Two years ago, after declaring that he was done with college basketball, the most perplexing prospect in Thursday's NBA draft taught himself to play the piano. Those who know 6'8", 265-pound Royce White, of course, weren't terribly surprised. He has always felt an acute connection to music and its subversive icons. If you ask him about his idols, he'll skim over Michael Jordan to hold forth—for hours, if you'd like—on John Lennon, Prince and Frank Sinatra. But it was not until early 2010 that White dared to attempt, and perfect, his very first chord. "I looked around," White recalls, "and I said, 'Oh, s---: I'm not a basketball player. This is real life.'"
This is an article from the July 2, 2012 issue
It's a cumulous June afternoon in Ames, Iowa, and White is sitting in the back room of The Asylum, a tattoo parlor just across the street from Iowa State. In 48 hours he will work out for and field questions from Larry Bird and the Pacers, one of eight scheduled predraft visits. But no job interview can deter White from conscripting an artist named Hot Rod to work on the forward's 13th and most detailed tattoo yet: a portrait of Ol' Blue Eyes himself, abutting the words ATTACK EVERYTHING ALWAYS on his bulging left forearm.
As the needle purrs, the bushy-bearded White talks. "I'm all about transparency," he says. Topics include: the known universe ("Have you heard about the Eagle Nebula? It's a gaseous pillar, 7,000 light years away"); existential philosophy (he's fond of quoting Nietzsche); past missteps at Minnesota, where White never played a millisecond; his lone season on the court for Iowa State, where he established himself as the nation's foremost quintuple threat; and, in between, that plunge into music—which helped him cope with the subject that has propelled NBA talent evaluators into uncharted territory.
White, 21, is the first prospect to freely say that he suffers from anxiety and a severe fear of flying. And he has turned mental illness into a cause cél√®bre, even if his candor may cost him millions. "It would've been selfish for me to say I'm not going to start helping people the way I want to because I want to make it to the NBA," he says.
Understand: As a redshirt sophomore this past year, White was the only Division I player to lead his team in points (13.4), rebounds (9.3), assists (5.0), steals (1.2) and blocks (0.9). A balletic point power forward, he can bench 185 pounds 28 times, as much as an NFL lineman. Opposing coaches have likened him to Magic Johnson, Kevin McHale and Charles Barkley. "It's unfair to Royce," says Cyclones assistant Matt Abdelmassih, "but LeBron is the one guy you can compare him to."
Still, White says, "I'm a 'high-risk, high-reward' player," mocking a popular scouting refrain. His agent, Andrew Vye, and Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg, a 10-year NBA vet and former Timberwolves vice president, attest that they've never seen such a wide range of potential landing spots for a player, stretching from the lottery into the second round. Which is all to say that NBA executives have been struggling to answer a familiar question: Who is Royce White?
The National Institute of Mental Health will tell you that 26.2% of Americans ages 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. But only one active NBA player, free-agent guard Delonte West, is on record admitting to such a problem. So did White, who lists raising mental health awareness as one of his life goals, rehearse a psychiatric spiel for his interviews? Commit family-friendly definitions of anxiety to index cards? "Everybody around me is trying to get me to do that," he says. "Hell, no."
White's inner circle knows a fundamental truth: In a draft with one sure thing—Kentucky's Anthony Davis going No. 1 to the Hornets—the careers of G.M.'s will rise and fall on the valuation of intangibles, sports' preferred euphemism for the hurdles separating promise from performance. Can Baylor forward Perry Jones III develop a killer instinct? Will UConn big man Andre Drummond have the work ethic to fully exploit his 7'7" wingspan? Does Syracuse center Fab Melo's off-court dysfunction prefigure trouble to come?
White was 16 when he started having agonizing panic attacks, and a doctor finally diagnosed generalized anxiety disorder—defined as a pattern of constant worry—when he was a senior at Hopkins High in Minnetonka, Minn. Before his current 20-milligram daily regimen of medication, his mother, Rebecca, would take him on drives along the Mississippi River whenever his anxiety swelled. After an hour with the window down, hard air in Royce's face, his heartbeat usually slowed.
Today, White's panic really surges only around airplanes, the residue of a lifelong fear of heights. "I know flying's safer than driving," he says. "But if I even start to talk about flying, it does something to me physically." Most often, his ride to the airport—when his imagination begins to fixate on the possibility of a crash—winds up being more punishing than the flight, which White survives by watching movies and interrogating attendants about the slightest bumps and noises. "It's an adrenaline thing," he says. "If the plane goes down, I'm ready to open the door, cartwheel out, and try to hit a tuck-and-roll on the ground."
Given that the lower stratosphere serves as the modern NBA's freeway, White's anxiety ranks as the most pressing matter teams make calls about. Hoiberg points out that White flew on all but three of Iowa State's road trips (including to a preseason tour in Italy); his grandfather drove him for the others. In those cases, White says, his goal was to give the team "the best version of me" in must-win games.
In sit-downs with White, however, NBA officials have warned that the pros will be less accommodating. The Heat told him that he wouldn't be allowed to drive even the four hours to Orlando. "It's understandable," White says. "But in my head, I'm going, You want me to drive. You're paying me millions of dollars to perform.... We're not all alike."
Beyond anxiety, in fact, White also deals with obsessive compulsive tendencies—undiagnosed, yes, but, after a guided tour of his apartment, exceedingly obvious. "OCD is like my gift," he says, smiling. White alphabetizes his DVD rack; symmetrically arranges his throw pillows; incessantly straightens his black-and-white framed posters of the Beatles and Muhammad Ali; and only sets his phone and wallet down at right angles. And then there's the five-shelf shoe rack in his bedroom. "If I'm walking and bump a shoe," White says, gesturing in front of the immaculate footwear, "it might take me three minutes to redo all this."
It was his OCD, White notes, that compelled him to right every crooked note and learn how to compose music in the first place. After withdrawing from Minnesota in February 2010—and spending two months working and sleeping in music studios around South Minneapolis—White and a friend put together drafts of more than 200 songs. "I'm kind of impulsive," White says, "and OCD is the thing God built in for me so I'll always finish things." He's written everything from movie scripts (one is about a city built around windmills) to business plans, outlining the structure of his enterprises (including a record label named IAMU). Where does he find the time? "I play sports all day," White says. "The last thing I want to do is watch them."
The most famous movie White has made is a YouTube video that he uploaded after 3 a.m. on Dec. 17, 2009. In it a hometown hero announces that he is retiring from basketball, a decision driven by two plot twists: an arrest for trying to shoplift $100 worth of clothes from the Macy's at the Mall of America (White pleaded guilty to theft and disorderly conduct); and a university probe into a stolen laptop that indefinitely extended his shoplifting suspension without producing anything besides a trespassing charge to which he pleaded guilty. "I'm a totally different human being now," says White, who had also been booted out of his first high school, DeLaSalle, for academic misconduct before his senior year. "I was partying a lot. I was too into myself. I wasn't being cautious."
In April 2009, for instance, he threw himself an 18th birthday party at a nightclub in Minneapolis, posting a flyer that said, BUY A DRINK, GET A DRINK ON ME. Conversely: This April, for his 21st, White leveraged his celebrity in Ames to hold a nonalcoholic party that raised nearly $3,000 for Orchard Place, a local nonprofit center devoted to kids with emotional and behavioral issues. "Ames," White says, "gave me a chance to find out who I am."
And when it comes to his sins, he takes ownership. "I don't blame anything on my mental illness," he says. "You rob a bank, you don't blame it on cancer. It's still your choice."
After unbanishing himself from hoops in the spring of 2010—"I wanted to prove to myself that I could be one of the best players in the country," he says—White chose Iowa State over Kentucky, primarily because he wanted to remain close to Angelic Aguilar, who would give birth to Royce Alexander White II the following February. Away from home for the first time, becoming a father while sitting out the season in Ames as a transfer, White embarked on a period of unsparing self-examination. Without basketball his interests in writing, music, business and philanthropy bloomed. "I needed something drastic to change how I was thinking," White says. "Being just another athlete wasn't my calling." His onetime superiors have taken note. His coach at Hopkins, Ken Novak, says, "I'd trust Royce with my bank account." Minnesota coach Tubby Smith gushes, "I'd take him in a heartbeat."
When White returned to the court, Hoiberg discovered that the forward had the skill, vision and selflessness to play the point—and relied on him for everything. "No, I don't think he'll ever be a knockdown shooter," Hoiberg concedes, but no matter: In February, White took all of one shot amid a flood of Oklahoma double teams, finishing with seven assists in a 77--70 win. In a 77--64 first-round NCAA tournament defeat of UConn, he grabbed the first rebound of the game, crossed over likely top 10 pick Drummond and went coast to coast for a slam. The next game, an 87--71 loss to Kentucky in which White had 23 points, nine rebounds and four assists, sent him to the NBA for good. Davis would allow that "Royce was beating us by himself"—outrunning the likely No. 1 selection down the floor, abusing lottery lock Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with spin moves, besieging the rim.
In the end, zero projected top 15 picks agreed to work out against White for NBA teams. Doing so would be best described as high risk, low reward.
To hear of a prospect with musical aspirations is to roll your eyes and wonder: Can he possibly be any good? White sits at the iMac in the makeshift studio in his apartment, feeling the weight of such presumptions. And he clicks on Logic Pro, a music editing program, striving to puncture them. White's songs are not hip-hop but pop rock. They are not amateurish but anthemic, blending a half-dozen instruments. And White does not even write them for himself; he aspires to produce. "The NBA is talking about my anxiety disorder," White says, speakers blaring. "What'll they do when I gotta accept a Grammy?"
The rumination doesn't end there. He also faults the league for inspiring so many inner-city kids to futilely devote their lives to basketball, adding, "I'm not scared of how David Stern is going to react when he hears that I said that." Instead of attending the draft, White is throwing a party in Ames to raise more money for Orchard Place.
Until then, he will keep grappling with the same old stressors. Already a light sleeper, White has traveled across the country, alone and wide-eyed, for the first time since he was a teenage recruit. "And I'm scared as hell," he admits. White flew commercial to five cities before Vye canceled his remaining workouts last week, fueling the latest round of intrigue—Is Royce hurt? Scared? The recipient of a first-round promise?
In those visits, puzzled execs liked to play casting director: Who are you? What can you be in the NBA? Magic? LeBron? Boris Diaw? The questioning was tense—not to mention ironic. The answer, tattooed and transparent, is still staring everyone in the face.