Get on the bus with Royce White

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
1:09
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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In sports, a world of the most masculine men out there, it should be no surprise that sometimes things get so macho that they depart entirely from reality.

Of course some players are scared. Of course some players are gay. Of course some players are worried their opponents are too good, or their injuries too bad.

But good luck finding anyone who will ever admit any of those things in real time, on the record.

In sports, the cure-all for all of that and everything else is "tough it out."

And for a lot of complaints, in sports, and in life, that works beautifully. Toughing it out is marvelous, cherished and magical. The ability to tough out a lot is an essential ingredient of long-term success in darned near everything. It's a wonderful thing to say to yourself.

Except when it's not.

Let me ask you this: Should I ride a mountain bike along the top of a wet stone wall over a big drop off? It's possible. Should I do it? It looks fun, although I might hurt myself.

The world of sports yells: Tough it out.

My instinct for self preservation screams louder, and says of course not, idiot.

In the way we talk about sports, the good decision is always to accept the bigger challenge, to go harder, to tough it out. Back in reality, moderation and caution are essential ingredients of success.

The story all over the news is that Rockets rookie Royce White, who has a well-publicized fear of flying, rooted in an anxiety disorder, has refused to report to training camp, and won't show up until the team agrees to let him drive a bus to a lot of games.

A big chunk of the reaction on Twitter, in the press, and elsewhere: Tough it out.

You know who else isn't participating in training camp this year? Bulls superstar Derrick Rose. You know why he isn't on the court? Because he tore his ACL in the playoffs last spring.

In other words, he's injured. He's really hurt. So of course he won't be on the court. Not until the player and doctors and trainers and everybody else are comfortable he's good to go. Until then, Rose will, rightly, as we all understand, live in a world rich with reality, moderation and caution. He will push hard in some ways (getting in peak shape) and go easy in others (anything that would risk reinjuring the knee).

Why should things be any different for White? He has a real illness, too. Watch White explain himself on video to ESPN.com's Myron Medcalf. His message is clear, and not all that much about buses. White doesn't say that he won't fly. Instead he says playing in the NBA encompasses a big array of challenges to his mental state, including something like quadruple the flying he did in college. He wants to take on those challenges intelligently. He has doctors. He has personal experience learning what works for him. He has a list of things that trigger trouble for him.

And instead of just jumping in and toughing it out (or, if you will, riding a mountain bike along the top of a wet stone wall over a big drop off) he wants to put all the best thinking into a plan. He doesn't just want to develop a plan with his doctor, he wants one that the team will sign off on, too. Just like Rose, he wants the team, the doctors, the trainers and the players all on the same page to maximize success.

Watch White explain, and it doesn't sound like this magical bus is the big focus, nor does anything he say sound unreasonable. If he had any illness but a mental illness it would be the only normal way to handle things.

He also explains a key to what's happening now: He's not just a guy with an anxiety disorder, but also one with an obsessive compulsive disorder. What he's asking the Rockets to do is sign off on a plan of attack which reportedly includes ways, including a bus here or there, to minimize his likelihood of freaking out. It also includes talk of regular healthy meals, and all kinds of other stuff his doctors recommend. White's love of that plan is about minimizing anxiety, but it also has roots in the OCD itself. He is an "organizational freak" he says. No small part of what matters to him about having a plan in writing is his profound adoration for plans in writing.

Two pieces of great news:
  • To their great credit, the Rockets are walking this walk with White. He tells Medcalf the Rockets have been "stellar" and "they've made incredible attempts to reach out, have an understanding of mental illness in the workplace and help me out and ensure that I'm going to be healthy." White says he'd guess it will all be resolved within a week.
  • He has come a long way in dealing with his mental illness, and there's no reason he couldn't progress further. This week of his life includes a rich array of scary new potential anxiety triggers. But in a year or two, when the NBA life is not so new, who knows how much of that he will have learned to integrate into a healthy life?

White's news prompted blogger Matt Moore to go to some lengths to describe his own history of panic attacks. The memo is that slowly, slowly, you learn to deal with it:
Triggers for people with panic attacks are completely separate. When I thought about White trying to get acclimated to NBA life, my concern wasn't for him stepping up and hitting free throws with the game on the line. He's done that. That's in the context of something he can lose himself in, the least likely place for him to have an episode.

But the idea of meeting new teammates and coaches, with more experience, high expectations, little sympathy and then having to deal with the media? I got a little twitchy just sitting here thinking about it from my comfy chair.

The biggest thing to understand about White's situation is something that coaches hammer as a cliche over and over again. It's a process. Learning to deal with my anxiety took me a decade. It's still a problem at times. I don't let it affect my work, or my personal life. It's just something you work at, and what White's doing is what he needs to: working at it.

Who wouldn't support him in that?

Henry Abbott | email

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