Royce White deserves understanding for struggling to overcome a form of mental illness, but the Rockets deserve none if they weren't prepared to deal with it. That about covers a bizarre but predictable situation right now involving a promising power forward and a team that rolled the dice.
A first-round pick is still trying to get a grip on his anxiety disorder and has yet to report to camp, which would require him to conquer, among other things, a fear of flying. His case is a curious one, because this isn't a bum knee or twisted ankle. This can't be cured by surgery and a four-to-six week rest period. This is something altogether different and nobody knows for sure if White will have a normal rookie season or NBA career. Not even the Rockets.
That's why he dropped to No. 16 in the draft. Teams loved his talent; White was beastly at Iowa State with an NBA-ready body (6-8, 260) and game. They just weren't so sure on how to cope with his ailment, weren't sure if he'd be able to function with it, even though White didn't miss a game in college. So they backed off and allowed the Rockets, with three first-rounders, to have at it. Let them make a mistake or get a steal.
He went through summer camp without a hitch and did all of the other team activities without a problem. Then he missed media day. Then the first day of camp, which is being held hours away in McAllen, Texas. And now he's reportedly in negotiations with the Rockets to attend some games this season, in San Antonio and Dallas and New Orleans, by bus. He released a statement Wednesday saying he might not be able to function without a plan in place to address his illness and allow for a smoother transition.
White said: "There are often negative consequences to mental illness when not given the proper support. Often, those consequences are more severe for the surrounding people than for the sufferer. … For me, hiding is no longer a healthy option in treating my anxiety or OCD, so I have asked for some help from the organization to ensure long-term health for myself."
You've got to feel for White. His illness must be severe if it restricts him from doing what he loves and from chasing his dream. Nobody knows what he's going through but him. Even those with anxiety disorder probably aren't being asked to fly three and sometimes four times a week for seven straight months. Or deal with other symptoms that might be tough to overcome in an NBA environment. Anxiety disorder doesn't affect everyone the same. It's unique to each, depending on a variety of factors: demands, lifestyle, personal and professional challenges, and support system.
White has been very upfront about his condition, and that makes him easy to root for. He was candid with NBA teams before the draft, explained as much as he could, and asked for help and understanding. He knew some teams wouldn't bite, wouldn't want to have special rules for a single player, and someone who hasn't proven himself at that. Which was fine. Those teams took the safe route, unwilling to deal with any distractions. The Rockets didn't. They wanted White because his potential is off the charts. They're rebuilding with youth, and what better way to grab a potential star than to possibly steal one? With strings attached, of course.
But before they discover if White is a franchise-changer, they must make it possible for that to happen. And this is the hard part, easing the transition for a player with an unpredictable condition. This is where the gamble comes into play.
They're saying all the right things right now, even though White isn't helping himself by staying out of camp. He expects to join them in a week, maybe when the Rockets return to Houston. But what then? Are the Rockets ready for what might come their way when the season starts and White may need special privileges?
General manager Daryl Morey said: "We will continue to support him now and going forward" but didn't get into specifics. It's all murky, and the Rockets and White, hand in hand, are venturing into the unknown, in a sense, because there's no real precedent for this.
In time, maybe this becomes a distant memory, a solitary episode that will not define him in the NBA. Maybe White gets his disorder under control and his career underway and gets the franchise headed in the right direction. Maybe Morey turns into a genius for taking a risk that turns out to be quite safe, actually.
Right now, though, it's a bit troubling for White and the Rockets. This is everyone's worst fear being realized. They're in this together, a player with a mental disorder and a team that better find a workable solution. The Rockets can't say they're surprised. And if they're unprepared, well, they shouldn't have been.
"No blame is being placed on the Rockets organization," White said.
The Rockets do, however, have a burden. It's up to them, not White, to give him all the time and support and conditions that he needs. Hopefully when they drafted him, they read the fine print, which said: His issues are their issues.