Back in October of 2013, the Philadelphia 76ers waived Royce White just before the start of the season rather than carry him on their all-but-talent-devoid roster. When the hammer fell, my colleague Eric Freeman suggested that the former Iowa State standout and 2012 first-round draft pick — whose professional career to that point had been more hypothetical than practical, owing to repeated disagreements with the Houston Rockets over how to address and manage his generalized anxiety disorder — might need to take a step back before he could take a step forward:
It is possible that another team will sign White (or that the Sixers will bring him back on a D-League deal), but a safer bet would be that he will have to prove himself at a lower level of competition first. […] After failing to make the roster of a team that could threaten the worst record in league history, it would seem that White’s reputation is at an all-time low. He will probably need to play in the D-League or overseas if he wants to work his way back to the best league in the world.
White did wind up making it back to the NBA, but only briefly, working a pair of 10-day contracts with the Sacramento Kings in the spring of 2014 that produced nine total minutes, two fouls and one shot (a miss) over three games before he once again found himself on the outside of the NBA looking in. After exploratory discussions with the Denver Nuggets in 2014, a 2015 Summer League stint with the Los Angeles Clippers and a 2016 veteran minicamp invite from the New York Knicks all failed to bear fruit, White has remained outside the NBA. Now, he hasn’t set sail for the continent to rekindle his career, but he has found a foreign league a little closer to home.
The point forward who earned First Team All-Big 12 honors with the Cyclones under now-Chicago Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg has inked a deal to join the London, Ont., Lightning of the National Basketball League of Canada, a 10-team league that’s been in operation since 2011. From the team’s Thursday announcement:
“We are thrilled to have Royce in London. He is going to bolster our front court. Royce had one of the best NCAA careers in the last 10 years and we are going to do everything possible to get him back into that type of shape and that type of mindset,” said head coach Kyle Julius. “We are going to use him and his skill set the same way Fred Hoiberg was able to do at Iowa State, where he was a focal point as both a perimeter player and a big man. Hopefully that will translate into wins for us and to Royce becoming a better player and playing at a higher level.”
“I’m happy to be here in London. I am excited about this community. I am appreciative of [team owner] Vito [Frijia] and him allowing me to be here. I’m excited to be in contact with people with character like Vito,” said White. “I still feel very young at 25 and I’m excited to get back to playing again. I’m glad that coach believes in me. I still feel like I have a lot of good basketball to play. I’m looking forward to getting back on the court and doing some of the same things I was able to do in college. I’m looking forward to building something special here in London, a team culture of [camaraderie], selfless basketball, having fun, winning games and enjoying it together as a team.”
As of March, White had been “putting all [his] energies and focus into my humanitarian ambitions [and] entrepreneurial ventures in my hometown of Twin Cities, Minnesota.” Those ambitions continue to include working to destigmatize mental health issues and working to address the separation between mental health and general health in workplaces and society; in May, with four doctors, he co-wrote an open letter calling on the NBA and National Basketball Players Association to take a more active stance in the “development of a comprehensive care initiative” and mental health policy that addresses mental health as an essential benefit for all players.
White’s persistent advocacy for a formal, comprehensive agreement on handling his own process was the defining characteristic of his time with the Houston Rockets, who drafted him with the 16th overall pick in the first round of the 2012 NBA draft.
Despite early signs that he and the team had reached an agreement on how to deal with his anxiety and fear of flying, White missed his first training camp and got into several disagreements with Rockets management over what he saw as their refusal to effectively treat his mental health issues.
Eventually, the Rockets suspended him for “refusal to provide services” by refusing to accept an assignment to join the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the D-League in protest of what he called “unsafe […] medical decisions” made by “unqualified Rockets front office personnel [who] are not mental health professionals.” After some negotiation, he finally reported to the D-League, but rather than serving as a springboard to White finally getting on the court for the Rockets, it instead became an underwhelming precursor to being shipped off to Philly so Houston could create enough cap space to sign Dwight Howard. He never took the floor in live action for the Sixers, either, and despite his optimism that he’d find an NBA home, the right situation has yet to materialize.
“I don’t think there was ever a time where I thought it was completely over,” White said at his Thursday introduction in London, according to Scott Kitching of BlackburnNews.com. “There were times where I was more committed to taking space away from basketball, to take time to better position myself for life without basketball.”
White continues to believe that the NBA’s inability to deal (or disinterest in dealing) with mental health issues ranks among the biggest reasons he doesn’t have a gig, despite a track record of being precisely the kind of playmaking power forward who has come into favor in the league in recent years.
“I want to play at the top level,” White told told NBA.com’s David Aldridge back in June. “And I should be able to. If we go back and talk about who I got drafted with, we talk about who’s shining now, like Draymond (Green), who I love. I love his game. Again, you can’t put more irony in a story than mine. You talk about two players who are the hybrid, new looking four man. Who are you talking about? You’re talking about Draymond Green. And when he was in college, there was only one other player who led his team in every statistic. And he led his in four; I actually led mine in five. That was me.”
And yet, while Green can also present unique issues for his NBA team at times, his on-court productivity doesn’t come attached to an off-court commitment to reinvent how the league handles a difficult problem that touches on a number of specific collectively bargained issues. More immediately to the point, though: Green also has recently demonstrated, and continues to demonstrate, “on-court productivity.” White hasn’t regularly played high-level/non-Summer League basketball in more than two years, and he averaged 10.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists on 43.1 percent shooting in 20 games spread over two years in the D-League.
It’s entirely reasonable for White to prioritize his mental health and well-being above all else; if he’d come to believe that what he’d be required to accept to play in the NBA constituted an unacceptable risk or sacrifice of his own mental health, there would be no shame in moving on to other pursuits. But it appears that White continues to operate with the goal of getting back to the big leagues.
“His goal and our goal right now would be to get him back to the NBA but there are still a lot of things to discuss,” Frijia told Morris Dalla Costa of the London, Ont., Free Press earlier this week.
If White does want to play in the NBA again, he has to start by playing somewhere. London, Ontario, might not be a basketball mecca, but after so much time away from a career that never really got underway in the first place, it might be as good a place to start as any.
“He has to take a little bit different path to get back to the NBA level, and that’s the big decision he has to make — how he wants to show he wants to get back to the NBA,” Hoiberg told NBA.com’s Aldridge in June.
For now, it seems, White’s path back will begin in front of a few thousand fans at Budweiser Gardens in Southwestern Ontario. How far it takes him — and whether it takes him all the way back to the big show — remains to be seen.
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