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. Read more…