Often, the players we cheer for the most, not necessarily our favorite players, are the ones to whom we feel a certain connection. Maybe they went to our school, or grew up in our neighborhood, or they said “hi” to us once in a restaurant. A sense of pride swells within us when we see that player score or block a shot, as if the connection we feel allows us to live vicariously through them. They may not even be particularly good players, but because of that connection, however small, we find ourselves cheering for that player’s success.
I was a latecomer to NBA fandom. I didn’t have a favorite player; neither Kobe Bryant nor Shaquille O’Neal posters adorned my bedroom walls. There was, however, one player whom I rooted for endlessly as soon as he entered the league: Kareem Rush.
Rush went to my high school (though I was in grade school at that time), dated a good family friend for a while, and drove me to Sunday school once or twice. He and his brother JaRon were nothing short of dominant on the court together, and though their state championships were stripped and their very existence wiped from the pages of Pembroke Hill history as a result of a booster scandal, every one still remembers the Rush brothers. He once scared the crap out of me at a Movie Gallery, as, after hearing his girlfriend call my name, I turned around only to find his 6’6 frame towering over my eight-year old self. I played him in a game of two-on-one, first to eleven, with a ten point cushion. I lost. These stories aren’t meant to boast. In fact, I’m sure Kareem doesn’t even remember me. Still, that connection was enough for me to check the box score after every one of his games, from his rookie year with the Lakers to his briefer stints with the Pacers and 76ers.
I’ve never met Royce White. He didn’t grow up in Kansas City, I didn’t go to Iowa State. And yet, with the start of NBA training camps less than a week away, marking the unofficial start of basketball season, there is no player who I will cheer for more than White.
The connection I feel with White may not be one born from an acquaintanceship, but that doesn’t make it any less real. White and I, along with countless others, suffer from anxiety disorder. There’s a certain, instant kinship formed between those who suffer from depression, anxiety, or another mental illness. Though many have tried to describe what an anxiety/panic attack feels like, it unfortunately can only be understood from first-hand experience. Those that have struggled through the crippling attacks are thus able to empathize with fellow sufferers on a completely different level than those who haven’t. Of course, that lack of understanding can easily lead to misconceptions, or even fear. That fear reared its head on draft night as White, despite his candor about his condition, saw his stock slide, due mainly to concerns about his ability to handle the rigors of the NBA life. According to the fantastic Grantland “Hockumentary,” which detailed White’s draft night, had Houston not selected White when they did, he could have potentially slid out of the first round. Luckily, Kevin McHale, White’s lone advocate in the Houston war room, won out and selected White with the 16th pick.
That could have been the last we heard of White’s anxiety. Though he’d come to be an inspiration, even a folk hero of sorts, to those who battle with anxiety, he had no obligation to continue wearing that mantle. His future now stable, no longer having to worry about pre-draft interviews or intense scrutiny, he could have closed off that part of his life from the public eye. Instead, White has become as much of an advocate as he is an inspiration. A perusal through his twitter mentions reveals hundreds of messages thanking him for being a model of what one can accomplish in spite of their mental illness, naming him as the onus for their taking charge of life and renewed dedication to fighting anxiety. It may seem ironic to most that someone whose affliction has been so well documented would assume the role of an advocate, and on such a large scale. And yet, when you consider how candid White has been about his issues, it really shouldn’t surprise us at all.
Now comes the hard part for Royce White: succeeding. Not hard because he doesn’t have the skill, as he certainly isn’t lacking in that area, but rather because every mistake he makes will be met with an extra dose of skepticism. Did his anxiety cause him to turn the ball over? Is he missing foul shots because he’s having an anxiety attack? For any other rookie, those mistakes would be chalked up to nothing more than growing pains, not so for White. But this isn’t foreign territory for the bruising and versatile forward. These are the same questions he faced at Iowa State, and the same ones posed to him countless times during the draft process. His play silenced those questions in college, and there’s no reason to expect anything different now that he’s in the NBA.
Connections formed from mutual suffering are often the strongest. I may never meet Royce White, but I know the battles he’s fought and the victories he’s won all too well. Is it any wonder that I cheer for him?