Sam Riches | Longreads | August 2017 | 18 minutes (4,650 words)
Bound by professional obligation, the announcer is feigning impartiality but a wobble in his lilt, a slip of exasperation, gives him away.
“He’s stolen the ball and here he comes again.”
It’s March, 2012, the third round of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, and Royce White is running free.
He barrels up court, body wide and strong. He sprints past other players bound for the NBA, including Anthony Davis, who will soon enter the world’s top league as a transcendent number one pick, a uniquely defensive wunderkind that is representative of a shift in the way the game is played; positionless and facilitative and full-throttled.
White moves past him, over him, through him.
White, who stands 6’8” and weighs 270 pounds, moves with a lumbering fluidity, a grace that belies his size. He dribbles the ball like a guard, with hands that measure nearly a foot in width. He clears space with his frame, sometimes backing down his opponents from beyond the three point line, and then flicks passes to teammates at impossible angles. He rips rebounds from the sky and then floats the ball back into the basket with a feathery touch.
It is rare sight, to see a man that large that nimble, a combination of sheer force and astonishing agility and fortuitous genetics, but it is not rare for White. It is what he knows. He moves confidently, with purpose, with intention.
After the game, Kentucky’s head coach, John Calipari, a coach who has graduated 45 college players to the NBA, will say, “Royce is Charles Barkley.” It’s a comparison that comes up often, which is fitting since both players are anomalies, at once bullish and lithe, able to snatch rebounds from other gripping hands and then ignite a fast break with equal ease. But there are other comparisons. Jim Calhoun, one of the greatest college coaches of all time, says, “He’s got some Kevin McHale stuff inside.” One of Iowa State’s then assistant coaches, Matt Abdelmassih, goes a step further. “It’s unfair to Royce,” he tells Sports Illustrated, “but LeBron is the one guy you can compare him to.”
The NBA scouting reports are jotted with similar praise. “Legitimate playmaker.” “Big time rebounder.” “Crafty low-post scorer.” “NBA ready body.” His college coach, Fred Hoiberg, now coaching the Chicago Bulls, will say, “There are just so many things that he does. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a player like him.”
White is about to announce his own opinion on the matter. Davis swats at him, tries to slow him down, to knock him off his path, but it doesn’t work. White launches into the air, dunks the ball through the hoop and then bellows his own proclamation.
“I’M THE BEST PLAYER IN THE COUNTRY.”
At that moment, it’s hard to argue with him. In his lone season at Iowa State, White is the only player in the nation to lead his team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks. He also led the team back into the NCAA tournament for the first time in seven years. In this game, he has thoroughly outplayed the future number one NBA draft pick.
Back on steady ground, White thumps his chest. He screams. He makes sure he will be heard, and here lies the problem.
Royce White has something to say.
* * *
Have you ever dreamt that you’re rushing somewhere, maybe trying to catch a plane or make an appointment, but no matter what you do, and no matter how hard you try, your mind and your body and the circumstances of your pursuit can’t reach an understanding?
What happened next is kind of like that.
David Stern calls White’s name in the NBA draft on June, 2012. He goes 16th overall to the Houston Rockets. He shakes hands with Commissioner, poses for photos in a Rockets cap, indulges the in the ritual procedures, but he never plays a regular season game for the team. He misses the beginning of training camp, then the first week of the preseason. He becomes locked in a contractual dispute with the team.
White has generalized anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, a fact that came to light during his college season, when he brought it up, unprovoked, in an interview after a game. Soon after that, in the eyes of many, including the press, it became the easy way define him. It was a label that stuck. Then the rumours began. He’s afraid of flying. He’s lazy. Uncommitted. A wasted draft pick. This was his reward for honesty.
While this was happening, White was asking for his contract to be ratified to include a mental health protocol. He wanted protections, he wanted to feel safe and he wanted professionals making his mental health decisions, his own doctor, not someone in the front office of the Rockets, not a graduate of a business school. The Rockets agree to some contractual amendments but White is told his performance will dictate further accommodations. Until he proves himself as a commodity, this argument implies, the discussion is moot.
White’s anxiety manifests in multiple ways. It can affect his sleeping patterns, his appetite, his ability to be social. His anxious episodes can swallow minutes, or days, or weeks. They can arrive in waves or slowly build into a flood of thoughts that can’t be held, that thrive on fear, that drown out everything else. The panic attacks, White says, feel like death.
When White gets on the court for Houston, in a summer league game, those in the broadcast booth can’t help but make comparisons once again. “He’s reminding me of Charles Barkley.” “He has the total package.” On the court, White is running in transition, he’s dribbling the ball behind his back, he’s throwing no look passes. He is playing hungry, determined, relentless basketball.
At halftime, he’s grabbed 10 rebounds and scored just four points. Even though everyone on the court is competing for the same few roster spots, White has focused on his teammates. This is not by force or by accident. This is just the way he plays.
At halftime, a sideline reporter grabs him on his way to the locker room. “Are you going to look for more of the post game in the second half?”
“No,” White responds. “I’m just going to look to make the right play.”
White is a uniquely unselfish basketball player. The thing he loves most about the game, he says, is teamwork. “Teamwork,” he says, “is a microcosm of what we need more of in the world.”
White never ends up playing a regular season game for the Rockets. Instead he’s shipped out in a trade to Philadelphia. He has brief stops with Sacramento, the Los Angeles Clippers, the NBA D-League. In total, it adds up to nine minutes in the NBA. He took one shot and missed.
“Every part of my story has been to challenge what we’re really saying and what we’re really doing,” he says.
The journey White has been on since 2012, since the moment the league called his name, is winding and complex but at the root of it there is a simple, inarguable truth.
The NBA wanted his body. Instead they got his mind.
* * *
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It’s mid-February and snow is falling softly against a grey winter sky. White’s voice, thick with frustration, comes booming through a telephone.
“It’s ludicrous, man,” he says, the line cracking. “Now that I’m playing and I’m almost averaging a triple double out here, not only am I an NBA talent but I’m much better than most guys in the NBA and the scary thing isn’t that I’m not on a team, the scary thing is I didn’t even get invited to training camp last summer. I didn’t even get invited to a training camp. Fuck making a team. I’m one of the best 10 basketball players in the world. It’s crazy, man.”
White has an explanation for why he’s not in the NBA, and it’s best to hear it unadulterated:
“It’s because I was willing to challenge the status quo, publicly and behind closed doors. I was willing to be honest and say ‘No, I’m going to challenge you.’ It does nothing for me to sit back and make 100 million dollars if the integrity of the conversation is still poor. This whole generation that’s coming, that’s becoming adults right now, that really believe in themselves and each other and humanity, they believe profit and greed has held the day for much too long, all of those things are coming to fruition, and I’m a shining example of that and they were scared of that and that’s just the bottom line. It’s scary for them for an individual to have ideas and determination. To them that exemplifies that individuals with ideas and with determination still hold power and they don’t like that.
Their whole way of maintaining power is as a collective group. We keep everybody else out of the power dynamic. We keep the players out of the power dynamic. We keep the agents in a certain spot in the power dynamic. We keep the media at a certain length in the power dynamic. We keep the families of the players, or the communities they come from, at a certain length in the power dynamic. We’re doing the best to keep the power from getting outside of our little fraternity.
And when one 21-year-old comes from one of those communities and challenges you and says, ‘Look, you can keep your 100 million dollars. You can go fuck yourself,’ that’s scary. Not just because I’m 6’8”, 270, and I’m telling you to go fuck yourself, not just that, but it’s scary because there’s an actual evolution that’s happening that’s at their doorstep and they don’t have a great pulse on it.”
At the time he says this, White is just over two months into his first full basketball season in five years. He made his NBL Canada debut on Boxing Day, in London, Ontario. Outside, the city of around 400,000 was cloaked with fog, freezing rain pelted the streets. Inside the arena, White stepped onto the court at Budweiser Gardens and instantly became the most accomplished player the National Basketball League of Canada league has ever had.
There have been other notable players and other attempts at redemptive narratives here. Aquille Carr, a diminutive human highlight reel from Baltimore who captured global attention during his electrifying high school career, resurfaced in New Brunswick only to disappear again shortly thereafter. Renardo Sidney, who was once touted as the next Magic Johnson before his college career was upended by various suspensions, played briefly on Prince Edward Island. The league has welcomed players that have gone off the rails in one way or another and have tried to find a way back on track in Canada, but their stories are rarely uncomplicated, rarely as tidy as they are presented. White is different, though. His story is bigger than basketball and bigger than an individual. It’s a story that matters beyond the walls of a gym. And it’s not over.
On his second trip down the floor, White catches the ball near the basket and, then spins around his defender. In one effortless motion, he fakes his defender into the air and then flips the ball through the hoop. A moment later, he steals the ball and throws an overhand baseball pass to a teammate streaking down court. It hits him in stride. Before two minutes have ticked off the clock, five years of rust has already dissolved.
It is not long before word gets out, and because of who he is, and where’s he been, and what he’s done, attacking White becomes a point of emphasis for opposing teams. They try to throw White off his game with physicality. They try to bully him.
“They hit him harder than anyone I’ve seen in this league,” says his coach Kyle Julius, who formerly played for London during the NBL’s inaugural season. “He gets banged around more than anybody in the league. That’s what they try to do to him. They try to get under his skin.”
In the face of this White is mostly serene, mostly indifferent. “The strength battle has never challenged me, at all, my whole career,” he says. “There’s not many guys that are going to overpower me.” There are moments, though, tipping points of frustration, and a month later White lets his teammates know how committed he is.
In the second half of a Sunday afternoon game, White, in 18 minutes of basketball, has 17 points, six rebounds and six assists, when an opposing player, Nick Evans, a 6’11” center, sticks his knee out and trips one of White’s teammates. White rushes over and wraps his arms around Evans, who wriggles free and squares up in response, his body primed, ready to throw punches. White says nothing, he does nothing, instead he returns the offer with a wild-eyed stare. Players get between them, and cooler heads prevail, but White shows, in that moment, that he or his teammates will not be taken advantage of. They will not be bullied.
Two months later, in a game in Orangeville, at the same gym that has produced budding NBA talents Jamal Murray and Thon Maker, White matches up with Orangeville’s two towering centers, a 210-pound pogo stick from New Orleans named Slim Magee, and a beefy Serbian named Stefan Nastic. Both Nastic and Magee make an effort to get tangled up with White, trying to prevent him from getting where he wants to go. It’s a strategy, but a flawed one.
White collects 30 points, six rebounds and six assists and posts only one turnover, remarkable considering how often he has the ball in his hands, and how much the offence flows through him. At multiple points in the game, both Nastic and Magee wind up on the floor. They crash into White, grasping and grappling and hoping to bring White down, but it works against them. Their flailing meets force. White stays on his feet. They don’t.
Afterwards, in the hallway outside the locker room, White speaks softly. He seems tired, which makes sense. London has won 16 of their last 17 games and he is a large part of the reason why.
“In the first half of the season I would get upset out there a lot,” he says. “I’m just trying to learn the rules here. Coach is doing a good job. We’ve got some cues and signals that help me stay locked in.”
White doesn’t say what those signals are, but watching him play reveals a hidden language. When he’s frustrated his first move is to look to the bench and to his coach. White watches him and they speak in code—nods, hand signals, words mimed and silently mouthed. Then, offered this reassurance, White gets back to playing. He gets back to being unstoppable.
* * *
White started playing basketball at five-years old on an eight-foot high hoop in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His grandmother put the ball in his hands. He grew up with a large, diverse family—Mexican, Norwegian, Welsh, African-American. He learned early how to navigate other personalities and how to find harmony within his own family.
Maybe as a result of this, his guard is always up. He can carry a hard and suspicious expression. On the court, this translates to a hyper-awareness. He is always scanning for possibilities, always reading situations a step or two ahead of anyone else. When he has trust everything changes, he is warm and welcoming, and in London, the best performing market in the NBL, the city supports him from the beginning. He responds in kind.
In February, White travels to a local school to meet a student who is undergoing cancer treatment. There, at the school, White and others shave their heads in support. The team captures it on a cellphone video. “I’ll see you Saturday with my new ‘do,” White tells the camera, smiling, rubbing his head, his giant frame folded into a school chair. “Hopefully it’ll make me go faster.”
“It’s a brotherhood here,” one fan, wearing a yellow London Lightning t-shirt and matching yellow cap, tells me at a game. “It’s been like that since the start.” Later, I ask White about this, and about an NBA player’s recent reference to an ‘NBA family’ while speaking at a press conference. His tone changes immediately.
“I don’t know shit about that,” he says. “I don’t know shit about that. That just sounds like a bunch of fucking bullshit to me. I don’t know what family they talking about but I was never part of it. I never got a whiff of no type of loyalty from any of those motherfuckers, to be honest.”
Smoldering grudge aside, White says he would return to the NBA if the opportunity presents itself, but he’s not backing down from his stance. He’s not giving in to a league that left him behind. “There ain’t no fucking middle ground,” he says. “The facts are the facts. Science is science, motherfucker. It’s not negotiable. The shit that the mental health community has done to solidify what we know about mental health is not negotiable. It’s not contractual. They are treating that shit like it’s contracts. This ain’t negotiable.”
He sighs. He’s frustrated. The conversation is over. “Let me call you back,” he says. He doesn’t, and when he hangs up, the click is deafening.
* * *
“Royce means a lot to me,” says Matt Abdelmassih, an assistant coach with Iowa State during White’s season there, and now an assistant coach with the men’s basketball team at St. John’s University.
“I’m just happy he’s found a spot in Canada where he’s playing and doing really well.”
Abdelmassih is one who recruited White to Iowa State. Now, he’s the godfather to one of White’s children, Royce II.
“It probably took some years off my life but looking back at it, it was a blessing to be around Royce,” says Abdelmassih. “I learned a lot about kids, and even myself during that year.”
The coverage of White’s story has not always been flattering, and it’s been hard, at times, Abdelmassih says, knowing what he knows, to watch it unfold.
“I just think the perception out there of him is, here’s this arrogant guy that has never proven himself that feels like he’s owed and deserving of the world when he also had the opportunity at such a young age to make a life for himself, and people would give up a lot to be in that position, and he threw it away because of his opinion and stubbornness on the matter. That’s where I think it’s unfair. He hasn’t helped himself with just being quiet. Because maybe if he was more quiet that perception would be different, but he’s a kid that means nothing but good and wants nothing but good and to help people and to share his experiences so someone else doesn’t have to go through it.”
That perception of White, as coddled, or difficult, or immature is fueled, partly, by the fact that his illness is invisible. It’s not a busted ankle, or jammed finger or any other injury typical of basketball players. It is something that manifests without visual cues, without a news story or highlight reel.
“It’s not something you can see,” Abdelmassih says. “This thing that Royce suffers from specifically, this anxiety disorder, everybody gets anxious, every day there’s a certain point that me, you, the normal person that doesn’t suffer with the severity that he does, you get anxious. It could be for anything, but that’s where Royce struggles. His is so severe that it dominates his life. It’s hard to explain to people, it really is. He shuts down.”
Asked about White’s ability on the basketball court, Abdelmassih draws in a deep breath. “He’s so talented,” he exhales. “So talented. I wish that the experience he had in the NBA turned out to be better because I think he belongs in the NBA, he’s talented enough to be in the NBA, but at the end of the day I don’t know if he’ll have that opportunity again because I think that bridge has been burnt one too many times.”
Near the end of our conversation Abdelmassih asks if I’ve had a chance to talk to anyone in the NBA about White. I tell him that I’ve been trying, but every call and email has gone unreturned.
“Yeah,” he sighs. “Yeah. That’s what I figured.”
* * *
In May, White is named the MVP of the Canadian league. The team finishes the season with 46 wins and seven losses, the league’s best ever record, and White leads the Lighting in scoring and rebounding, averaging just a shade under 20 and 10 a game, while also setting a league record for triple-doubles in a season. The next month, the Lighting defeat the Halifax Hurricanes to capture their third championship.
In the best of seven series, Halifax, like every other team in the league, struggles to keep White in check. Each game, he overpowers them. Then he gets in his own way. In Game 3, White is called for an illegal screen. It’s a questionable call, and White’s frustration erupts. He turns on a dime, the ball in his right hand, and he hurls it deep into the upper echelon of the stadium, an area so far removed from the court that the seats weren’t made available for purchase. Oddly, his expression remains unchanged as he does this. He is stoic, visibly unmoved, but somewhere inside of himself, somewhere no one else can see, he is bursting.
The league suspends White for Game 4, but when he returns he is unstoppable. He collects 28 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists in Game 5, and then seals the championship with a 34 point, 15 rebound, nine assist performance in Game 6.
Afterwards, in the locker room, the players douse each other in champagne. They laugh and shout and hug each other and jump up and down. Where they will go from here is uncertain. Some will continue chasing checks in other foreign leagues. Some will return to London. White doesn’t know it yet, but in the weeks that follow this moment, his phone will begin to ring again. He will receive offers from Europe, the NBA G-League, and the NBA summer league, and then he will turn each one of them down.
In late July, he announces that he’s returning to London. “Why wouldn’t I just play in London?” he says, when asked about this decision. “We won the championship for christ’s sake. We made history. Why would I leave defending my title? Why would I leave where I’m a champion at? To go where? Not only do I not know if I’m going to get a fair shot, I don’t know what the team I’m going to is going to do, what their priorities are, if winning is important.
“Any player going to a new team is in a situation where things are up in the air but you add my history with the league to that and it’s almost insurmountable. Their attitude with mental health hasn’t really changed. They’re still talking like they’re right. ‘Royce needs to go prove himself.’ What the fuck am I proving myself about? Since when did saying something true about a topic that affects everybody change how you play the game of basketball? It changes your standing with people who broker the game of basketball, for sure, but my anxiety doesn’t change my ability to play basketball. The only thing that is changed or affected by that is people’s opinion of me and I can’t play that game. That’s a lose-lose.”
White has played the role of a necessary antagonist. He has sacrificed a lucrative career, fame, fortune and the benefits of celebrity to pursue a larger goal. He has traded the largest stage his craft offers, and the limitless resources that accompany it, for bumpy bus rides to games in stuffy community gyms. It’s a trade that not many people would make but to White it’s the most important issue in the world. Mental health, he believes—and our lack of resources and understanding and empathy towards it—is the most critical issue facing society.
In July, the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement went into place. For the first time ever, it included a section outlining a mental wellness program and new procedures to help players deal with mental health. That probably doesn’t happen without White, but he isn’t satisfied.
“They are saying a mental wellness program will be implemented but there’s no details to when or how. How is it that a CBA is going to be ratified and there are no details on one of the most important components of human existence? You got all the details about money, about players wearing Mitsubishi on their jersey, I’m sure you got all that on there, and mental health is left for last. That’s what the microcosm is of the bigger societal issue. Where are our priorities at? And do we understand that our lack of priorities end up causing more work for us?
“There’s no way to cheat the universe.”
* * *
On a Saturday night in April there is a moment that stands out. A world away, the Houston Rockets, White’s former team, are preparing for their playoff run, but in London, in front of a few thousand fans, the Lightning have just won another game. The arena staff are now tearing down the court. The baskets are lowered and wheeled down darkened hallways. The courtside chairs are stacked and carted away the same. Local media file their stories, pizza slices growing cold and hard next to them.
The players emerge from the locker room slowly. In the tunnel, daughters and sons play their own mini version of basketball, chasing a ball through the hallway, while wives and girlfriends wait nearby. Most of the players are dressed in hoodies and t-shirts marked with logos from various NBA teams. They are remnants from past summer league tryouts, or private workouts that did not lead to full time positions, or gifts from brothers who have managed to find a place in the world’s top league. They are hopes and dreams, printed on cotton.
It’s nearly 11 p.m. now, and a bus ride to another town and another game awaits tomorrow morning. White is one of the last to leave. The raucous hallway has grown quiet. There’s no one left waiting. He walks to the exit alone, an undershirt clinging to his chest, jogging pants hanging loosely from his hips. His phone is in his right hand, the sneakers he wore for the game in his left. He carries nothing else.
Earlier in the season he talked about basketball as a reassurance, as a way to reinforce the principles he values. He plays the way he lives. Thoughtfully, compassionately. “Basketball was never out of it,” he said then. “It will never be out of it. No matter what the league, are any basketball industry chooses to do, they’ll never be able to take basketball out of my life.”
Now he pushes open the exit and light from the parking lot pours inside, drawing a pool of gold across the cold concrete floor. His silhouette temporarily fills the doorway. Then he steps forward. The door creaks to a close. A moment later he’s gone, and so is the light.
* * *
Sam Riches is a writer and journalist based in Toronto.
* * *
Editor: Mike Dang | Fact-checker: Matt Giles
Illustrator: J.O. Applegate