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Why Royce White is skeptical the NBA genuinely cares about players' mental health

Thirteen months after he was drafted, Royce White was out of the NBA. Five years later, playing professionally in Canada, he reflects on his experience in Houston and the state of the mental health conversation in the NBA. (Photo via Aaron Wynia/Esquire)

The irony isn’t lost on Royce White.

As he talks on the phone, he’s watching the Houston Rockets take on the Toronto Raptors. For White, it’s a look at what might have been, and a cold-cup-of-coffee reminder of what was.

On one side: Raptors star DeMar DeRozan, the player whose recent disclosure of bouts with depression helped embolden other players to come forward and reignited a conversation about mental health in the NBA. On the other: the Rockets, the team that drafted White, a 6-foot-8, 270-pound point forward who won Big 12 Player of the Year honors at Iowa State, and whose widely publicized generalized anxiety disorder became a battleground during his brief time in the NBA.

“I mean, [expletive], it doesn’t get no more ironic than that,” White said with a laugh. “I mean, you couldn’t even write this [expletive] up. It’s ludicrous.”

White never saw the court for Houston in the regular season. Less than 13 months after they drafted him, the Rockets shipped him to the Philadelphia 76ers to clear salary-cap space. Within a year, he was out of the NBA. You hear different things about why that is.

White talks March 9 from a hotel in Newfoundland, where he’s staying with the London Lightning, the team for which he’s been starring in the National Basketball League of Canada for a little over a year. We’re talking because White read a Yahoo Sports story about where the NBA mental health conversation goes now, featuring references to White’s reported clashes with the Rockets over the management of his anxiety disorder, his attempts to challenge league and team policies governing players’ mental health issues, and how it all went south for a player seen by some at the time as “lost” and “confused.” After reading it, White reached out and said the story “couldn’t be more wrong.”

“The historical context is important,” White told Yahoo Sports. “Because as we come into this time now, where players are going to start to come forward about struggles that they are more recently developing, or have been dealing with for a long time past, it’s important to look at where we came from in this matter, so that we can be properly oriented in where we’re at.”

So, what does White say was wrong? What don’t we know?

Well, here goes:

White says that Rockets personnel told him in 2012 that establishing a comprehensive written plan for managing his anxiety disorder would be “impossible,” because doing so would set a precedent “for any league-wide issue regarding mental health.” He says that, after negotiating with the Rockets and the NBA over allowing White to take a bus to certain games to reduce the number of flights he’d have to take in a season — a compromise he was told the league initially rejected because it would constitute an illegal circumvention of the salary cap — Houston deactivated him for the first preseason game he took a bus to, as a punishment for pressing the issue. (White noted that, more accurately, he has a fear of heights that’s exacerbated by flying, and that, while flying is a stress trigger for him, he has flown many times during his career. He’s adamant he never outright refused to fly while with the Rockets.)

White says that, in a later meeting in which he and a team of medical professionals planned to present a draft of a mental health policy to be added to his contract, Houston general manager Daryl Morey said he didn’t know that White suffered from generalized anxiety disorder before drafting him. The assertion blindsided White, whose condition had been widely covered prior to the draft. It also made him feel like the Rockets might be trying to set up a way to void his guaranteed contract if he didn’t comply with their requirements.

“[Morey] was in a mode where he thought that he could bully me,” White said.

The Rockets did not respond to multiple requests for comment addressing White’s allegations. The NBA declined comment on White’s specific situation due to respect for his privacy.

As he reflected on his experience in Houston, on how a situation that seemed so promising curdled and soured, White expressed skepticism that revelations by DeRozan, Kevin Love, Kelly Oubre and others would really lead to a sea change in the way the NBA addresses issues of mental health.

“I believe in order for true progress to happen, there has to be genuine care,” he said.

White said he began to have his doubts about the presence of that care in the NBA after the draft, when he arrived for the league’s annual Rookie Transition Program.

“I saw [former NBA player] Chris Herren speak about his experience with heroin addiction at the Rookie Transition Program,” White said. “And after that, I became interested about what formalities existed regarding mental health. I was surprised to find out that there were none. Not a single paragraph in the [collective bargaining agreement] at that time addressed mental health.”

Wary of entering a high-stakes situation without an understanding of how to manage any anxiety-related issues should they arise, White approached his new team.

Royce White starred at Iowa State in 2012. (Getty)

“I suggested to the Rockets that we collaborate with doctors on a comprehensive plan for my own anxiety disorder,” he said, and here he stopped for emphasis. “For my anxiety disorder. Not for everybody at large. For mine.”

Not that he couldn’t see the bigger picture surrounding his individual case.

“Now, I also suggested that it may serve as a good foundation for a league-wide plan,” he said. “I did suggest that, at the same time. But that wasn’t the premise for the conversation between me and the Rockets. At 21 years old, to be honest, I didn’t see myself as a power within that system that could even bring that conversation to be.”

The smaller-scale conversation got off to a rocky start.

“The response that I got was that a policy for myself was impossible. To put something in writing with my anxiety disorder was impossible,” White said. “It was said that it would take a long time to get [all 30 NBA] owners to agree to such a move, because in order for the Rockets to do it, the entire league would have to do it or agree, because it would have implications and [set] precedent for the whole league.

“They were citing fears of setting a precedent. There were fears of players faking [having mental illnesses to be able to get paid not to play] that were being communicated to me, as well. And there was a general skepticism toward mental health science, overall.”

After what White characterizes as “more casual and informal” conversations with the Rockets about mental health that didn’t move toward a formal policy, he decided not to attend Houston’s preseason training camp.

“My doctor” — the family practitioner who had first diagnosed White’s generalized anxiety disorder when he was a senior in high school — “recommended to me that you need to sit down with them before you go forward and figure out what their policy is, if there is one,” White said. “And if there isn’t, then you need to be willing to be honest with them and come up with a plan. And that’s going to mean that you’re going to have to disclose everything about your anxiety disorder, and lay it on the table, and hopefully you guys will be able to work together to figure out a plan that makes sense.”

White says his doctor offered to help the Rockets begin building that broader policy. The team, he says, made a counter offer: let’s work on the flying/traveling issue.

“It was something that they suggested to tackle, because it was part of the media parlance,” White said. “It was kind of the in-good-faith conversation, or the gateway conversation, to the much longer policy conversation that we want to have, but can’t execute quickly. So we’re going to have the traveling conversation, because we think we may be able to do that in a quicker turnaround.”

White says he found himself questioning that expedited turnaround after a lunch meeting in which Rockets general counsel Rafael Stone introduced the idea of White taking a bus to games that were nearby enough not to require plane travel, a la former NFL coach and analyst John Madden taking the “Madden Cruiser” to his color-commentary assignments. A 21-year-old in his first go-round in the league, White didn’t know how policies got made in the league office … or, honestly, what the “league office” really was.

“I knew about David Stern, I knew there was a commissioner,” White said. “I had heard stories about Rod Thorn and people like that. But I didn’t really know how it worked formally. So Rafael Stone told us that nothing like this had been done, that he knew about, so he wasn’t sure exactly what would happen. But he also said that he spoke with the NBA office on a weekly basis, and was confident that it could be done.”

That arched White’s eyebrows.

“When I suggested that we put a policy in place, it was impossible, because you had to get all the owners to agree on something being put in a formal piece of documentation or legislation,” he said. “But when it came to traveling in the bus, there was some wiggle room, and all of a sudden, on a weekly basis, formal policies are coming in and out of existence all the time.”

It’d be fair to say White’s skepticism didn’t abate any when the Rockets told him the NBA had nixed the idea of Houston paying for a bus, and that the league “even went as far as to threaten Houston with fines in the millions of dollars and other penalties” for providing White with a financial accommodation that would’ve fallen outside the confines of the salary cap.

“Naturally, I was very frustrated,” White said. “And I told them: I don’t understand how accommodating a pre-existing medical condition could be a salary cap infringement. And I also said that a notion like that made me believe that the problem was bigger than I previously thought it was. Because now we’re not talking about a policy or not a policy, or is busing reasonable or isn’t it reasonable. Now we’re talking about, is mental health even considered a medical condition within this industry?”

The Houston Rockets drafted Royce White with the No. 16 pick in the 2012 NBA draft. He never played a minute for the team. (AP)

That question led White to push for the Rockets and the NBA to include medical and mental health professionals in their discussions. He says the league responded by setting up a meeting between White and Dr. Stephen Taylor, the medical director of the joint NBA/NBPA Anti-Drug Program — an independent, neutral party.

“He agreed that busing was a reasonable alternative,” White said. “He expressed concerns himself as to why busing would be seen as unreasonable. And he also agreed that a policy was necessary to guide these types of situations moving forward.”

After that meeting, according to White, Morey said the Rockets would go back to the league. Within a couple of days, he said, the league OK’d the busing plan.

“The situation let me know [that] there was no concrete policy, because in a few days’ time, we got two completely different answers on just busing alone, and the answer informally changed from it being a salary cap infringement to it being totally OK,” White said. “[…] And the doctors that are on my end are hearing these responses, like, ‘Well, wait a minute. We want you to be able to have a bus, too, but we’re alarmed that they’re just able to switch the rules on and off as they see fit.'”

Still uneasy over the state of the negotiations, White returned to practice with the Rockets. He got the sense that nobody knew exactly why he hadn’t been around.

“My teammates and the coaches and the trainers all approached me with this sort of clueless type of sentiment,” White said. “Like, ‘We don’t really know what was going on, but we’re happy you’re back, hopefully you can work out whatever it is that you’re going through.'”

Believing the more comprehensive policy he sought would be coming soon, White set about preparing for the first preseason game he’d attend via bus.

“The next preseason game that I had, that they bused me to, they deactivated me in,” he said. “Now, you go back in the history of the NBA and look and see where a player who was touted as NBA-ready, both skill-wise and body-wise, was deactivated in a preseason game that didn’t have a severe injury, a legal issue, a failed drug test or some type of team violation with the coach, or something of that nature. […]

“What does that suggest? It suggests that there was a punishment that was being played out because they were forced to give me a bus. So when the narrative said that they gave me a bus and that that was them trying to support and accommodate me? No. Them giving me a bus actually ended up becoming an example that they were willing to penalize me, and punish me for supporting me, or for having to support me. That’s where the narrative of, ‘[White’s complaint] was about playing time’ — no, it wasn’t about playing time. It was about being deactivated in a preseason game.”

That, White says, is when he stopped the good-faith, go-along-to-get-along approach, and insisted on the creation of a full formal policy. The Rockets, in turn, sent him to a psychiatrist, Dr. Aaron Fink, claiming that White’s “anxiety was too bad for me to play.”

White says that Fink, like the anti-drug program medical director Turner, backed the idea of bus travel and the pursuit of a policy. White also says Fink suggested the Rockets might be more receptive to the idea if he, the doctor they’d hired to help out, came to them with a plan.

So, for a couple of weeks, several people who’d been involved in White’s care — the high school doctor who diagnosed him, the doctor who treated him at Iowa State, the Rockets’ team physician and Fink — drew up a policy plan. They prepared a pair of documents for Houston’s brass, according to White: a two-pager laying out the broad strokes of how a mental health protocol would function, and a one-pager “on the neuroscience of anxiety disorders.”

“The plan was to give them to Daryl Morey,” White said. But at the meeting where that was to happen, he added, “Daryl Morey literally came into the team psychiatrist’s office, that they had hired, and made the claim that he did not know that I had anxiety disorder before they drafted me.”

This threw White for a loop. He says he checked with the team physicians for both the Rockets and Iowa State, making sure all of his medical records made their way to Houston. White also recalls an interview with Rockets brass, including Morey, at the annual NBA draft combine in which he was asked about his anxiety disorder, to say nothing of the pre-draft national media coverage of his issues.

Why, then, would Morey stand up and claim prior ignorance of the condition at the time the policy was being presented?

“I mean, at that point in time, he was just maybe frustrated or whatever, and he just decided to say something that was totally outrageous,” White said. “[…] I would venture to guess that it’s a combination of him being frustrated with the situation, him trying to say things to cover his own involvement, and him trying to move an agenda forward that, if I don’t return to playing quickly, that they’re going to breach my contract, and here’s the evidence that we’re able to justifiably breach your contract. It’s because we didn’t know you had anxiety before we drafted you.”

The Rockets did not return multiple requests for comment.

Meetings between White and the Rockets continued — without Morey’s presence, White says. But the relationship never got better after that.

White eventually did report to Houston’s D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, averaging 11.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 25.6 minutes per game over 16 appearances. But he’d never play for the Rockets; his NBA debut wouldn’t come until late March 2014, when he logged nine total minutes in three appearances for the Sacramento Kings. He’s had some brief chances at a return, but he’s never broken back into the league.

“I believe that if there is a genesis happening about a mental health conversation, or a mental health movement within this industry, that the players that claim to have some genuine care about it would be extremely concerned with these types of details,” White said. “Because the question becomes: how do we protect players from these types of situations going forward? Is that even possible?”

In November 2015, 3 1/2 years after his NBA journey started and 18 months after it ended, White wrote a letter to the league and players’ union laying out his continued belief in the importance of establishing a mental health policy that puts decision-making power in the hands of independent medical professionals rather than team personnel, as well as his impressions of how things went wrong in Houston.

“Shockingly, the consensus throughout the NBA that was communicated to me was no one would listen unless I played well,” White wrote. “Unless I made myself of value to the league and the owners. I was told that saying something true is no longer enough to bring change or solution. […] I needed more [than] to just be right. I needed a feel-good story, the public’s vote or an athletic prowess and performance value leverage to discuss the real issues.”

In the letter, White requested a face-to-face meeting with representatives from the league and the union to “continue to discuss establishing the necessary mental health policies that we desperately need in our league.” He didn’t get the meeting. He says he got a response from Kathy Behrens, the league’s president of social responsibility and player programs, calling some of his claims “inaccurate,” but never got any clarity on which ones, and what he’d allegedly gotten wrong. (The NBA declined comment.)

Three days after White spoke with Yahoo Sports, NBA.com’s David Aldridge reported that the league and the National Basketball Players Association “are close to naming a Director of Mental Health and Wellness, who will run an independent mental wellness program that is being jointly funded by the league and union.” It’s a program NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts discussed during All-Star Weekend in an interview with SB Nation’s Paul Flannery.

In an interview with Aldridge, White said that much of what the union’s laying out echoes the ideas he’s been advocating for a half-decade, and that he wrote the league and union about discussing three years ago. Aldridge also noted, though, that much about the program remains unclear … including “the issue of who decides the best course of action for a player — program director, or team, or some combination of both in conjunction with the player” — when it comes to mental health issues.

White insists that the point isn’t to take credit for starting the conversation that reached a fever pitch with the disclosures of DeRozan and Love, or to position himself as the face of some kind of movement.

“There already were faces,” he said. “Jerry West, for one. I mean, Jesus, do we need a bigger face than that? I mean, forget me. Let’s take me out of it, even. Now, Jerry West didn’t challenge any policy. He was 20 years removed from the league and wrote an autobiography that disclosed depression struggles. Very different from a 21-year-old discussing policy with the current regime of governing body, league office, league owners. Very, very different. But he still accounts for a mental health prevalence in the league.

“Let’s take Ron Artest, Delonte West, Eddie Griffin, Latrell Sprewell, Jason Williams, Chris Herren — a number of people who toed the line between mental health and substance abuse, which is a co-morbid line, which they know. […] So the question becomes, what did they do in light of those cases? And the next question becomes, if it’s not about the faces — if it’s about the public support of the faces, or the public wave that’s going to move the progress — then it’s a sensationalized progress, and then, again, it’s not genuine, in my opinion.”

As such, White remains skeptical that what seems like a moment of opportunity for advocating on the issue he’s most passionate about will produce real progress. He’s skeptical that when push comes to shove, owners and executives will be willing to sacrifice the kind of power necessary to implement a policy that puts control over things like mental health diagnoses, treatment and return-to-play criteria in the hands of an independent body.

He’s skeptical that, when given the choice between doing something hard and uncomfortable or just appearing to do so, the powers that be will choose the former. And he’s skeptical that he’s going to get that meeting.

“Because guess what my suggestion would be? My suggestion would be, we call an emergency meeting with the owners, like we would do if it was a conversation about national anthems,” he said with a laugh. “Let’s call an urgent meeting with the owners and get on the same page and [develop] a baseline understanding of what mental health actually is, before we start having a sensationalized conversation about this buzz topic, this headline of mental health. Let’s actually get on the same page about what it really is, from the medical standpoint, so nobody’s disoriented.

“Now, how many owners do you think would show up to that meeting?”

After all this time, even if the topic with which he’s become synonymous is back on the tips of the league’s tongues, White’s not holding his breath for the NBA to come back to him, a half-decade later, for some sort of big “Kumbaya” moment. And so, he keeps playing north of the border, keeps advocating. Keeps watching. Keeps going.

“Sports is becoming the medium with which the social issue conversation at large is being played out. It’s kind of the new moral battleground, as well as our sporting battleground,” he said. “[…] Mental health is the holy grail of human achievement. It is the holy grail, and the stakes of mental health are far greater than we care to realize or acknowledge. If we let this conversation be sensationalized, it may be the last thing we do sanely.”

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@oath.com or follow him on Twitter!

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