Crawl inside the mind of a washed-out and delusional professional athlete. I’m talking about a man with a profound deficiency in self-awareness. A man at once so gifted, but so noble. A genteel martyr, really – whose true talent will never be seen as a result of The Uncaring Machine and what it does to people like him, who all they want to do is play basketball, inspire a generation, and read The Greats … but need to take the bus.
Imagine that you are a magazine doing a profile on a man like that, and for some reason you choose to let him write his own headline.
Do you think he could come up with anything more grandiose than this?
That was in Esquire. We’re going to set aside that ludicrous claim, putting it in the bin with all the other mildly yellow stuff we publications do to entice people to open the link. Of course Royce White isn’t the most important basketball player alive. And, in actuality, the piece behind that link doesn’t attempt to argue he is. What the piece does is advance the notions of a mentally ill basketball player in Canada without checking them against reality. The piece might as well have been written by Royce White.
The basic conceit of it, as it is with most Royce White features, is that Royce might be some kind of a genius. Evidence of this genius on display is sometimes provided, sometimes not. In the Esquire piece, it comes in the form of unexpected passes that bounce off teammates’ ribcages.
One of his talents as a player is a high level of court awareness—a deep understanding of who is open and best positioned to execute big shots. But his teammates often don’t share his foresight. More than once during a February game, White passed the ball to an open teammate, only to watch it pelt him in the side. When a pass is successfully received, the teammate often has a look of surprise.
If that’s not convincing, maybe you’ll just take the writer’s word for it that White is a philosopher.
Talking to White means volleying between existential philosophy, NBA chatter, pop music, the nuances of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and everything in between.
Ok, well, this is a Royce White profile in a prominent men’s periodical, making this the ideal time and place to show the world some of Royce’s existential philosophy. We’re not provided that. We are, however, treated to a delightful take on the time Royce White got caught stealing other people’s stuff.
In October 2009, White was charged with, and ultimately pled guilty to, disorderly conduct stemming from an incident in which he was accused of stealing $100 in merchandise from the Mall of America and pushing a security officer to the ground. That November, he was charged with three counts of misdemeanor trespassing in connection with a laptop theft at a dorm. “Both of those were dumb, us being silly, young and doing dare type of stuff,” White says now, arguing that police should have been more lenient. White had been suspended indefinitely as a result, but through a high GPA and good behavior earned his spot back on the roster after missing several games. “We weren’t maliciously trying to hurt people. If ‘Jackass’ did it, everyone else would have a hoot about it. All young people that age have impulses to make each other laugh and do funny shit. It’s the context in which people do it. With athletes, and young black males in particular, there’s no room for context of what happened.
First of all, he also pleaded guilty to theft in that case. But look at that gorgeous word salad from the philosopher there. They weren’t trying to hurt people, they were just stealing their property and shoving them to the ground to make each other laugh. It wasn’t a petty crime, see, it was a comedy routine. The Lufthansa Heist, this was not. Nor was it treated like it was. White acts like they threw the book at him, as though a “disorderly conduct” conviction for doing what he did is some grave injustice. As though his athletic stardom didn’t give him an advantage over the average teenage thief. He got out of all that with a $300 fine and a promise to stay out of trouble.
But personal responsibilities are beneath Royce White. There is always a higher purpose to be achieved from his action or, in other cases, inaction.
His two older children live in Minnesota while his two youngest live in London with him and Aguilar. He prefers not to go into detail about his two older kids or how often he sees them.
“It’s not easy. My whole family life, in general, has not been easy,” he says. “There are many instances where I’ve helped other kids more than my own.” (He recently shaved his head to show support for a young Lightning fan undergoing treatment for leukemia.) “That’s the burden you have to walk with. For example, let’s say you’re a doctor who is on call all day, and you barely get to see your kids. Are the kids losing out? Is the tradeoff equitable? How do you measure that and how do you know who needs more of what? That’s a problem in my heart of hearts.
Yes, that’s it. He’s like a doctor, guys. Don’t you see him treating cancer patients? He’s out there helping people. Royce White is special. Royce White is the Most Important Basketball Player Alive. When are you all going to accept that?
The Houston Rockets never accepted it, the bastards. Well, that’s not quite right. They took a chance on it at first. The idea that Royce White was special, I mean. White had made a big deal of his mental illnesses in college, so they knew about that when they took him with the 16th overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. Everything the Rockets do is a calculated risk, and this fit right into that approach. If White could figure it out, they’d have gotten a talented player at a bargain. If he couldn’t, they’d have wasted a decent draft pick and a little bit of money.
Here are the other things the Rockets did that summer: Drafted Terrence Jones, drafted Jeremy Lamb, signed Jeremy Lin, signed Omer Asik, traded Samuel Dalembert for Shaun Livingston, amnestied Luis Scola, signed Aaron Brooks. The next summer, they traded Lamb and a bunch of other stuff for James Harden. The summer after that, the Rockets traded Royce White to Philadelphia to clear cap space for Dwight Howard.
The plane was leaving the terminal, and it didn’t much matter whether or not Royce White was on it. Those who can, do. Incredibly, the Philadelphia 76ers also failed to recognize White’s importance to the game of basketball, and waived him during training camp. White, 26, has played nine minutes in the NBA. He is 0-for-1.
It being an airplane gets to the root of White’s conflict with the Rockets and the NBA. He doesn’t like to fly. White would like for this to seem like a complicated conflict, but here is the sum of it: Royce White wanted the Rockets to make special accommodations for him, and the Rockets didn’t want to. They couldn’t agree, so now Royce White isn’t on the Rockets.
This is very much Royce White’s problem, but he would very much like to make it someone else’s problem too. For years he has been pounding away on Twitter and at the ear of any national magazine reporter who will listen about there needing to be “protocols” and “consistency” in the way professional sports teams manage their players’ mental illnesses. But in the coverage that follows you never come away with any picture of what that would look like. Profiling him for Grantland in 2013, Chuck Klosterman wrote that White was, “like a brilliant ninth-grader who just wrote a research paper on mental illness and can’t stop talking about it. He’s arrogant, and perhaps not as wise as he believes himself to be.”
An ACL tear is an ACL tear is an ACL tear, but mental illness and anxiety disorders manifest in myriad ways depending on the person and their environment. The thing nobody ever seems to be able to cram into Royce White’s head is that it doesn’t really matter to anybody but him whether he’s in the NBA or not. These are jobs. They’re some of the most competitive jobs in the world. I’m not in the NBA because my body can’t do the job. Royce White isn’t in the NBA because his mind can’t. The universe is indifferent.
White has an elaborate explanation for why he kept not showing up to work with the Rockets. If you’re his mother, or his best friend, or even his agent, you probably have to sit there and nod along while he tells it. The long and short of it is something like this: Royce White can fly, but only if he takes some Xanax, a benzodiazepine commonly prescribed for anxiety. White also uses Klonopin, a benzodiazepine tranquilizer. Both of these medications cause drowsiness and fatigue, and the common side effects of Klonopin include poor coordination and agitation.
It is clear that someone in White’s condition should be taking these medications, but it is equally clear that both the symptoms of White’s condition and the side effects of his medications are at odds with the goals and vocational demands of an NBA player. He repeatedly refused to show up to work, and when he did he was out of shape. People with mental illnesses can thrive in a plethora of work environments, including professional sports. But in the case of Royce White specifically, the best basketball league in the world may not be among them.
The National Basketball League of Canada, on the other hand, seems to be a nice fit.
White is thriving there. He’s fourth in the league in scoring (behind Anthony Anderson, Gabe Freeman, and Jahii Carson), he makes $110,000 per year, the team is accommodating him, and they’re 35-5. It’s a relationship that works for all parties. And best of all, White says he’s completely happy.
White says he’s “a ten” in terms of his happiness in London. The very act of playing the game, whether on a small or large court, represents an affirmative act against his own demons and any societal expectations that used to confine him.
That’s great. A happy man is making a nice living doing what he loves. Let’s leave him to that.