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Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images Royce White

The Music in Royce White’s Head

The silky Iowa State forward is rising on draft boards — but are teams still wary of his struggles with anxiety disorder?

Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right

— The Beatles, “Here Comes the Sun”

Royce White’s neck hurts. His knee balloons and throbs. As he climbs into the back of a white Cadillac STS to better stretch out his 6-foot-8-inch frame, he turns on “Here Comes the Sun.” These ailments are souvenirs from workouts for the men who control his future. He’s just completed one with the decision makers of the Minnesota Timberwolves and is returning home to Ames, Iowa. He hustled for his hometown franchise, and it’d be comforting to be drafted there, where just a few years ago his bid to stay close for college ended so terribly.

A lot has changed since then. White, no longer a collegiate cautionary tale, is on the precipice of becoming a professional product. But the constant workouts are taking a toll on his body, and lately he’s been wondering if they’re designed for teams to explore his skill set or his mind. He thinks he knows the answer. There’s a secret code for players who have been deemed damaged goods. He’s a “talented enigma.” Or scouts aren’t sure about his “motor.” Or his “work ethic” and “maturity” are in question. It’s a new language that we take for granted, and these overwrought phrases do little to describe prospects pre-draft. None more so than Royce White.

NBA executives want to know what’s going on inside White’s head, an answer he’s still figuring out. He’s mature and well-spoken, and former coaches rave about his work ethic. But off the court? That’s what scares them. White was kicked out of one high school. He transferred colleges before playing a single minute for his hometown University of Minnesota. And before departing, he pleaded guilty to theft and disorderly conduct three years ago, and authorities originally fingered him as a suspect in another case of stolen property.

But on the court, White is powerful and agile, with the sort of size that allows him to bruise opponents inside and out. One of his biggest defenders is the man who eventually coached him at Iowa State, Fred Hoiberg, better known as “The Mayor” in his NBA heyday when he played alongside Reggie Miller and Kevin Garnett.

“His ability to play-make and deliver the on-time, on-target pass is awesome,” Hoiberg says. “That’s what the league is about — play-making and spacing the floor properly — and Royce, more often than not, can beat his guy and make the right play.”

Royce White has all the tools. Height, strength, touch, speed, basketball IQ. He’s also coping with generalized anxiety disorder. Sometimes it’s noticeable. Other times, undetectable. But it has become a part of his story. His apprehensions about air travel, in particular, have been well chronicled.

“Any time the body needs to exert energy, it creates adrenaline,” White, 21, says. “Now, that adrenaline, if you have too much, can cause different types of symptoms because adrenaline is powerful. You could get tingling in your extremities. You could get lightheadedness. You could get weakness in your legs. You could sweat, really cold sweat or really hot sweat. Hot flashes. You could get shortness of breath. You could get heart palpitations where you feel like you’re going to have a heart attack.”

White is one of the most fascinating dilemmas of this year’s draft — he’s the ultimate risk versus reward. Professional athletes like Zack Greinke, Brandon Marshall, and Ricky Williams have spoken publicly about coping with their own anxiety disorders. The National Institutes of Health define the disorder, which causes a heightened level of apprehension, as “a pattern of constant worry and anxiety over many different activities and events.” White, unlike the others, disclosed his diagnosis before turning professional, with millions of dollars still at stake. His draft position, he says, played no part in his announcement. He felt comfortable with himself, who he was and is becoming, and wanted to help others receive the treatment they needed. Greinke, Marshall, and Williams all found ways to carve out mostly successful careers along the way. White is acutely aware of his reality.

“I know it will affect my status,” White says. “It’s a scary thing. All you need is 30 general managers to say, ‘I don’t know enough about this to take this risk.’ Or 30 owners to say, ‘We don’t know enough about this to take this on.’ And then you end up being out of the first round and out of the second round. Or you go late in the second round and go to summer league and they still have the ability to cut you.”

White has trouble sleeping most nights, a restlessness with no connection to the approaching draft.

“I never like to get too excited about anything,” he says. “Growing up, a lot of times I would be too excited about something and it didn’t happen. I don’t do it that way anymore.”

He plays more songs in the car, an eclectic mix: More Beatles, Prince, Jay-Z, Adele. White left basketball in his rearview two years ago. After less than a year at Minnesota, he quit. He says he feared for his safety after a brush with the law, thinking he’d never come back. For months, he didn’t pick up a ball. He filled his time hanging with friends at a music studio in uptown Minneapolis. The workroom had no windows. He often slept in the room and woke up, worked on music, and slept again. He taught himself how to play keyboard. White both lost and found himself there. There’s no doubt that he’ll be the only player sporting a freshly inked Frank Sinatra tattoo. Or a full beard not in honor of James Harden, but in remembrance of his hero John Lennon.

“It was actually one of the best times of my life because I found something else that I really, really loved to do,” White says of his extended studio session. “It was interesting. It was challenging. It was therapeutic to me.”

I like it in the city when the air is so thick and opaque,
I love to see everybody in short skirts, shorts and shades,
I like it in the city when two worlds collide

— Adele, “Hometown Glory”

“This is a favorite,” White says. As the downtown Minneapolis skyline fades from view, it’s replaced by miles and miles of flat earth. White is leaving his old home for his new sanctuary: Ames, Iowa.

“I’m really big on my loyalty and love for the Twin Cities,” he says. “Outside of my family, the dynamic of what the Twin Cities are about has a lot to do with who I am, the good and bad. I grew up in two different parts. I played basketball in the hood with the same people that became today’s criminals. But I lived in a different part, where rent was $1,200 and my mom was a single mother and she worked hard to make ends meet for me not to have to live in those types of places.”

White traces his first encounter with anxiety to long before his diagnosis. At the age of 10, his best friend, LaDream Yarbrough, collapsed after wind sprints during basketball practice. Drool trickled down his face as White looked on. Yarbrough, who was suffering from a previously undetected heart abnormality, was rushed to the hospital and survived. But White was never the same. After that moment, he lived in constant fear, a fear that he, too, would one day collapse on the court. His anxiety was constantly creeping.

“He used to spend time after school with one of his buddies that lived in north Minneapolis,” Frank White, Royce’s grandfather, says. “I would pick him up and he would come out the door and he looked both ways and run to the car. I would say, ‘What’s the matter?’ He would say, ‘You know where we at?'”

Once, White experienced a panic attack during a summer tournament game. Rene Pulley, his former AAU coach, came down from the stands to sit beside White.

“It probably looked ridiculous, but I was holding his hand just to calm him down,” Pulley said. “You could see the potential. One year later, he was one of the best players in the country. That’s how fast he enhanced his ability [while coping].”

White attended Minneapolis’s DeLaSalle High School and blossomed into one of the nation’s best prep players. As a freshman, he won the state’s 3A championship game on a last-second shot. But though he found success on the court, he began shrugging off his academic responsibilities.

“I would get bored,” White said. “That’s something that a lot of kids deal with at school. We all deal with classes we don’t like. I’m interested in what I’m interested in and I’m not with what I’m not. Math class, it’s going to be hard to get me to stay in there.”

White walked out of classes. He bartered for more time on homework. He told his grandfather he had done his work when he hadn’t.

“There was a situation where they said that he had a piece of paper and had some answers on it,” Frank White said. “So they accused him of cheating.”

Amid controversy, White abruptly transferred to Hopkins High School in Minnetonka. The decision angered some area coaches. Hopkins, already an established powerhouse, had five players headed for NCAA play. Whispers of illegal recruiting persisted. White says he recruited himself when he showed up at Ken Novak Jr.’s gym one day. But he didn’t take to the program right away.

“He had a tendency to get stressed out pretty quickly,” Novak Jr. said. “Within a couple weeks, we started to realize that things were bothering him and he was struggling.”

At first, Novak figured it would take a while for White to adapt to his new surroundings. Then, he observed that White didn’t attend all of the open gym sessions. With the consent of his mother, Rebecca, Royce White visited Dr. Mary Wilkins, who diagnosed him with generalized anxiety disorder. White felt a wave of relief. Now he could begin to reconcile why his mind often battled his body.

“We started to increase his classes,” Novak Jr. said. “He was a very bright kid, but he was taking a very average class load and he didn’t have to work very hard at it. He was a kid that once he got pushed harder, his ability to concentrate increased exponentially. He really flourished with it.”

White captured another state championship while at Hopkins. By season’s end, the basketball scouting website ranked him the no. 2 small forward in the country. After graduation, White honored his commitment, first made while he was attending DeLaSalle, to the University of Minnesota.

Don’t get impatient when it takes too long,
Drink it all even when it tastes too strong,
Yeah, I gotta feel alive even if it kills me,
Promise to always give you real, the real me

— Drake, “Light Up”

“They talk about being caught up in a certain lifestyle,” White says. “It’s something that we all go through sometimes. Being caught up in a lifestyle where you can’t really predict where it’s going or the outcome. You’re just living it. You’re just going through it and taking it how it comes. I’ve been there before.”

He’s crossing the Iowa state line when he turns on Drake. Something outside the window catches his eye.

“You see those,” he asks his passenger, pointing to endless rows of windmills. “Those are going to make me $100 million, a movie.”

“A movie?” his passenger asks.

“A movie,” he says.

He declines to explain. White is unpredictable. His ideas are vast and varied. He has an idea for a $100 million movie about windmills. He will make millions off music, on top of his millions from basketball. He’s shooting a documentary about his life’s twisting path. He declines to divulge the details on his grandiose projects. Instead, he delves into his short career at the University of Minnesota, an arranged marriage intended to benefit both parties. It was a stay that turned disastrous.

White didn’t play a single game at Minnesota. In October 2009, he was accused of stealing clothes from a store at the Mall of America and was charged with fifth-degree assault for allegedly pushing a security officer. White pleaded guilty to theft and disorderly conduct.

“I don’t want to make any excuses for what he’s done, but Royce was never a thief in life,” Frank White said. “When he lived with me, I had money in different places in the house and it was always there. Maybe there could have been a little more supervision and support and help. I’m not blaming anybody. I think Royce was trying to find himself. Royce, unfortunately, sometimes has been in a situation where he’s grown up kind of too fast.”

Frank White noticed the grandson he helped raise was slipping away.

“Basketball was one of the things that was his passions,” he said. “One of our biggest problems is when athletes get catered to, they tend to get lost in things. They’re elite. They’re treated a different way. For a short time, Royce kind of got lost into that.”

White was initially a suspect in the theft of a laptop computer taken from a dorm the following month. It only muddled his protracted debut on the basketball court. He steadfastly maintained his innocence. A third party later returned the laptop. White was charged with trespassing, but never with burglary.

“It’s just the nature of being in that setting,” White says of going into that dorm room. “It’s kind of what you do in college. Why was I being targeted by the police department? The police department is employed by the university. Not that I’m implying that. But it was an uncertain time for me and I didn’t like it. And having anxiety, it’s messing with me. I was looking over my shoulder. I didn’t know who to trust. The police were always circling my apartment.”

Greg Hestness, chief of the University of Minnesota Police Department, said that it was simply White’s actions that drew the department’s attention.

“I remember toward the end, he made a comment to the media about he was fearful of the university police,” Hestness said. “My comment was that he does not impress me as a fearful person.”

It’s something White has dealt with since childhood, Frank White said. Royce White has always been articulate and looked older than he is. Adults always expected more from him, maturity that wasn’t always there. The same can be said of his anxiety. White doesn’t look like he should be afraid of much. But only he is truly aware of the type of fear coursing through his body.

“We are all responsible for our own actions and I think Royce will be the first one to tell you that,” said Joel Maturi, Minnesota’s athletic director. “He was also surrounded by people who I think didn’t always have his best interests in mind and that led to some of his issues and challenges we had.”

White announced his departure from the university via YouTube and without informing the athletic department. The video has since been removed from YouTube.

“We did not dismiss Royce,” Maturi said. “That’s a situation where he decided it was best for him to drop out of school and eventually transfer. That was not a decision we recommended nor a decision that we initially knew was going to happen.”

White thought he would never play basketball again. He found the music studio and stayed there. In the interim, he realized that basketball and girls had dominated his life.

“A lot of times, basketball, as you mature through the stages, something that comes along with it is women,” White said. “When I was 18, that’s all I was focused on: basketball and women. It was a reality check to get back to who I was and not who this industry produces.”

He neglected other passions, like the tunes his grandmother played on her vinyl records, songs from Sinatra and The Beatles.

“He probably wasn’t as directed as he should have been,” Novak Jr. said. “I think anyone with anxiety issues needs a really set routine, and in the summer before that, his routine wasn’t as set. The regulation of his medication was poor and he had trouble controlling the anxiety a little bit. It could have been controlled, but by that time, a couple of things had already taken place and it became kind of a PR nightmare and they all thought it was best to start anew.”

They said wise up
How many guys you see making it from here?
The world don’t like us, is that not clear, all right?
But I’m different
I can’t base what I’m gonna be off of what everybody isn’t

— Jay-Z, “So Ambitious”

White is almost back to Ames by the time he turns to Jay-Z.

“I relate that song with ambition and having a lot of ideas that a lot of people don’t vibe with,” White says. “Sometimes reform is needed. Sometimes, your teacher ain’t right. Your boss ain’t right. Sometimes, even as a kid, you might know what’s right. That’s really what it is. Being ambitious is just following your heart.”

The pain in his neck and knee isn’t letting up. White, who will soon visit a doctor to seek relief, is fearful he’ll have to cancel his workout in Houston.

He will fly there, of course. That’s one of the most overstated elements of White’s story. Unless you’re George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air, chances are that Royce White has been on more flights than you. He’s flown to college games. He’s flown to workouts. He’s flown to Italy and back. And yet, the way he’s been described in NBA circles, you’d think White has to be administered a horse tranquilizer just to step on a tarmac.

“It’s not like I’m really nervous about getting on the plane,” he says. “When I get on the plane, I’m a little uncomfortable. But I’m not panicking on the plane. It’s preparing to fly — if I have a flight on a plane today at noon, I’m worrying from 8 to 12. Just an anxious feeling. That’s the anxiety. That anxious feeling becomes overwhelming sometimes. You might get sick. You might feel drowsy. Any of those things could be a reality. It’s not that it’s overblown. There’s some truth to the fact that I don’t like to fly, but it’s not like I can’t fly.”

He could have flown after his Minnesota workout back to Ames. But it’s nearly as quick a ride in a car as it is in the air. He often gets in his car and drives when the anxiety hits, losing himself in music.

“I’m able to fly. I just prefer not to.”

After leaving Minnesota, White saw the success of his high school peers, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins among them, and felt he could still play with them. He wanted to prove his skeptics wrong. John Calipari wanted White to transfer to Kentucky. White never got on the plane.

“The main reason was because my girlfriend was pregnant and we found out we were going to have the baby in January or February,” White said. “Me and Coach Cal met and from what he told me about Kentucky, it just sounded like a place where you couldn’t bring your future son’s mother. Kentucky ain’t for that. We talked about where the players live, there’s no girls around. They’re just really hands-on about what the players do in their free time. Me, about to have a first-born son, it wasn’t conducive in Kentucky. That was more the reason. I wanted to be close to home. I wanted to be able to have her have support. And if I was going to be playing and traveling, I wanted to be able to be there when I could.”

Calipari told the Cedar Rapids Gazette that he’d met with White and his mother.

“It was done and I was happy,” he told the newspaper. “I said, ‘You know what? This is going to be something good.’ And then he couldn’t get on the plane.”

Instead, White made an unlikely choice: Iowa State.

“When Fred [Hoiberg] came to me and said this is what he was thinking, my first reaction was, ‘Is that really what you want to do with your first big recruit?'” recalled Jamie Pollard, Iowa State’s athletic director.

Hoiberg remained undeterred.

“He was very open and honest about everything that happened,” Hoiberg said. “And that’s all you can do. You make mistakes in life and try to move past them.”

Pollard spoke to Maturi, who offered his blessing. Hoiberg counseled with Tubby Smith, his coaching counterpart at Minnesota.

“He did everything we asked him to do on the court,” Smith remembered telling Hoiberg. “He’s a good student. I just think there were elements around him and in the city confines that pulled at him. I think it helped, getting him away.”

White sat out his first year at Iowa State, but he still managed to impress. He attended dinner one night at Pollard’s home and watched a game with three other redshirt players. The players dispersed to shoot hoops outside with Pollard’s children during the downtime. White lingered inside with one of Pollard’s daughters.

“Royce is upstairs playing piano with my youngest daughter,” Pollard said. “I sat there and watched and listened to the conversation and my wife was up there and it was just like, ‘The kid is different.'”

While at Iowa State, White disclosed his anxiety disorder in an effort to help others.

“I went through a phase in life where I kind of matured,” White said. “Not overnight, but while I was transitioning from one phase to another. That maturity and that new phase that I was getting into just helped me out as far as seeing a new community for what it was worth and embracing it the right way.”

Frank White started to recognize his grandson again, the one he counseled on drives to and from school everyday.

“He may have had a couple bumps, one bump that he did and another where he was hanging with the wrong guys,” Frank White said. “But all of the things that he’s doing is really the Royce that I knew as a kid growing up.”

While he cleaned up his personal life, the basketball layoff hardly affected him. He still skipped breakfast before games because it made him jumpy. But when it was time to play, he was ready.

In his first game, against Lehigh, he claimed 25 points and 11 rebounds. That was just the beginning. During the season, White throttled no. 15 Michigan, recorded his first triple-double against an overmatched Texas A&M squad, and nearly notched another against soon-to-be lottery pick Thomas Robinson and no. 10 Kansas. White finished with 10 double-doubles in his first and only season at Iowa State, but rumors of his fear of flying lingered. It started when White asked Hoiberg if he could drive to a February game against Kansas State and nearly amassed another triple-double in a four-point win.

“I’m so superstitious that I kind of suggested to him, maybe he should drive down to Missouri, and he had a great game, a game we should have won, and he was great, and he just asked me if he could drive to the NCAA tournament, and I was fine with that,” Hoiberg said. “He got there two days before the event and he obviously went out and performed very well.”

White recalls the matchups flashing across the TV screen and the possibility of facing three lottery picks — UConn’s Andre Drummond and Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — in the first two rounds. Also a source of excitement: the grand piano in his hotel’s lobby in Louisville. There, he played hours of piano for passersby between games and practices. During the tournament, White outclassed Drummond with 15 points and 13 rebounds in an easy Iowa State victory in the first round. He held his own against Kentucky (23 points, nine rebounds) in a 16-point loss to the eventual champs. (He said he believes Iowa State would have succeeded had Davis been forced to guard him straight up the entire game.) White returned to Ames drawing favorable comparisons to Billy Owens, Boris Diaw, Antoine Walker, and other silky forwards capable of maneuvering through the post and on the perimeter.1

After the tournament, Hoiberg believed White ready to declare for the NBA.

“He’s the most versatile player I’ve seen in a long time and that’s highlighted by the fact he led us in every statistical category,” Hoiberg says. “That’s saying something. There are not very many people who have ever done that.”

In just 34 games for Iowa State, White had finally turned his life around. He was ready for the NBA.

“Still, a big part of me wants to stay right now,” he says as the car rolls into Ames.

White’s apartment is immaculate. If the NBA or his myriad side projects don’t pan out, he could be the tallest housekeeper around.

“I go around all day, not cleaning with products, but neatening things up,” he says the day after arriving home. He canceled his workout with Houston and sees little point in working out for a team if he won’t be at his best.

“My DVD rack is in alphabetical order,” White says as he rubs his sore neck. “My closet is color-coordinated. My shoes are spaced perfectly. But that’s a good thing, though. That helps me. I would say that’s a gift, because one of the things people with anxiety deal with is moving too fast. The mind is always racing, moving from thing to thing. OCD helps me bring it back in.”

He walks into another room and sits down in front of a computer and keyboard home studio setup, shifting from side to side in his chair.

“I like being interviewed,” he says. “It makes you think about things you normally don’t think about. It makes you look in the mirror. It really does.”

White begins playing an instrumental on the keyboard that compares favorably to Kanye West’s “Runaway.”

“It’s not how I would like to do it,” he says. “I would like to be able to do it live. But it gets the job done and the music across. You can always go back and make everything live at the end.”

White already has a name for his record label: IAMU. He says the music is his real passion.

“It’s hard to compare,” he says. “But at this point if I had to choose one or the other, I don’t know if I could choose basketball. Music is more worldly. It’s more effective. It helps more people.

“I’ve been doing this for 13, 14 years now,” he adds of basketball. “I’m fully committed to it. It’s just, I wouldn’t have to choose.”

Those who know White are already proud of the strides he’s made.

“Now, you see his potential,” Smith said. “He’s going to be a pro. He’s going to reach his dreams and his goals. He’s a rare breed in that he understands the game so well. Intelligence is not a matter of size.2 It helps him because he’s big and strong. But he’d be good as a 5-[foot]-10 guard.”

Though Smith never formally coached White in an official game, he talks about him like he was a four-year starter.

“I had a great relationship with Royce,” he added. “I had as great a relationship with him as I had with any player.”

Hoiberg believes that, by being so candid, White has inadvertently helped himself cope with his anxiety.

“I can’t tell you how many people who have had it, parents of kids, who have talked about how much [Royce] has helped their child,” he says. “I think it was admirable of him to come out and try to help people because there are so many people out there in the world living with this disorder.”

Says White: “It’s been crazy. It’s been incredible. I think I have more fans of that than I do of basketball.”

So what does White tell those NBA executives who want to probe his mind more than his fundamentals?

“Every player in the NBA deals with mental illness on some level,” he says. “Anxiety is prevalent in every human being. It may not be a disorder. But then again, who’s always being honest when you take the test that asks, ‘Do you feel down a lot?’ Everybody checks no. But how many of us don’t feel down a lot? Life is a big hurdle.”

White passed that test. More are coming. Last week, multiple reports claimed Boston promised to select White with the 21st pick — he could go even earlier than that. Pollard believes that White will be a steal wherever he lands.

“I loved watching him play basketball, but the fact that he did well in school speaks volumes of his potential because it would have been really easy for him to not have done it, to just do what he needed to do,” Pollard says. “He’s a smart, smart kid. I wonder sometimes if he’s maybe Cervantes in a couple of areas, especially the music. Basketball is probably what got him discovered, but the reality is that I think there’s something inside him that’s far greater than basketball.”

Miguel de Cervantes famously said, “The journey is better than the end.” Royce White is hoping the end will be better than the journey.

Filed Under: Music, NBA, NBA Draft, Sports

Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution, is due out in March.

Archive @ JPdabrams