|Rockets rookie Royce White has missed camp time because of anxiety disorder. (Getty Images)|
In a gripping video documentary of Royce White's experience on NBA draft night, the former Iowa State star mustered more courage than will ever be required in his basketball career -- wherever that basketball career leads him.
White allowed the cameras of the website Grantland.com to spend draft night with him at the basketball offices on the Iowa State campus. Through tears, he explained how a room full of friends, family and other well-wishers watching the draft unfold on a flatscreen TV seemed like "a pack of wolves" to him. He did not duck or dodge or sugarcoat his condition, which he bluntly and correctly termed a "mental illness." When anxiety attacks come, he said, it's "panic on top of panic on top of panic. It feels like you're dying."
This is the real, unsanitized story of what it's like to be Royce White, a human being with mental illness first and a basketball player second. If only everyone could grasp and articulate his daily struggle as well as he does.
White, selected 16th in the draft by the Houston Rockets despite his anxiety and fear of flying, was not able to muster the strength or comfort to report to the annual zoo that is NBA media day. I am fortunate not to have anxiety disorder, but I would imagine that NBA media day is the last place on Earth someone being treated for that condition would want to be. White was absent from the Rockets' media event Monday and the first day of training camp Tuesday. If he is getting proper treatment -- which by all accounts in the Grantland documentary and other media accounts, he is -- he will be back soon. One mental health professional who specializes in the psychology of sports told me Wednesday that patients suffering from anxiety need to get back to the environment that scared them as soon as possible.
"The longer they stay out, the harder it is to get back in," said Dr. Richard Lustberg, a New York-based psychologist and creator of the website Psychology of Sports. "I've seen hundreds of these cases. They need to be reintroduced very quickly back into the environment."
White told a local TV station this his absence was "definitely linked to my anxiety disorder," and that specifically, his decision not to attend was reached jointly with his doctor as they try to "take a proactive approach" and "put together a solid plan" for him to succeed and manage his disorder as a rookie in the NBA.
Out of the blue, a blog post on the Oklahoman newspaper's web site ridiculed White's absence. In the course of explaining why the Thunder decided not to select White in the draft, the missive referred to White as "a head case."
I am not a media critic, nor am I here to tell my colleagues how to do their jobs. But suffice it to say that several NBA media members who have experienced anxiety disorder themselves -- including CBSSports.com's Matt Moore -- have weighed in eloquently about what White is going through, and in doing so, did their jobs exceptionally.
This is not to say that White's experience equates to anyone else's -- in the media or otherwise. His illness is unique to him, because it is his to bear. He is to be commended for being open and forthright about his condition, because such an approach is likely to help his coping with the disease -- but also, and secondarily, because it will help raise awareness about a subject that remains all too off-limits and misunderstood in sports.
How many athletes have come before with odd behavior and seemingly poor judgment, traits that weren't the result of some character flaw but rather a mental illness? Remember when it was OK to poke fun at Delonte West or Ron Artest? Remember when it was perfectly acceptable to brand them as part of a long line of NBA knuckleheads? It wasn't OK anymore once we learned that West has long suffered from bipolar disorder, and that Artest has been treated for depression.
With the recent epidemic of sports suicides -- Dave Duerson, Junior Seau, Kenny McKinley, Hideki Irabu, the list sadly goes on -- you would think that awareness and compassion for sports stars that may be battling mental illness would have crested by now. With prominent athletes like Artest (now, of course, known as Metta World Peace) and Brandon Marshall speaking openly about their mental illness, you would think a courageous, 21-year-old trying to confront the ultimate private hell in a very public way would be applauded and supported. Sadly, we're not there yet.
Just as the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics provided whatever support and compassion they could when West was undergoing treatment in the wake of an arrest on weapons charges, so, too, should the Rockets be applauded for embracing White's talents and also his medical challenges. Sports psychology, Lustberg said, is "very data-driven," and so if anyone in the NBA is going to figure out how to manage the problem and give White the best chance to succeed, it is the Rockets' notoriously metric-driven general manager, Daryl Morey.
"We are committed to Royce's long-term success, and we will continue to support him now and going forward," Morey said in a statement.
NBA spokesman Tim Frank said the league has "a wide array of services and professional resources that are made available to our players to help them deal with mental health issues and other personal problems they may be having." Such services also are available through the NBA Players Association, which educates incoming players about off-court life in the annual rookie symposium. Clearly, more has to be done. And Lustberg said the team that treats and studies the mental health of its highly paid athletes with the same thoroughness that's devoted to their physical health will not only forward the cause of mental health awareness, but also gain a competitive advantage.
"If you're asking me where we should go with this," Lustberg said, "I think that, much like [an athletic] trainer, teams should have a psychologist trainer -- somebody that's qualified. Once you understand how people think and reason, you can improve performance in any job. With preventive care, the ability to give feedback, it's much more beneficial to have a psychologist embedded with the team. The first team that does that, that kind of information is invaluable -- not only for the player, but for the team.
"If you know that this player learns in this manner or needs to be approached in this manner, it would be invaluable information," Lustberg said. "Teams should not be in the dark about their players in this day and age."
And neither should we, which is why we owe Royce White and the Houston Rockets a debt of gratitude rather than scorn and ridicule.
White will be back in his basketball environment with the Rockets, because the nature of his disorder requires him to encounter -- in small, increasing doses -- that which causes his anxiety. He will be back soon, because as Lustberg said, the longer he stays away, the harder it will be for him to come back. He needs to confront the darkness, panic and fear -- the irrational perception that a roomful of loving supporters on draft night was really a "pack of wolves."
We in sports have still have a fair amount of reflection to do ourselves.
In that moving Grantland documentary, White recounted a conversation he had with his doctor when he was 18 -- a conversation that now, somewhat eerily, captures the battle he will always be fighting.
"She looked at me right in the face and said, 'You know what? Basketball might not be what's best for you,'" White said. "'Because this industry is built to defeat somebody like you.'"
Here's to doing what we're not supposed to do in sports journalism. Here's to openly rooting for Royce White to emerge victorious.