- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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You have to start there to understand his reasoning -- simultaneously confusing and commendable -- for his absence thus far.
The former Iowa State forward has reached an agreement with the franchise that will allow him to bus to some of the team's road games, pending league approval, according to KRIV-TV. White requested the team's permission to use a private bus -- which he is willing to fund -- because flying aggravates his generalized anxiety disorder.
White told ESPN.com on Wednesday night that the ability to travel by bus to some road games was necessary, not special treatment.
"What it's going to look like is every game that's drivable, I'm going to get a bus for myself," White said. "And I'm going to make that bus feel like home so that there's a level of consistency in a job where inconsistency is very apparent because of the schedule. I'm going to try and level that out and make sure that my stress levels stay low and that my rest is regular and that my meals are regular and that, as much as I can, draw consistency from a very inconsistent schedule. ...
"People with mental illness, one of the most important things is that they have that consistency and routine. The girth of [my request] was, 'Can I travel by bus to close enough games?'"
Yes, his anxiety and fear of flying are the tangible reasons for his decision. But I believe White really stayed away because he doesn't trust easily.
I've covered his career since he was in high school. He wants to know that the Houston Rockets really care about him and his condition. He wants to make sure that he is more than an investment to the franchise. This request was White's attempt, in part, to measure that commitment.
We spoke for nearly an hour Wednesday night. As he discussed his decision -- in his eloquent and sophisticated way -- he repeated his concerns about the rigors of an 82-game schedule without the assistance of a bus.
This is not some act. White is serious about this demand. Without the bus, he said, he's not sure how he would handle his rookie season.
White had consulted with a family doctor he's known since high school -- the same woman who treated him for anxiety when he was first diagnosed with the condition nearly five years ago -- about the team's plan for his care. They decided that the bus was essential. No bus, no training camp.
White trusts that family doctor in Minnesota. She has been there from the beginning of his bouts with anxiety disorder.
Yes, the Rockets pay White a lot of money and have the resources to offer him the top psychological care in the world. But they're still new.
White doesn't always trust new.
I speak from experience.
I know White didn't trust me in those early years. Not necessarily because I was a reporter but because I was different -- not a part of his circle, the core people in his life who he consults before he makes these calls. For everyone outside of that, there's a good chance you'll struggle to earn his trust.
I met White when he was preparing to enter his senior season at Hopkins High School (Minnetonka, Minn.). He had been expelled from another school for academic misconduct. I didn't know what to expect when he arrived at a small diner with his grandfather.
White didn't have a bad guy's swagger, although that's the perception that has followed him throughout his career. He spoke about his life. His dreams. He talked about Catholicism and philosophy. He seemed mature beyond his years.
Since that time, somehow, I've managed to gradually gain his trust, I think. I've written about his greatest failures (legal issues at Minnesota, his expulsion in high school) and his greatest victories (leading Iowa State to the NCAA tournament, his decision to open up about his anxiety).
But it's always been a cycle with White. One day he might trust you. The next day, he might not.
When White was a freshman at Minnesota, he called me and said he wanted to talk about his 2009-10 suspension from the program at a local restaurant. The team benched him after a shoplifting incident and an investigation surrounding a stolen laptop. I waited for two hours and then I called him. He had ultimately decided to postpone the interview but failed to notify me.
He can be impulsive like that sometimes.
His decision to ask the Rockets for a private bus days before training camp was swift but not surprising. Those around him will tell you the same thing. Sometimes, he just acts on his feelings, especially if there are trust issues or concerns. He gravitates toward people he believes he can trust and runs from those he can't.
So this is bigger than basketball, anxiety or flying to White.
He has asked the Rockets to address his anxiety the way they would treat a player with a broken ankle. He's injured. He needs certain tools to function.
It puts the Rockets in a unique position. White's request for a bus could be unprecedented, especially for an NBA rookie. But it's just as symbolic as it is essential. Permission to bus to games means the Rockets are looking out for White.
White's father wasn't involved when he was young, and he has had various family challenges throughout his life. He watched an abusive boyfriend mistreat his mother. He lived with different family members. There were times, he said, where he never felt a sense of stability in his youth.
So White developed ties to coaches and friends. They became his family.
He'll surely turn to his first high school coach, DeLaSalle's Dave Thorson in Minneapolis, throughout his rookie season. The family doctor he has confided in since he was a teenager will always be the go-to professional for his anxiety. He is loyal to those who have contributed to his life. He'll quickly dismiss those who haven't.
That's why he's taken on this role as the face of anxiety in sports. He feels a connection and a responsibility to the other sufferers. They're like him. They are him.
Prior to White's admission of his condition, few athletes had been so forthcoming about mental illness. White risked his professional career with his vulnerability. Phrases such as "red flags," "character issues" and "risky prospect" were attached to his name in the weeks leading up to last summer's draft.
White's status has put him in a position to advocate for the millions who deal with anxiety disorders. He has the exposure that they lack. He can meet with reporters. He has been invited to speak at venues throughout the country. This is not just his challenge anymore. It's his cause.
There is, however, another side to this.
I understand the frustration with his approach to the matter.
White has been vocal about his anxiety. At times, though, his delivery has teetered on attention-seeking behavior. When I talked to him about his condition in January, he was very open and nervous. He knew there would be a massive response. Since then, however, he has been featured on TV, in national publications and on high-traffic websites. He is not just a basketball player anymore. He's a noteworthy advocate.
That level of recognition can be dangerous.
When White called me Wednesday night, he wanted to make sure that his message would be heard by the masses. The thousands of comments on ESPN.com suggest that he has accomplished his goal.
Even though his request for a bus is related to his anxiety, he didn't exactly minimize the issue. He missed media day and the start of training camp. He forced people to ask questions. He created this level of intrigue.
He's done that throughout his career.
Days after he committed to Minnesota, he popped up at a local AAU tournament with a giant "M" carved into the back of his head and a 20-man/woman/child entourage that crowded the margins of the gym. When he "quit" the basketball team at Minnesota, he made a YouTube video that didn't announce his intentions until the end of the clip.
He knows how to get attention. That quality has served him well as he attracted more support for anxiety and those who suffer from it.
It's also led White to trouble. That design on the back of his head and that YouTube video didn't help him escape concerns about his character. White has matured since that time, but the theatrics surrounding this request have the same aroma of that teenager who wanted folks to notice him.
At this juncture in his life, he is still searching for that balance between advocating for a serious cause and staying humble through that process. It's not easy given the rapid elevation he's experienced in recent months.
But he is potentially risking his NBA future by doing things this way. He could alienate his teammates. He could adversely affect his relationship with the franchise and the league.
Access to a bus might ultimately give White that sense of security he's always desired. What he may not realize, however, is that the Rockets have to trust him too.
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