At long last, rookie Royce White finally appears to be getting closer to playing professional basketball under the Houston Rockets' umbrella.
It's been more than two weeks since the Rockets suspended White, who has yet to play a minute for Houston this season, without pay for "refusing to provide services" as part of an ongoing dispute between the team and its first-round draft pick over how to address the anxiety disorder from which he suffers. While tension around the anxiety issue began building shortly after Houston chose White with the 16th pick in the 2012 NBA draft when he missed the first few days of training camp, things didn't really boil over until White refused an assignment to the Rockets' D-League affiliate in protest of what he called "unsafe [...] medical decisions" made by "unqualified Rockets front office personnel [who] are not mental health professionals."
The stalemate's been a topic of conversation both nationally, with ESPN's "Outside the Lines" and HBO's "Real Sports" airing recent features on White, and in Houston, where questions about whether the Iowa State product would ever suit up in Rockets red have consistently cropped up on blogs, message boards and local radio. White decided to join one such radio discussion on Wednesday, making a surprise phone call to a local morning show in which he addressed his disagreement with the Rockets — and said that, several months after the saga began, it could be nearing its end.
"Well, actually, you know, we're in the 12th hour of it being over," White told the hosts of the Madd Hatta Morning show on 97.9 FM The Box. "[...] Like, I think any hour now, this whole thing'll be over and I'm gonna be, I'm supposed to be returning to the D-League on February 11. So that was the plan. We'll see if it finally goes through, but the last thing I heard was that that's what we're gonna do, that's what we're planning to do, and we're just waiting on everybody to get the right paperwork and stuff like that."
Hours later, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle reported that, according to a "person with knowledge of the plan," the Rockets are "close to making an announcement in which White would return to the team under a written agreement that includes key elements of the protocols that White wanted to have as an addendum to his contract." The add-on reportedly won't give decision-making power over items covered in the protocol to someone outside the organization, as White initially asked for, but still seems to represent the most significant step yet to resolving the ongoing dispute between player and team.
More from Feigen:
Under the agreement, writing with input from the NBA and the NBPA, White would resume workouts to prepare for the D-League assignment. He had been working out for several days this month with basketball staff intern Derrick Alston but was suspended Jan. 6, one week after he said he would refuse his assignment to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said White was suspended “for refusing to provide services as required by his Uniform Player Contract.”
Morey would not comment on any plan with the team. When told of White’s comments on Wednesday, Morey said, “We’re in constant communication with Royce and hope to get him back in the fold soon.”
While caution seems to be the order of the day whenever it appears the relationship between White and the Rockets has taken a step forward, this development offers the first reason to feel optimistic about White's NBA future in quite a while. Two weeks ago, we were staring down the possibility that White and the NBA might not be a good match and that a player whose combination of talents as a burly point forward-type capable of running the break and orchestrating an offense from the post might never actually play in the NBA. While we're still a long way away from him joining the Rockets — and even further away from him earning minutes on a team in playoff contention, especially one where rookie bigs like Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas, who have dutifully reported the whole year, barely get garbage-time run — we appear to be at least a little closer to that being possible. That's progress.
That would seem to be to the credit of Morey and the Rockets' front office, which has repeatedly held the company line that they wanted White to be part of the team and would seek a resolution that would make that possible for both parties. Agreeing to a formal, written protocol that lets both White and the Rockets know what their rights and responsibilities are on matters related to White's anxiety disorder is the kind of step that few — and maybe no — other NBA teams would take; if White winds up becoming a valuable part of future Rockets teams, perhaps we'll look back on the willingness of Morey and Rockets owner Leslie Alexander to be flexible enough to consider crafting the addendum to White's contract and treating his case on its merits as an individual matter as a critical point in that story.
For that to happen, though, both White and the Rockets will need to hold up their ends of the bargain, and you'd suspect White's going to have to do an awful lot of work to assimilate himself into both Houston's organizational culture and its locker room after beginning his career by — necessarily, if not maliciously — establishing himself as a starkly individual entity.
White has loudly decried those who've claimed his anxiety flare-ups and subsequent protest too neatly coincided with having to do things he didn't want to do, like going through the rigorous two-a-day workouts of the first week of training camp or accept what some might see as a demotion. He's said that the real issue all along was the Rockets proving their commitment to his mental health and establishing a healthy environment for him to work. The Rockets, it now seems, have displayed such a commitment. That puts the onus on White to make good, report for D-League duty and go about the unglamorous and perhaps inglorious work of earning his way into the NBA in good faith.
White has been critical about the tendency of the NBA — and perhaps professional sports in general — to treat players like disposable commodities rather than human beings, and he's certainly got a point there; perhaps the league must evolve in the way it addresses mental health issues. But that doesn't change the on-the-court reality that the only way he'll be able to not only break into, but be accepted in and stick around the NBA, is by showing that he is willing to put in the work to compete at the highest level of the sport. For now, at least, we actually appear to be on the path to finding out the answer to that question.
Below, a transcript of some of the more relevant bits from White's 16-minute Wednesday morning radio interview, in which he discussed not only his possible return to the Rockets, but also how the issue started, his view of mental-health-related stigma in America in general and the black community in particular, the difference between the dynamics of college and pro teams, how he's like Magic Johnson, and much more:
On his mental illness and communication with the NBA:
"Well, the first thing is, I have a number of mental health issues. None of them are severe alone, and none of them are severe unless they are exacerbated. That's what happens with mental illness — for example, my anxiety affects me on a daily basis, but when it becomes exacerbated, then it has physical symptoms, just like an injury, like a physical injury. Like, if I had a heart condition. You know, my heart would start to beat the same way when my condition becomes exacerbated. So what we said is, 'Let's put a plan in place to limit the exacerbations.' Obviously, flying was one of the exacerbations, so we got that all handled — you're gonna do the bus to the games that you can, you know, blase blase, that was all good.
"And then, you know, we started having some other type of communication issues, and when that arose, I was having some serious exacerbations, like some migraine headaches that I never experienced before and things like that. And, you know, we called a stop on it, at least from my family practition[er] doctor who's been with me since I was diagnosed with anxiety and said, 'Hey, listen — we need a protocol here, because we're making it up as we go,' and that's irresponsible to mental health, because mental health is a very complex and very individualistic type of disorder that needs very, very specific care. And if we're not willing to put a plan in place, then we're basically willing to take all the consequences that come with not supporting a mental illness in the right way, and that's where we've been ever since."
On fans upset that he's refused to report despite making millions of dollars a year:
"Well, I haven't received a paycheck yet. So that's the real truth. [...] One of the things that most of us know — I wasn't listening to the radio, actually; somebody called me and said I was on so I turned it, I was at Jack in the Box — most of the people in the studio know that what everybody thinks really don't matter. A lot of people ain't paying enough attention to their own lives, so they probably ain't paying close enough attention to somebody else's life to make an accurate depiction or an accurate comment about it. And that's what's going on here."
On mental illness having little awareness in society as a whole:
"[...] it really don't matter what everybody else says, because the reality is that mental illness has always been talked about in hushed tones. It's one of the greatest social issues of our time with the least awareness. Cancer, you know, obesity, heart disease, uh, you know, the tobacco industry — we talk about everything else, and mental illness is always on the back burner."
On why mental illness is rarely discussed in the black community, especially:
"Well, you know, the black community is different. I think the black community suffers from a lack of awareness due to the bigger, broader community. I think the black community has a serious complex of the idea of manning up and getting through things, and part of that is not our fault — part of that is because for years we've had to endure very real social and economical hardships so that we've had to have the attitude of, 'You have to get through,' or, 'You have to push through.' From racism to police brutality to being poor — you know, that builds that type of mentality. On one hand, you can say, 'Well, we're stigmatizing ourselves,' and on the other you could say, 'Well, our conditions are that way.' So the black community is very unique in its mental health regard, but I think there's a larger picture here that is really not talked about by the public in general or by the government. It's kind of like, uh, homosexuality of 10 years ago."
On claims that White's issues really only sprang up when the Rockets said they wanted to send him down to the D-League:
"It's one of those things where it's really hard for me to understand why people are so sure of their comments, and they don't know. Like, it's not like they're just saying, 'Hey, this is what I think.' They're saying, like, 'It's the facts.' What the facts are is that I was not doing practices, I was not going to games, I wasn't going to team functions. I was at my home, working with the doctors that they recommended — actually, their doctor is the one who recommended we put a protocol in place, and I worked with them on the protocol. We submitted it when it was ready, and I wasn't participating with the team far before the D-League assignment ever came. And that's the reality. And you know, once you get over that reality, we're talking about, 'Well, what's really going on?' But that's the point we don't want to get to here. We want to continue talking about something that it's not about, because the real issue is that mental health is being overlooked, and it's the last thing that should be overlooked, because it is the most serious type of health condition."
On why the Rockets haven't put protocols in place like the ones the Iowa State staff did, which White said were "very instrumental in me getting to a really great place with my anxiety disorder:"
"Well, you know, that's a question that I keep hearing, and one of the things you have to realize is that the dynamics of a team in the NBA and in college are two separate things. Coach Hoiberg is the kahuna at Iowa State. When we found out we were playing Kentucky in the first round and I said, 'Coach, this is a one-off, we've got to win this game — I'm driving to make sure that ... because, you know, we don't know what a plane's going to do to me. Theoretically, we don't know how much a plane's going to take out of me, from time to time. Listen, my grandpa said he's gonna drive me, we're gonna meet you guys in Louisville, and I'm gonna do it that way.' And when he said yes, it was yes. There was nobody else, because he's the man in Iowa State, you know what I mean?
"And Coach McHale doesn't run this team. Despite what people think, he has very little control over this team. From a basketball point, he runs it, but from a business level, an operational level, he has very little say. He's almost a co-worker of mine rather than an advisor or a managerial type of position. And that's one of the big issues here, is that at Iowa State, Coach Hoiberg understood, because he has a heart condition that was life-threatening, that health should always take precedence, and he made it that way. And it's not happening that way because the management — it feels a little bit different. The dynamics are different from an NBA team to a college team."
On whether the "blame," such as there is blame, lies with Daryl Morey:
"You know, the reality is this: Everybody wants to make it seem like it's a wild, wild West standoff between me and the Rockets. That's not the case here. The reality is that there's been an issue that's been identified. Mental health is not descriptive enough in the CBA, in the UPC — which is the collective bargaining agreement and the uniform player contract — and it being so vague makes us make it up as we go, like I said earlier. There's no protocol, so we're just making it up as we go. We need to rectify that in order to make sure that the environment is safe, because if we make it up as we go, obviously everyone on the phone can agree that that's not the safest thing. So that's all we're doing here, is we're trying to figure out the best way to execute.
"And I think that as media — and I've been in the media a while now, and I write, and things like that — I just think that we've got to be more responsible with always trying to make two sides against each other, because it's not really like that. There's a real issue here. The NBA agrees, the union agrees, the Rockets know. This is all very new to the NBA, and we all need to figure out how to execute. And if I need to be the bad guy for a while until we do, then so be it. I have no problem with being that person. Like I said, black men have been against adversity all our lives; I'm not worried about that."
On how long he anticipates the "standoff" with the Rockets will last:
"Well, actually, you know, we're in the 12th hour of it being over."
On his choice to consistently advocate for his position on Twitter rather than remaining quiet in the public eye and handling the situation with the Rockets behind closed doors:
"Well, you know, you've got to do what you think is best. And everybody's their own kind of person, and me, I'm just a — you know, I'm a combustible guy. I say what I want, you know, because there ain't enough people to stop me. And that's the 'me being an a**hole' answer, but the real answer is that I believe that sticking with the truth is always going to win in the end. You know, there's the whole idea of 'politically correct' — I don't really believe in that, because I believe 'politically correct' keeps us from resolution. 'Politically correct' keeps us from moving as forward as we should. So, I believe that if I stick with the truth that, in the end — even if everybody at the time turns a blind eye to the truth — I'm willing to be the only one in the room with the truth, and be the one that everyone looks at and goes, 'Oh, that's the black sheep.' Because eventually it's going to come around that OK, I was telling the truth, and that's what's happening now, is that once we scratch the surface, we see the CBA is very vague on how we deal with mental health, this is new for teams, so we need to figure out how to do it the right way. And that's all that I was saying in the beginning, but it takes us coming full circle and having the arguments and discussions for us to even get there. And that's why, to me, it's been a positive situation.
"And Twitter's been a positive. Any time you get somebody who admits their mental health issues with the stigma that exists today — like the guy on the station who said, 'Put a gun in your mouth' — that type of stigma exists out here. And there's people who are actually willing to say that they have mental health issues and admit that? That's a huge step in the right direction for the whole mental health community [...] people who have called me and said that they were thinking about committing suicide, then they remembered how many people said they were 'anxiety troopers' and that, you know, remembered my words and that they're not alone. So, you know, as much as we think basketball and sports and the millions of dollars is all the big thing, the reality is that there's other human beings out here who have to go to work at Jack in the Box who have anxiety. There's girls who go to high school that have depression and eating disorders and all kinds of things that are way bigger than the game of basketball."
On that "12th hour" comment, the nature of his resolution with the Rockets and whether we'll see him play basketball this year:
"The resolution, when I say we're in the 12th hour, I mean we're literally in the 12th hour — like, I think any hour now, this whole thing'll be over and I'm gonna be, I'm supposed to be returning to the D-League on Feb. 11. So that was the plan. We'll see if it finally goes through, but the last thing I heard was that that's what we're gonna do, that's what we're planning to do, and we're just waiting on everybody to get the right paperwork and stuff like that."
On hoping to educate people who think he's just screwing up his deal:
"The crazy thing is — and I was just talking to my mother about this the other day — the crazy thing is that the same things were said about Magic Johnson when we found out that he had AIDS. And it's just like, whenever there's something new, it takes people a while. And I'm not scared of that while. I'm not scared of that time gap of where people are going to come to evolve and know that, hey, mental health is one of the biggest issues of our time and we all need to become more aware; stigma is real and we all have to support each other. This is one of the greatest examples of how human beings have to be accountable to each other, because as much as I go to my doctor, which I do on a regular basis, and I take my medication, which I do every day, there's still a big element of successful treatment that exists in the people that are in your environment. And that's a reality. And that's a tough reality, because now you have to be more accountable when you deal with me. But that's something that transcends health, too."
Hat-tip to ClutchFans.