“This doesn’t look like the kind of place you’d expect a professional basketball player to live in, does it?” he asked.
It did not. White’s house is huge, far from the city and the road, in a spot so out of the way it feels like the backwoods of nowhere. Also, it is almost freakishly clean. But not much about White — unemployed after a brief juncture as the self-appointed, very public face of mental health issues in the N.B.A. — is what you might expect.
In 2012, White was the N.B.A.’s No. 16 draft pick, a star forward just off a great season with Iowa State and destined for even greater things. But he arrived at his new team, the Houston Rockets, with a medical diagnosis all but unheard-of in professional sports — generalized anxiety disorder — and he wore it almost as a badge of honor.
Charming, good-looking, articulate and fluent on the topic in a series of high-profile interviews, White made a formidable advocate for a problem he said was underdiagnosed and underdiscussed. He wanted, he said, for the N.B.A. to establish a leaguewide mental health protocol.
But his personal demands seemed to shift as he went along, and he noisily refused to sign his contract until the Rockets agreed to a series of conditions that included addressing one of his symptoms — fear of flying — by letting him travel by special bus to games, when possible. After some turbulent weeks, White and the Rockets appeared to reach an understanding, or at least an accommodation.
So it seemed a shame when the team sent him first to their N.B.A. Development League team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, and then — amid some unpleasant back-and-forth during which White announced he was returning to Houston on the advice of his doctor — traded him to the Philadelphia 76ers. It seemed an additional shame when the 76ers waived him from their roster this fall before he had played a single nonexhibition game, leaving him to sit out the final days of his $1.7 million contract, which runs out at the end of the year.
Neither the Rockets nor the 76ers would discuss what happened in their short histories with White, and in a long conversation here recently, White seemed either unsure of, or unwilling to describe details of his dealings with the teams. He did say that while the endless negotiations around mental health concerns were almost certainly a factor in Houston’s decision to let him go, that was not necessarily the case in Philadelphia.
“They just told me they didn’t want to keep me at this point in time, and that’s pretty much the gist of it,” he said of the 76ers. “There was a lot being said in meetings, and all of it was contradictory — ‘You’re supertalented; you can play; you can be an excellent player in the league, but we don’t want to keep you at this time.’ ”
White is extremely relaxed in conversation and comes across as cheerful, open, friendly, smart. Remarkably, he also does not seem to be angry.
“I didn’t see it coming; that wasn’t what I would have thought was going to happen,” he said of the 76ers’ announcement. “But you’ve got to be able to get outside of yourself and say, ‘It’s not shocking.’ It takes a lot for me to be surprised.”
Be that as it may, meeting Royce was itself surprising, and not just because he briefly excused himself in order to, he said, “finish wiping down that table” — a reference to what appeared to be an already-clean table he had been wiping before he answered the door. (Obsessive behavior is another symptom of his anxiety). He reappeared offering coffee he had bought earlier from Dunkin’ Donuts; he stuck to water himself, saying that caffeine makes him jittery.
It is impossible to talk to White, of course, without talking about anxiety. He first started having panic attacks — sweaty palms, shallow breathing, heart palpitations, queasiness and lightheadedness — as a high school star in Minnesota.
His frank discussions earlier this year about his struggles put the story front and center, but somewhat curiously, White now says he feels that “the anxiety story got blown out of proportion.”
He explained: “The media shaped it like I’m this anxious kid and I need all this special help, but it wasn’t about that. It was about creating a policy for people who have mental health disorders.”
Among other things, he said, he never refused to fly, but rather, he insisted that the teams let him travel by bus when possible (he made several trips by plane while with the 76ers). Nor, he said, does he typically feel anxious while he is playing, only beforehand and at odd moments he cannot always predict.
He is not cured, he said, but rather “very aware of my triggers.”
The biggest of these is his obsessive-compulsive tendency, which strikes when he feels things are spinning out of control.
“Being disorganized makes me really anxious,” he said.