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Royce White: Through the Looking Glass

TDS sits down with the most enigmatic Rocket on the roster to discuss his return to basketball, the dedication of the average fan, and what it all means.

Abel Prado

It is entirely possible that Royce White has things correct and it's all of us who are mistaken. It is possible that all of us have been thinking about this Royce White "situation" from an ass-backwards perspective and it might be time we made better use of our time and energy. At least that's what White thinks.

Substance abuse and general anxiety disorder are both mental illnesses that can break you down from the inside if you let them.

Before I continue I have to get this out of the way in the interest of full disclosure and all that. I'm not entirely comfortable sharing this but I feel like I must since it undeniably affects my opinion on the subject matter. Around this time last year I was in the tail end of a 254 day stretch at a treatment facility for substance abuse. And this wasn't the kind of day spa/rehab that celebrities check into to get their balls tickled for a few days. This was the kind of place where you aren't allowed chocolate or cigarettes, let alone a television to watch Rockets games. Additionally, I have a disposition to bouts of intense anger and frustration. I constantly use humor to downplay and diffuse the severity of this condition and although it's been 16 months since my last "episode;" I know that -- if left unchecked -- my rage will cause me to inflict harm onto myself or a loved one.

Because of this, I'm inclined to think that I should be supportive of White's plight. Substance abuse and general anxiety disorder are both mental illnesses that can break you down from the inside if you let them. One might think that having something so personal in common with the subject of this piece would make me an ardent advocate of White's. But it wasn't like that at all. Something about the White saga hit a little too close to home. The story was a little too familiar and I didn't like it. As much as I can empathize with and ignore the obvious lunacy of wanting to be an NBA player with a severe fear of flying, my gut told me that White should simply suck it up and go to work. And I know I wasn't alone in this line of thinking.

The last time we saw an athlete act like such an iconoclast was Ricky Williams. Both Williams and White share the same ambivalence towards professional sports that we all hate. Ricky doesn't need to run for 100 yards to validate his existence and Royce is dead serious about never playing for the Houston Rockets if it means he can change attitudes in the NBA (and by extension a mainstream section of the public consciousness) about mental illness. These guys are fully willing to throw away the riches and accolades that come with being a professional athlete in favor of their humanistic ideals. And we want to crucify them for this. It'll take one simple Google search to find the vicious opinions of an angry mob that has traded its pitchforks and torches for keyboards and screen names to launch attack after attack on White.

And Royce didn't exactly make it easy to like him either. White runs his own camp. He surrounds himself with a team of people that either work for him or with him and some are new associates others are lifelong friends. He has no public relations machine; he doesn't hide behind empty suits or have someone on call 24/7 to help protect his brand. White takes his own advice, for better or worse. Practicality suggests that a forum of 140 characters isn't the proper place to address an issue like mental illness as things may not always come across the way you want them to on Twitter. White thinks this is irrelevant.

"I think that the people that were listening for the right things heard the right things, and the people that weren't didn't," White said when asked if he thought engaging strangers online was the best way to get his message across. "It's a complex thing when you talk about communication and how someone came across and how someone's point came across; at the end of the day we all stand on the same side of the fence. They would've heard the things that they wanted to hear no matter where I said them."

I am well aware that professional athletes live in a bizarre and different universe. The regular rules don't apply. And yet it's rather ironic that a player who would probably benefit greatly from an environment where absurdities and eccentrics are welcomed had the misfortune of inadvertently forfeiting those privileges the second he went M.I.A. during training camp. We forgive athletes who are alcoholics, addicts, rapists and domestic abusers. You can beat your wife, drive drunk, or pop enough Adderall to graduate summa cum laude but a sin too grave to forgive is wasting talent. In an economic climate where people consider themselves lucky to even have a job, we see Royce White throwing away a skill set so precious in an industry so exclusive. Who does he think he is? So after the Twitter rants and insults sent the infallible Daryl Morey's way, the collective Rocket fanbase seemed to arrive to one natural conclusion: man, fuck Royce White.

"That doesn't affect me," White says in reference to the vitriol heaved at him online. "A lot of people don't understand the dynamic of things they invest their energy in. For someone to get upset or emotional over entertainment probably suggests something that is mental illness in itself.

"For someone to get upset or emotional over entertainment probably suggests something that is mental illness in itself." -Royce White

"We invest too much in it as fans," White says. "The players should feel the most emotion about the sport. You shouldn't invest that much emotion into a sport anyway, people get raped and killed every day, there's so much out there that needs our attention and there are bigger things in life that you should invest your emotions into."

I resist rolling my eyes as he says this, but he has a point. Why do we care so much? And what makes us think that it's acceptable to trash a guy because he's not toeing the line and behaving the way we expect him to. Watching White play truly was a pleasure. And you can see how he uses every inch of his 6'8" 270 frame to have his way around the court.

White looks a bit baggier since I last saw him in action in the summer league. He trots onto the court for his start against the Iowa Energy with a gait that looks both stiff and smooth at the same time like a limber, lither version of those trees from Lord of The Rings. In the opening moments of the Vipers' March 5th contest against the Energy, I see him stand around on defense with this blank expression on his face.

He mostly waits and watches the play around him. His defensive game is seriously lacking. It's tough to say how much of these shortcomings are the side effects of sitting at home doing nothing but push ups and sit ups for three months. But eventually he reaches up and pulls down his first rebound of the night. It's a strange sequence to witness. He explodes off the floor and as he rises, defenders around him seem to naturally back away from him, either because Royce has muscled superior position on them or because everyone wants to get away from the looming locomotive of destruction he's about to become. He snatches the rebound out of the air and the sphere of pebbled leather seems to shrink down to the size of a small cantaloupe once he clutches it in his expansive hands.

Now a switch has clicked on and the look in his eye has completely changed. He never looks down at the ball as he bounds his way up the court, his eyes are constantly scanning, and he reads the defense not as an oppressive force with five moving parts but as a single nebulous oblong shape that shifts as the offense presses up the court. He pays particular attention to these shifts, probing, always probing to see where the advantage is going to show its face. He sees Andrew Goudelock working his way down to the corner; meanwhile Glen Rice has a guy on his face but there's space enough to thread a pass in. I like to imagine that White processes passing lanes the same way Joseph Gordon-Levitt chose bike paths in Premium Rush. This time. though. he drives down the lane and puts up a pretty 360 lay-up. In back-to-back games against the Energy and the Austin Toros White combined for 33 points, 19 rebounds, nine assists and five blocked shots.

It hits me that this is why we care so much. Because we like seeing things that are perfect and beautiful, whether it be the smirk on Mona Lisa's face or the stroke of a jump shot. In fact I would much rather invest my emotional stability on the success of a basketball franchise than say, fixing a relationship with an estranged family member. How does this make sense?

There's a joke that I heard when I was in that aforementioned rehab facility: in a mental ward, the orderlies design a test for their patients. They drew a door on the wall and asked each patient to try to open it. One by one, each could swear that it's not that they can't open the door it's that the knob is stuck. Clearly all these people are insane. In the back of the room the orderlies notice a man laughing at the sight of a room full of lunatics trying to open a door that doesn't exist. The orderlies approach this man thinking that perhaps, this one isn't insane. And when they ask him why he's laughing he says to them, "Those people are crazy they'll never open the door."

"And why is that?" They ask him.

"Because I got the key!"

All this time I could swear that we're the orderlies setting our own arbitrary tests of what's real and what is not, what's important and what isn't. But maybe instead we're the lunatics trying to pry our way into something that doesn't exist, or even matter. I believe that White sees himself as a human before basketball player. Basketball is but a small part of a much bigger picture. He's not a basketball warrior but a mental health radical, bra-burning his way to the top of every twitter feed asking if you've heard the good news.

I get around to asking him about his endgame, his goal, the reason he's doing all this. What kind of mark do you want to leave on the game of basketball, Royce?

"A humanist one," He says. "I'm going to continue to be me. I just put humans first over money fame, reward... and glory. That's it really."

Humans over money, fame and glory. These aren't the words that normally come out of a professional athlete's mouth, but Royce White would love it if they were.

Does that make him the guy with the key?