Royce White Arrives in the BIG3 as a Distinctive Voice on Mental Health
From a distance, Royce White might seem like the ideal spokesperson for Mental Health Awareness Month. The do-it-all forward out of Iowa State raised plenty of awareness around mental health when his battles with anxiety came to the fore as the No. 16 overall pick of the Houston Rockets in the 2012 NBA draft.
But take a closer look, and you’ll find a man who, at 28, remains highly skeptical of how the league in particular and the sports world in general have reacted to the conversation that he helped to tip off seven years ago—and the extent to which he thinks Mental Health Awareness Month has (or hasn’t) directed attention towards concrete policy prescriptions to address the issue.
Since then, Royce has made one appearance in an NBA game, but has hardly sat idly by. He’s suited up for two teams in the D League (now G League), become an MVP and champion in Canada’s National Basketball League, written two books (Long Past Overdue and MMA x NBA), and begun training for a future in mixed martial arts.
This summer, the Minnesota native will rekindle his basketball talents in the BIG3, as the No. 1 overall pick of Enemies in this year’s draft. After that, he will look to complete his degree in psychology at Iowa State.
This is Royce White’s journey, in his own words, edited for clarity and length.
I was pretty nervous at the BIG3 draft. There were some rumblings that I might be the No. 1 pick. I definitely felt like there were a lot of guys that could have been No. 1. A lot of talent in the pool. I was just hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. That's been my experience in the basketball world. When my name was called and things panned out the way that I thought, there was a whole lot of emotions.
It's just been a long time coming, and for me to be validated by my peers, especially in the time that it happened, it's just kind of the universe being in harmony. Things don't happen on accident.
I'm from Minnesota. I'm very proud of Minnesota, and what this place is about socially and politically. The late Senator Paul Wellstone was a huge advocate for mental health before he died, and it took the last seven years of his life to finally get the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act actually passed. It was finally passed years after he died. So that kind of helps frame how far behind we are on that topic because he died almost 20 years ago. And we were talking about mental health 30 years before that. When you look at it in those terms, it's, like, Alright, if the expectation is that society is going to evolve quickly in a way that matches our technology, then the mental health conversation is coming around. But it's way, way overdue.
I think highlighting the perspective of mental health versus all other forms of health was a big part of my journey. You can put cancer, diabetes, heart disease, all of those things in there. Not only do these things need to be looked at as on an equal playing field, but they're part of a comprehensive health that has to be respected. And mental health may actually, in the end, be the starting point for health in general. And I think that we are slowly starting to acknowledge that worldwide—that heart disease does come from sugar, but what makes you eat sugar? What is it that stops you from maintaining a healthy diet? What does stress and cortisol actually do to the body and to the heart? That's all a mental health conversation. I think that was the most important piece I’ve contributed.
What has gone on over the last seven years is, the political scene, both in America and globally, has gotten so hot, and the media discussing social issues has gotten so large, and those conversations so broad, we are now able to see a common denominator. A lot of these social issue discussions that stayed in their sector previously are now delineating down into a mental health conversation at bottom. You could talk about healthcare in general. You could talk about child development. You could talk about relationships. You could talk about the LGBT community. You could talk about police and civilian relations. You could talk about the military. You could talk about diet and nutrition. All of these things are starting to delineate down into a mental health and wellness conversation.
It's a pretty astounding time period that we've finally gotten to a place where we're, like, Alright, the human condition is what we need to talk about. Like, really, there's nothing left for us to discuss. We talked about race for 50 years, talked about women's rights for 50 years. We've talked about peace and quality of life for 50, 60 years. So what haven't we actually tuned into? For me to be a pioneer in that next category of conversation, makes it even more astounding that it only took seven years since I was drafted. When you're on the front line of a conversation that is literally shifting the way human beings view themselves existentially, it's kind’ve beyond words.
At the same time, though, I do believe that we're late to that conversation. A lot of things I read, like Heidegger and Nietzsche—people that are real high-level intellectuals—they talk about ground truth and universal elements, like time itself and the way that time works. As a human being, I can only be grateful that, in my lifetime, the mental health conversation came forward and we’re starting to view life through the lens of the human condition in a more immediate, more prioritized way.
But at the same time, as I read back through history, I also see the shortcomings in it taking too long. Both of those elements are at work. I see that clearly play out now in my own life and my own journey. Yes, the NBA is coming around to talk about mental health, and so is the sports world. I was probably a huge catalyst of that, and the few athletes that followed me who talked about mental health publicly.
None of these celebrities were talking about mental health. They were using other terms. They were using “addiction.” They were using “struggle” or this and that, but they weren't being specific that it was a mental health-related issue, although we all knew it.
The more I read about life, the more I read about humanity, the more I experience. People go to jail for 20 years for crimes they didn't commit. Sometimes longer. Great leaders in history were killed and persecuted and ostracized for saying things that we now accept as cultural norms. Humanity has come so far in such a short time. That waiting period that you go through for saying something profound and ahead of your time is now shorter, even though it feels like a really long time to me. Because seven years in your adult life is your whole life.
I mean, I was 21 years old. I had just started being able to legally drink when this whole conversation about mental health took place. So seven years, in that regard, is pretty much my entire adult life. But it's still a short amount of time when you compare it to how long it usually takes for those types of situations to come full circle, and vindicate that individual. So I was thankful more than anything. I was just, like, Man, this came around a lot longer than I had hoped, but a lot sooner than I thought.
When it comes to the NBA and the sports world addressing mental health, it's hard for me to say what significant progress is. That's an epistemological issue. I’d have to know the end point in order to safely say where we are on moving across that scale. It's just hard to know how well somebody is addressing things in the full scope of time. But I will say that my hunch is absolutely not—there's no way that the sports world has addressed it properly. There's just no way.
My mental health is always a work in progress. Everybody's mental health is a work in progress. I don't care who you are. I've grown up the same way most people grow up from being 21 to 28—just a completely different person between those years. In the first half of those years, your brain isn't even fully developed yet. The second half is the first four years where your brain is fully developed. I learned a lot of different things over the years—not only about myself, but as a changing individual. How I addressed my anxiety at 21 wouldn’t be how I address it now because my lifestyle is different, my interests are different, my desires are different. But I've always kept a vigilant eye and ear to that aspect of my life. If you just keep the right vigilant eye and ear, you're going to get exponentially better very quickly.
I get messages all the time from people who have heard my story, who continue to hear me speak out, who are inspired and say that it helps them. And that's all well and good. But the mental health conversation or movement isn't about an abnegation of individual accountability; it's about an expansion of collective responsibility. At the end of the day, the mental health conversation is primarily individual because you spend the majority of your time within yourself. There's only a small fraction of the time that you spend in the outward interaction with the environment around you.
That trips some people out the first time they hear it. They're, like, Wait, what? Really think about how much time you spend in a day truly, genuinely interacting with somebody else. Very little. The majority of time in your day, you spend in your own thoughts, which verifies that the mental health conversation may be the most important conversation that humanity will ever have. But even in that small fraction of space where we do outwardly communicate and interact, the mental health conversation still has to be paramount.
I think it's life or death for me to continue to be the advocate that I've been. The topic hasn't come where it should be yet. So I don't see how me resigning from being an advocate does anything, but leave a huge void. And that's wild for me to say at 28. When I really thought about it at 21, what I thought was gonna happen was, Hey guys, you guys are missing the mental health piece. Let's circle up, talk about it a little bit. I'll be here to always lend an opinion and be involved if I’m wanted. But I'm sure you competent adults—who are 40, 50 masters of the universe—will take it from here and address this issue that is so obviously needing to be addressed.
After I was drafted, it was, like, Well, shit, now I have to be the tip of the spear. I never wanted to do that. I love advocating for people. I was happy to be able to share my story with people and have conversations about their struggles at 21. I saw the value in that even then, but I never wanted to be the tip of the spear for the mental health conversation globally. Now that I am, it's clear why I had to be. And now, it's impossible for me to resign because people refuse to have the conversation properly. Again, I don't have to talk about anxiety and depression. Let's talk about alcohol. Let's talk about caffeine. Let's talk about sleep. Let's talk about the goddamn cell phones.
Here's what I'll say: the mental health community is so nice, and that may sound strange, but the mental health community is very, very nice. They're not the LGBT community. They're not the Black Lives Matter community. They're not the women's rights community. They're not the Me Too movement. They're not the Time's Up movement. They are very nice and, naturally, a lot of people that have identified and are intimately involved with the movement are very humble people, because the mental health topic will humble you. Fear and angst will humble you in a visceral way. They’re very slow to set fire to things. And so, in my opinion, Mental Health Awareness Month is just, like, Hey guys, please see us. Please see us here. We are here, too. It should be called the Here Too movement. It's kind of wishy washy.
Mental health is an everybody issue. So we need to be talking about humanity and the crisis of the human condition. And when we don't do that, then we're just falling short once again. So that's a crisis. But again, the mental health movement is very, very kind. They're very apprehensive to throw psychological science around or neuroscience around with any surety. And I respect that from a scientific standpoint. I respect that they want to do their due diligence on the scientific end. But we all see that there's something seriously afoot here in our society—a serious ill that's not the Bubonic plague. I think that the mental health community has to step up to the plate much more fierce than it has.
I've been that outspoken advocate. And that's why the mental health community hasn't jumped behind me. They're not giving me awards or propping me up as the pioneer of mental health, or one of the thought leaders of the mental health movement, although I am. They're not trying to hand me that banner because I wouldn't let certain things go unspoken. I just wouldn't. I wouldn't allow it because, to me, the integrity of the conversation is what's most important. The genuineness of the conversation is what's most important—not the conversation itself.
See, the mental health community is under the spell that many of us are under right now—that just the conversation happening, people being able to talk, will naturally clarify things. And I think the opposite. I think when people talk with no real direction, chaos ensues. We're playing telephone. Just because everybody gets to participate doesn't mean that the information is going to get any clearer.
I have nothing but support and happiness for the fact that Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan decided to share their struggles. It meant a lot for a lot of people, I'm sure. It meant a lot for me, personally. I'm all for it. But it isn't a conversation about policy, and it isn't a conversation about the situation on that macro level. That's kind of where we can have that false sense of security or that false sense of progress that actually can become dangerous. But that fault can't be thrown on Kevin and DeMar, right? If we actually let this stand as the example of progress on this paramount topic when it really isn't, it actually can become dangerous. A regressive mechanism.
But that responsibility can't fall on two guys who just started talking about mental health, and started learning about it within the last five, six, seven years. Now, I was happy to let that fall on me and I was happy to take up that cross willingly, but it shouldn't have fell on me either. So there's no way that I could then turn to them and go, Oh well, you should be doing better with this conversation.
But I will say honestly, in my own skin, that those two are sharing their story and that's great. Their story is important.
Some of you are going to deal with way worse issues than I've ever dealt with. Some of you are going to encounter darkness that I've never seen. Some of you have darkness that's only specific to you. Heinous shit. And in those darkest moments, those dark places, you're going to have to be able to find the courage to ask people for help. And that's what I'm going to be an example of here with the NBA, asking for help—the willingness and humility to be able to ask for help and to come clean.
David Stern wanted to uphold the idea that the league was progressive, that he had cleaned up the league from drugs and alcohol. The mental health piece is directly correlated to the drug and alcohol piece. And when you have a mental scope versus a punitive scope, then you don't punish players as harshly for dealing with mental health issues—no matter how they choose to cope, lest it be short of something violent. But even then, we see people in court plead insanity. They don't get to just walk free. They go to an insane asylum or they go to jail for a very long time. They just don't get the death penalty or whatever the case may be.
You don't ban a player for two years, like O.J. Mayo or Tyreke Evans, for using street drugs to cope with mental health issues. That's the culture the NBA wants or has created. For a basketball player who makes a living as an athlete, getting banned for two years is like a short death penalty. Is there any talk about O.J. Mayo coming back? Not a murmur. In the context of sports, it doesn't make sense. As a matter of fact, the sport might be the only thing that could pull him from an addiction, with the proper incentives and the proper tools, along with the proper therapies. Those are the types of things I was saying back in 2012.
It's hard for me to understand how I could regret leading the way on this issue. I'm currently in the humble position of willing to talk. When you accumulate enough talking in the beginning, sometimes you become the only voice and it can seem like you're just complaining. But the conversation I brought is more relevant than ever, and I'm not even in my prime playing years yet. The NBA has remained silent to my claims and questions to try and erase me from the story arc. Because they can’t admit they were wrong.
I think that mental health is the most important conversation we face. I think the NBA is a microcosm of a global corporate community, a global corporate culture, a global corporate attitude. And as such, seeing that we live in a global corporatocracy, I feel like the global corporate attitude towards mental health is probably one of the most important things on humanity's docket right now.
So I'm actually probably regretting that I didn't go much harder. I regret that I didn't say more.
The sports world is going to be the proving grounds for morality and ethics. I don't think that's how it should be. I think that's the way it is. I'm an athlete, so beyond me just wanting to compete, I think it's important for me to stay in the athlete space. I think if too many of our sports conversations dilute into this cheap, passive-aggressive circle jerk, it runs the risk of being far more dangerous than we believe or than we can see.
Imagine if I hadn't had the mental health conversation in 2012. Imagine if I hadn't continued to push the conversation. Where would that conversation be? I don't believe I have an inflated sense of my own importance in the conversation. This is just one of those clear examples. Had I not said this, this and this, we wouldn't be here, here, here and here. They'd be the same as me resigning from the mental health conversation, in my opinion. The sports space needs it.
In some situations, I would assume things would be different if I’d entered the NBA today. It just depends on what organization in that thought experiment. I'm sure there's plenty of organizations that are trying to be more proper when it comes to dealing with those issues with their players. I'm sure my situation was a set of blueprints for how to approach mental health. I don't think that we're anywhere close to being in the clear for those athletes specifically, and I don't think for the other people that work in the organization either, coaches included. If a player like me came in today and challenged policy, he'd be met with the same resistance that I was met with.
Now, if a player came in today and said, "Hey, I have an anxiety disorder. Will you guys help me out with it?" Yeah, he might get a different reception. I sure hope so, but I'm not in all those conversations. I'm not aware of every player's status.
I'm not saying that me playing in the BIG3 this year will be able to challenge that system, because everybody gets to dismiss the up-and-comer on the yard. I just want to go out there and play. I haven't been able to play in America. I haven't been able to play with other NBA guys. I haven't been able to meet a lot of my childhood idols. For Christ's sake, Julius Erving is coaching in this league. I'm sure a lot of guys that are playing in the NBA would love to be able to come be around this group of guys for 10 weeks.
It's a blessing to be able to be around some older guys in the BIG3, particularly Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. When the whole conversation came up about the BIG3, my big thing was, I wanted to be able to share a court with Mahmoud. Ice Cube created a format and an environment where a guy like me, who was blackballed 30 years after Mahmoud, could play together on the same court in a professional setting, in front of a crowd. So I'm just blessed.
People need to have a greater appreciation for Mahmoud and what he did and what he stood for and what he continues to stand for. I'm nothing but in admiration of that man. He should've been coaching me in the league, but they blackballed him. So it kind’ve makes sense that wouldn't have been able to happen unless I stepped out of my lane, spoke out of turn, got exiled myself and was able to meet up with him in this league.
It also wasn't ever my plan to link up with Larry Sanders and Lamar Odom and Gilbert Arenas. I was off on my own individual tangent. I was gonna take my fight to Capitol Hill. It was never the plan necessarily for me to be apart of this coalition of athletes that see this thing for what it is. So here we are, and I'm able to link up with guys. Me and Larry Sanders didn't talk, never spoke really until we were at the BIG3 draft. So we can thank Ice Cube for bringing us two together—two guys who really took a very profound and forward-thinking stance on this topic.
There's a real discrepancy about what it means to be human right now. I think the best model that we have is people being able to follow their passions, to be able to do it with confidence, to be able to do it with support, to be able to do it with backing, and to be able to have people not turn their nose at them for trying.
Whatever I want to do, I really genuinely believe that I can do, which is weird, right? In sports, we learned that whatever you want to do and set your mind to, you can do. You have to believe that. You want to win a championship? You're one team out of 30, and there's an 82-game season and playoffs. You gotta believe that you can do that.
I think really my proper title is humanist. I'm a humanist and I'm a futurist, not in a tech way. I see a future for humanity. I desire a future for humanity. I desire for it to be a prosperous one. I respect and love humanity. It sounds super cheesy, but I like this shit. I like being human. I like being able to be alive. I can appreciate other people being able to be alive. It's, like, Hey, let's keep this going, but let's do it the best we can. Let's just do it big. Let's do it as well as we can.
Mental health is the greatest social issue we face. The last frontier for humanity will be existential, not extraterrestrial.
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.