given night, to play. And he says if the Rockets would just give him that medical point person — a doctor to whom the team would defer on mental health issues –he’d feel safe and probably wouldn’t miss a single game all season.
MICHAEL MCCANN: I think that opens the door for the team to lose control over its most important quality, which is the ability to play players in a way that makes sense for the team.
Michael McCann teaches law at the University of New Hampshire and is one of the nation’s top scholars in matters involving sports and the law.
MICHAEL MCCANN: White is the first athlete to test a league and a team as to how flexible they can be with his mental health condition. White is a pioneer in that regard. The Rockets could say, look, we could have this neutral physician as part of the conversation, having influence, having input, that might be reasonable. Having this person be the final decision-maker or the only decision-maker, not reasonable.
HBO V/O: It’s not officially over yet between the Rockets and Royce White. There’s some behind the scenes talking still going on. The Rockets, who wouldn’t talk to us for this story, say they want him on the team and White says he wants to play –- but only if the two sides can come to an agreement.And what if they can’t? Is White really prepared to give up the dream he’s had ever since he was a little kid – a dream shared by so many who don’t have anywhere near the talent that Royce White does.
BERNARD GOLDBERG: There are people watching us right now who would just kill to be in the NBA. They’d kill to have an opportunity that you have. But you’ve said, “But who would kill themselves to be there?” How is playing in the NBA like killing yourself?
ROYCE WHITE: If I was to play in the NBA now as it is without the protocols, without the safety measures, I would be risking my health. I would be risking my life. What comes along with mental health that goes untreated? Alcohol abuse. Marijuana abuse. Suicidal behavior. Homicidal behavior. Those are things I’m not willing to risk to play basketball, to have money, to have fame.
BERNARD GOLDBERG: End of discussion.
ROYCE WHITE: That’s it.
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Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.