Royce White’s Dangerous Game

Photo via Codfisch on Flickr.

Watching Royce White’s tweets unfold in real time last night was a lot of things: it was awkward, it was sort of uncomfortable, it was a little surreal. More than anything, it was frustrating. White’s openness about his anxiety disorder has made him into something of a folk hero, and until now, there was never an opening for reasonable people to turn on him. I cringed a little more as each 140-character missive appeared in my timeline. Not because I thought what he was saying was necessarily wrong or ill intentioned, but because it was obvious from the start that there was no way this could end well for him.

It’s next to impossible to talk reasonably about the latest turn White’s thus-far-rocky NBA career has taken, because so much about it is unknown to us. He has yet to see a minute of action in a Houston Rockets uniform, which until now was mostly a minor annoyance to those of us who had fallen in love with his game at Summer League and his story through the various profiles that have been written about him. White’s famous aversion to flying had seemingly been dealt with through a series of alternate travel arrangements made during training camp, and it was only a matter of playing the waiting game before he saw the floor. But on Monday, the Rockets assigned White to the D-League, and followed this up on Tuesday with a vague, abrupt statement saying he was “not available right now.”

White released a statement of his own, accusing the Rockets (without giving specifics) of not honoring their previous agreement on how to mitigate his condition. He then took to Twitter to attempt to explain his side of the story, using a lot of characters to say very little. Nobody outside of White and the Rockets organization has any clue what’s going on behind the scenes. Which is fine—preferable, actually. Dealing with this stuff away from the prying eyes and ears of the media and the public would do more to create an environment where White could be successful than throwing it to the wolves and letting those of us who have no idea of the specifics of the situation pass judgment on him. That’s why his decision to air his grievances with the team on Twitter was baffling. Whether fairly or not, all that accomplishes is opening the door for other people who have never met the man to decide what he should or shouldn’t be allowed to do in pursuit of treatment and a better mental state.

White’s selection by the Rockets and the post-Summer League buzz about his on-the-court gifts have brought hundreds of basketball fans and bloggers out of the woodwork to address their own mental-health issues in public. His desire to use his celebrity to raise awareness about mental illness has done wonders in terms of moving the conversation forward, and brought about a collective realization that a large majority of us are also sufferers. Royce White having a successful NBA career while tackling his demons head-on would not only be a great sports story, but it would represent a major victory for everyone who deals with depression, anxiety, or any other mental disorder (myself included). All any of us want out of this is for him to be healthy and happy and playing basketball. Anything that puts him in a position to do those things is something we’ll support. And it’s difficult to see where this week’s events play into that.

Anyone who’s followed White on Twitter for any length of time has seen the vitriol he’s subjected to on a daily basis, by way of some of the replies he chooses to retweet. People tell him to stop whining and be happy that he’s making millions of dollars. People attempt to minimize what he’s dealing with (the specifics of which nobody truly knows except for him), because they’re mad that their favorite team risked a mid-first-round pick on a player with off-court baggage. None of this is right, but it’s an unavoidable reality in the social-media era, and unleashing a barrage of tweets in the wake of an already murky, bizarre situation is only going to open him up to more of this abuse and accusation. It’s going to thrust his plight right back into the media spotlight, which will only add to the weight of pressure and expectations that will be placed on him when he does eventually play for the Rockets. And that will only make people judge him more harshly if he’s slow to contribute, which in turn will exacerbate his self-doubt and anxiety. No one can win.

Some of this comes with the territory. White made a conscious decision to declare for the NBA draft, knowing full well the consequences of becoming a public figure subject to widespread media attention. He knew that the daily grind of an NBA season would conflict with his fear of flying, and fortunately landed with an organization that’s willing, to some degree, to work with him to make the situation palatable. Most importantly, his decision to open up about his struggles with anxiety was always going to make him a polarizing figure. That gamble is a worthwhile one, one which furthers a conversation that needs to be had. His focus right now should be on minimizing the amount of hardship and discomfort he has to deal with as he navigates this uncertain terrain. And I’m not sure going public with this beef does much to accomplish that.

Sean Highkin

Sean Highkin is a staff writer at Hardwood Paroxysm and a writer for the ESPN TrueHoop blogs Portland Roundball Society and Magic Basketball. He has also written for The Classical, among other sites. You can follow him on Twitter at @shighkinNBA. He can be reached by email at highkin (dot) sean (at) gmail.