Former NBA first-round pick Royce White is reviving his basketball career with the London Lightning of the National Basketball League of Canada. The question that his play so far brings up, and one White himself would eventually like an answer to, is why he hasn't had the full opportunity to do this at the NBA level? With an NBA body and uncanny passing ability, there was enough talent for White to succeed at Iowa State after two years on the sidelines, and then for the Rockets to take a chance on him. But White has generalized anxiety disorder, and with a lack of mental health policy in the NBA, his career at the world's highest level has, so far, amounted to a small handful of games and a great number of headlines.
VICE Sports recently caught up with White in London to discuss his decision to get back to professional basketball, and to gain some insight into the answer to White's big what-if. Throughout our discussion, White revealed some of the specifics of what he was asking for from the Rockets—this was about much more than a fear of flying—his discussions (or non-discussions, rather) with then-commissioner David Stern, his philanthropic work in the mental health community, and how he sees change being inspired at the NBA level.
VICE Sports: When we recently talked about your performance in the NBL, you noted that people would write it off because it's just the NBL. Rewinding to earlier in your career—we'll go all the way back to the NBA, eventually—you felt the same kind of things were said about your D-League performance. What was that time like, given everything that had precluded it at the NBA level?
Royce White: When I first got to the D-League, I was under a lot of stress, just from everything that was going on with Houston. And I was really internalizing it, for a number of reasons, but mostly because it had stirred up this public conversation about mental health and I was getting a lot of feedback from people who had serious mental health issues, like suicidal thoughts and things like that. And they were reaching out to me for help, and to also say I was an inspiration. To sit in rooms with people who don't necessarily feel that direct sense of urgency for those people, it just made me really upset.
How heavy did that weigh on you, on top of the D-League adjustment?
I went into my own reclusion. So my point being that when I got to the D-League, I was dealing with those things first, but two weeks later I was still getting, like, 29-9-7-and-5. The narratives around media have always been so, sports media specifically, have always been so peculiar to me. You look at a guy like LeBron James, right? The guy does every fucking thing possible on the basketball court, and there's still doubt. I understand it, because in media, you have to create a story.
And there's a role just for contrarians.
Right. A job just to have an opinion. And if LeBron is the guy, we have to pose the question of, 'Is he adequate?' As a player, you just never get caught up in that shit. The one year that I got traded to Philly from Houston, ESPN did that ranking that they do every year of the players.
And they ranked me last. I hadn't even played yet. They could have easily just have kept me off of the list, but they felt the need to put me last.
You seem pretty excited about your own potential performance down here [in London, playing in the National Basketball League of Canada].
You know why, though? I've watched how everybody talks, and talk is so fucking cheap and bullshit, you know? I'm a guy that's all for conversation. Honestly, I love conversation, I love dialogue, and I believe that to solve we have to be willing to communicate transparently. But the amount of bullshit talk that exists today is astounding. Sports is a microcosm of it, but it's really about all issues, all things that we talk about. We just petty-fog conversations so much. Related to this and myself and basketball, what I mean is, there will be all kinds of talk about 'If he plays well in Canada, it's the NBL in Canada, so what does that really mean?' Just like when I was playing well in the D-League, 'Well you're supposed to do that in the D-League.'
White's putting up big numbers for the NBL's London Lightning. Photo by Stu Switzer, courtesy London Lightning
And if you had played well in Philly...
'Well, it's just Philly.' They even criticize LeBron's performance. I'd love the chance to go out and do something tangible, where it adds a backdrop to all the Skip Bayless type of shit, the opinions and all of that. The truth is that talent exists independently of words, and I'm one of the best basketball players on the planet. No amount of words can change that, no opinions can change that, no circumstance can change that.
When they stripped Muhammad of his license, when they took away his belt, that didn't mean that he wasn't still the best boxer on the planet.
So just because the NBA hasn't allowed me to this point to prove that I can play on the same court as a LeBron and be productive, or Draymond Green or Kevin Durant or whoever, has no bearing on whether or not I can. So I'm excited about that, because the more I go out there and play and be productive now, the more it's gonna put a spotlight on that conversation. And we'll have to have that conversation truthfully. I want to talk about those things. I want to talk about how we have to come up with bullshit angles to sell a story. There's enough interesting human drama without embellishment. If we're writing fiction or we're writing movies, OK. But what's with all the embellishment with real-time shit?
And it's rarely embellishment of the good things.
Let's blow the bad out of proportion. Drake has a great line—now that I'm in Canada I'll shout out.
You cross the border, you get the discography.
Right! He had a great line, he said, 'They scream out my failures and whisper my accomplishments.' I love that. That's 100 percent accurate to how we treat each other, really.
I would love to hear what you wanted from the Rockets, and what they were or weren't willing to do.
Well, the Rockets story is important, because the mental health community was really affected by this moment between me and Houston. With Houston, and by way of the NBA and their ownership groups, which are usually people who are billionaires or captains of industry—any time you communicate a progressive idea between two parties, you can rest assured there's probably gonna be some tension and misunderstanding. Consensus, in my opinion, is rarely tangible. And for that reason, to communicate or try to solve a problem that's abstract can be really hard, if you are basing it on consensus, or your decision making is navigated through consensus. If you run a corporation, consensus is usually exactly how you navigate most issues. Mainly profits—mass opinion, mass retention, mass consumption. When you are hyper-successful like that in business, you get into that train of thought. I didn't come through that. I had just came out of college in 2012. College students are idealists, we're dreamers.
White during preseason action with the Rockets in 2012. Photo by Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports
For me, in 2012, it was apparently obvious that not only in the NBA, but around the world, wherever there isn't a mental health policy, there should be one. And wherever there isn't an adequate one, there should be a better one. Now, what's funny about consensus is that it sways back and forth in the wind, you can't even see it change, it moves so quick sometimes. That's why now, in 2016, it's hardly arguable. The consensus would be that mental health policy needs to be where it isn't, and it needs to be better where it isn't adequate. That's the consensus now, even how fickle consensus is. Imagine this? You can't get Republicans and Democrats to agree on any fucking thing, but they agree on mental health policy. So, for me, 2012, despite all the nuances of the story, and Daryl Morey, him saying some things that weren't true in the media or to the media, him feeling pressure as a GM because he made that pick, or Leslie Alexander feeling like he made a bad investment as a billionaire. Not understanding that me standing up for mental health is actually where he wants his organization to be headed. How he wants his players to be. Or maybe he doesn't, there's two types of people in the world. I know who I am. Do they?
From the Morey perspective, if he was trying to save face, wouldn't he have done everything possible to help you succeed? Because it was bigger than just the flying, right?
It got really weird. It has nothing to do with flying. Nothing to do with it at all. I'll give you an example: We talked about flying because I was the first player in a long time to have said openly that I am scared of flying. And I do deal with PTSD around flying, there's no doubt about that. I don't fucking like it. But I never once said I wouldn't fly at all. So how does that become the story? By chance? I doubt it!
And you flew at Iowa State.
I never once said I couldn't fly. That was a story that they pushed to try to petty-fog the policy conversation. Number one, I played an entire season at Iowa State where I flew. Now, when I got to Houston, I actually flew to Houston. So I flew to Houston, flew back to Iowa, flew back to Houston, flew to Las Vegas, flew back from Las Vegas to Houston. This was before the season even started. The question wasn't whether or not I would be able to fly. We even agreed that I should be able to drive when it was possible. If I'm going from Houston to San Antonio, why can't I drive? Why would I either have to take the stress of flying or take some type of medication that's possibly addictive. And the league pushed back on that at first.
White stuffed the stat sheet at Iowa State, but mental health questions followed him into the NBA draft. Photo via Wiki Commons
The first suggestions that were informal were, 'Well, we'll let you take Xanax every time you get on the plane.' Because benzodiazepines are actually on the banned substance list unless you have a prescription, I argued just because you have a prescription doesn't mean they don't still have the same addictive qualities. That's why doctors have to limit them.
On top of the side effects that come with them. I know I don't want to be on them all the time.
Exactly. So we have 100 flights a year and I would be taking 100 Xanax a year, no doctor would recommend. So I said, listen, even if a doctor would give me a prescription for this, that doesn't mean that it's healthy or will be conducive to me playing. So, let's cut out as many Xanax as possible. This is what we started talking about, not cutting out the flights, let's cut out the Xanax. Equate the flights with the Xanax. So any time I can drive, let's drive, so I don't have to take that Xanax. We agreed on that, after some dispute.
After that, the conversation was, let's say for whatever reason, long shot, I have a panic attack in Charlotte. Let's say I get a call and something happened with my family, and I get a panic attack. And it's three hours before the game, right? And I can't play. I'm riddled with panic. It could happen to any player, but for players with generalized anxiety disorder, it's probably a little more likely. Are you guys going to fine me? Do you guys have the ability to cut me? Because in the policy, they do, because there's no specific mental health policy. So they said, 'Well if that happened, we'd understand, we're not trying to fuck you over or anything.' So I said 'OK, let's just put it in writing.' If I have a panic attack or anything happens where I miss something team-related that has to do with anxiety, my medical condition, it will be treated like a medical condition and not like me being irresponsible.
Treat it like a sprained ankle.
I definitely wasn't going to let somebody make it seem like me missing a game because I had a panic attack is grounds to fine me. And they would. And I'm not saying they would immediately, but if there ever became tension between me and the team over contracts, about productivity, these are the little nuances they would use to poke jabs—'Oh, you had a panic attack, you missed a team dinner, we're gonna fine you.' I wasn't going to allow that. Not only was I not going to allow that for me, it's just not right for anybody, anywhere, any job. The NBA should be more accountable in their role in society then to allow that type of thing to go unacknowledged.
Have you talked with any other players around the NBA who deal with mental health issues, or have concerns like that, and maybe don't speak up about it? I can't imagine, with whatever percentage of the population is dealing with a mental health issue, you're the only one.
Yeah. [Chuck] Klosterman asked me this one time, he said, 'Do you think that the process of elite athletes weed out people who have disorders?' And I thought that was absurd. I thought it was absurd that he had created a story in his mind where the process of becoming an elite athlete would detach them from the medical conditions of the general population.
That doesn't make a lot of sense to me, that one precludes the other.
Muhammad Ali just died of a general population disease. It doesn't matter that he was the most elite fighter ever, in the world. The body gives out in ways that we are behind in because we haven't put enough scientific research to be ahead. You get Parkinson's, there's nothing people can do. ALS, I just had a cousin die from Lou Gehrig's [disease] in his 30s, 40s. There's limits to the things we know, and to think that sports is gonna have an effect on that, or the process of sports, it's pretty out there.
After getting selected No. 16 overall in the 2012 draft, White's relationship with the Rockets quickly turned sour. Photo by Pat Sullivan/AP
It shows a bit of a misunderstanding, and what athletes with mental health issues are actually dealing with. A panic attack does not suddenly make you a less capable player.
I played an entire season with an anxiety disorder at Iowa State. People always say to me they don't understand how I did that. Well, they don't understand because the story they were told isn't true and makes no fucking sense, but it was still told to them 100 times, so it skews their ability to even disseminate an accurate version of the story. The mental health conversation has put a lot of people in that position. The conversation is somewhat complex and it does take a patient perspective.
So, in a way, I get why Klosterman can write great articles sometimes and sound like an idiot when it comes to that. I said to him in that interview, 'How about, who doesn't have a mental illness?' And that astounded him. He was like, 'What do you mean? If everyone has one, then isn't it normal? Doesn't that take away from your argument?' No! Not at all.
If everybody got the Bubonic Plague, that doesn't make it normal. Do you want to talk about the fact that the essentials are something that people are generally lacking in, in the world? Essentials, the things in Maslow's hierarchy that we've already deemed as essential for people to have a sound psychology and quality of life, most people don't have, or struggle to keep. Do you want to talk about capitalism? Do you want to talk about the effect that that's having on why mental illness numbers keeps rising? Instead of taking this blanket chance to say, 'Well if everyone has a mental illness, it's the new norm' like it's a fad. Like it's a fucking windbreaker or something.
So, what's the question people should be asking?
Even smart people have trouble with tough ideas, with progressive ideas. That's fine, but I embrace my role in it. People ask, 'Do you ever regret what you said? Do you think you should have waited a little bit longer, until you were more established in the league?' No, there's a level dishonesty in that to me, [in] waiting to say what's true. We don't have time to wait. Somebody asked me, 'Well, what if you were to wait 15 years?'
I said, take these numbers: Take the number 22, and take the number 18. Those are the suicide rates of veterans and young adults between the ages of 13 and 24. Those are the number of suicides a day. So take 40, multiple it by 365, and then multiply that by 15. It comes out to like 200,000 or something like that. Now statistically, because there are 350,000,000 Americans in this country, systemically and statistically we think of 200,000 suicides over 15 years as not a big deal or relative.
That number should be zero.
Exactly. So if me saying something in 2012 could bring that number from 200,000 to even 199,999, then it's fucking worth it. Because I know, truthfully, the effect that one suicide has on an entire community for generations. It's not just about one person leaving the planet and not experiencing life any more. It's about that, and that's tragic, yes. But the effect that suicide or even ongoing mental illness for the living has on the community around it is incalculable right now. We haven't studied it enough to be able to calculate it to an exact numerical value. But we know for sure it's not good. You can't accept bad results on behalf of others, and call it normal, because you haven't done the work to truly understand. That's a prime equation for social regression.
Back to your Klosterman point, it makes it clear that success doesn't weed out, or whatever, people with mental illness.
It's not a cure. Why didn't you keep hearing about [the owner of the Thunder who mysteriously died] story? But in three months, you heard 100 times that I couldn't fly? These are the questions that I pose, and it's not scary for me. And it's scary for them, that it's not scary for me. And I say this from a very serious place—it's scary for them that I have the abilities that I have, that I have the ambitions that I have, that I have the ideas that I have, and that I have the ability to articulate them the way that I do. That was scary for David Stern and other owners.
Did you have conversations directly with David Stern during your time with the Rockets?
I asked to meet David Stern face to face and he said he would rather talk to my agent. I emailed him when I first had my troubles with Houston, and he literally said through email, 'I don't think now's a good time for us to meet face to face. But I will meet with your agent. But I will say, you should stay off Twitter, because it won't make anything better.'
So you want me to stop inspiring the people who are dealing with these issues, people that you guys have written off as collateral damage?
I bet you do want that. FUCK YOU. And you can quote me: Fuck you. You and your brand and your comfort and your reputation and all of the superficial bullshit, you think is more important than the 15-year-old girl who just messaged me in my inbox and said, 'I've cut myself three times in the last three months, and I'm inspired that you're talking about your anxiety.' That's your perspective on the world? Your priority? Stay off Twitter? Man, FUCK YOU.
I know you said you're not doing the NBL strictly to get back to the NBA. You're doing it because you're doing it. But you must want to get back to the NBA at some point, right?
The pure basketball player in me, yeah. I mean, I'd love to play in the NBA. I watch the games all the time, and I'm like, 'I'd like to play.' Nobody wouldn't like to play with the best players in the world. But at the same time, I'd just like to have more of an honest conversation. It may not be possible in this era or this generation or this decade or whatever, but hopefully it is. I'm just not one of those people who will accept that it's not possible. I won't accept that I have to stop talking about mental health to play in the NBA, or just accept that I'll never play. I don't accept that. Their move. They distanced me from the league, mental health still knocking at the front door. Hell, its knocking on the whole house, really.
Being an advocate is a big part of what you're doing, especially with Anxious Minds and Alexander North. Beyond the competitive drive, is there a part of you that sees getting back to the NBA as a way to continue the conversation, and bring it back to the surface?
Naw, I think the NBA is having the conversation amongst themselves, and they've been having it for three-four decades. Any conversation that's ever happened in sports related to drugs has been a mental health conversation, whether acknowledged or not. I think I might have put a different spin on it, but I didn't introduce it to them. I think they're gonna be faced with that conversation for the rest of the time that humanity is walking the cosmos, just the same way everyone else is.
My involvement with the mental health conversation is way past basketball now. It's international, it's 15 years down the line, it's 20 years down the line, it's about solutions for all people. The thing I'll say is it would be excellent for corporate culture for the NBA to set an example on tolerance and acknowledgement of mental health. That would be an exceptional thing to have happen, but not necessary for the movement to go forward, either. So me getting back to the NBA and playing is more just about my love for the game and playing. As much as I love the work that I do as an advocate, and as much as I love the work that I do on the entrepreneur side, there's still something you can't simulate with fierce competition and camaraderie of a sports team.
So they're not unrelated, but they're also separate things.
Oh, for sure. They're for sure separate. There's very little correlation. I see a positive path for the mental health conversation with me going back and playing in the league, but it's not necessary. I'm talking to senators and governors, and at conferences. With teachers, doctors, moms, dads, brothers and sisters, people who are fundamentally shaping the future.
Being in the NBA did and would come with a certain amount of exposure. You've used your voice actively. Being in the NBA would mean more people might seek that voice out. For you personally, you said basketball is a separate thing. But big picture, it seems one could help the other.
In a perfect storm. Listen, I want to say this: As much as you can quote me saying, 'Fuck David Stern.' Seriously, just quote me.
Oh, I will.
You have to. It's about being candid. But the context behind that is, I'm not saying 'Fuck him' in general. I'm saying 'Fuck him' for the comment to stay off Twitter and thinking about the brand before the positive impact I was having on people who are dealing with life-threatening issues. If I was to just say, 'Fuck David Stern' because we don't see eye to eye, that's not reasonable. But I think it's very reasonable to say 'Fuck him for being detached from the common struggle.' It's not personal with them. I understand that it's hard to accept progressive ideas, I understand that there's a natural tension and misunderstanding when it comes to progress. But you don't need to accept it. As understandable as it is, that doesn't mean it's logical. In a perfect world, the NBA, and myself, and the rest of the people that are connected to that brand peripherally through the networks, the product brands, could band together and really change the world for mental health. And if mental health changes drastically for humanity, humanity itself could quite possibly take a huge evolutionary step.
The NBA could be an ally.
If the NBA and Nike and TNT and ESPN all banded together and said, 'We want to advance the mental health conversation 10, 15 years,' they could fucking do it. Now, do they wanna do it? I don't know. If they don't, I wanna know why. And if they do, I know exactly how we can.
Why aren't you playing in the NBA?
How is it I could go an entire offseason without getting an invite to training camp? Is there any world where they could justify it by saying that I'm not good enough? Let's just take the reality and say the reason why is that my advocacy for mental health has been deemed similar to a distraction. Is there any world where they could justify my advocacy as a distraction? Absolutely not. Not in this, where the need for advocacy is not only necessary but paramount.
White's talent has never been in question, and despite a long layoff, he's arguably the best player in the NBL. Photo by Stu Switzer, courtesy London Lightning
It's a positive, even. Or it could be.
To who? It's a positive thing to me and you. It's a positive thing to progressives. To them, I'm sure it seemed like just another headache.
But the NBA does a lot in some other advocacy areas. They pulled the All-Star Game from Charlotte, for example. Do you think Adam Silver would have handled it differently?
No. Adam Silver is David Stern's stool pigeon. He was trained by him, taught by him. The feeling that you get that Adam Silver is more progressive is because he's adjusted to the era. It's not because he wanted to, it's because he had to. I don't believe them pulling the game from Charlotte was 100 percent genuine. I don't think it's because they believe that inequality, if it exists in one place, it exists everywhere, for everyone. Because if they believed that, then they would have a mental health policy. So you can tell it was about business. Them pulling the game from Charlotte was about the brand, not about the fabric of society. That morality would be showing up in a bunch of other places with them. You can't have an anti-gun violence campaign and not have a mental health policy. Fuck, there's more suicides by gun in this country than there are homicides. These are just raw facts that people don't want to deal with.
So why not mental health advocacy, too, then, in your opinion?
It's about convenience. It's not that Adam Silver would do anything different, unless there was a commitment across the board. Adam Silver and David Stern represent the interests of the owners. In the owners' minds, it makes no sense for the owners to create more of a headache for themselves to take on a topic that they don't feel they have to. The LGBT community has made themselves a priority in every place socially, through their own work as an organization and a community. The mental health community hasn't, which is why the NBA doesn't feel they have to, or else they would have.
Will the NBA adopt an adequate mental health policy under commissioner Adam Silver'? Photo by Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports
The onus for inciting change shouldn't necessarily fall on the players, but does that make you think that the onus will eventually fall on a larger number of players and that community pushing for it?
It shouldn't. I think it should come from the federal government. I think the fucking federal government should stop allowing corporations to operate that way, if corporations aren't going to regulate themselves. That's what the entire function of the federal government is in relation to corporations I thought, is to regulate corporations because in a capitalistic society, the pathway to profit has most often come through exploitation.
Do you not think some entities will eventually see benefits to being proactive, the NBA included?
It always benefits you to be proactive. That's the point. That's where ego comes in, though. Even more than money and greed, humanity faces a huge ego/priority problem. They're not even taking a step back and looking at why they're doing it this way or can they do it different. The tobacco companies are a huge fucking example. Who knows how long they knew that tobacco caused cancer? Now we are where we are, and what are we gonna do differently? What are we gonna do differently about global warming?
Stephen Hawking said it best: Our greatest threat is ourselves. We see that now. We're one of the only species in the history of living organisms that actually sees itself as a threat to its own existence. Yet we still are so hesitant to logical change. And when you say things like that—and this is why I want you to transcribe all of this—because when you say things like that, people go, 'Oh that's abstract, that's too much to deal with.' Well, everybody's saying that, that's why nobody's dealing with it. Even the president's probably saying it sometimes. I heard Obama say one time—and I'm a huge supporter of a lot of the things that President Obama strived to do and talked about doing, and God save us now with the new guy—but even that administration was complacent in many places.
I heard President Obama say in the Piers Morgan interview, 'Things get better over time slowly when you work on them.' That's true, I agree. But clearly [we] don't have time for our leaders to accept a slow progress. People are dying, and not only are they dying, they're not even living well. And I get that he sees a system from the inside and he sees how systemic change happens, but at what point do you feel empowered as the so-called 'most powerful man on the planet' to advance and speed things up, and what are you willing to sacrifice to do that? I don't give a fuck if the Republicans are trying to gridlock you for four, eight years. Stop the buddy-buddy thing then. Stop trying to be so diplomatic. If they're gonna try and derail progress intentionally, they've chosen not to participate in diplomacy. Go right back at them and say 'No, progress is gonna happen.'
But mental health should be a bipartisan issue, anyway.
It actually is one of the most bipartisan issues. We went off topic, but we went off topic for a reason: Mental health is a microcosm of what all social issues are facing. Lack of urgency and lack of commitment. But mental health is actually one of the few issues that is bipartisan. So how can the NBA explain its lack of movement? THAT'S scary! They're behind the people who are behind—25 or 30 years from now, people will look back on it and go 'What the fuck?'
Just like the NFL paying doctors to say concussions weren't deadly. Shit like that is criminal. Nobody may ever get prosecuted for it, the NFL is still gonna kick off every Sunday, but is that success? Is that the best we can do? You're the Dallas Cowboys right now, just because you can kick off on Sunday again, does that feel like an accomplishment? It wouldn't to me. I'd be sick to my stomach if I was Jerry Jones. Maybe he is, maybe he's not. But he'll probably convince himself he's the man and walk around with his chest poked out. It's like, not only do we not acknowledge the common human struggle, then we wanna ego-trip over our own struggle. So we have this place where nobody's admitting how hard life is and how much support we all need from one another. I'm not about that. We need acknowledgement, and we'll have it if my hands can pull only one string. They're scared of that. Elites are scared of progressives like me for that reason.
To me, it seems the stigma has created a bit of a Prisoner's Dilemma here. You say people are scared to admit they need help, and that is definitely hard, but if everyone admitted it together, there'd be much less stigma and it would be easier for everyone to get help and help each other. How do we reconcile that?
That is exactly what needs to happen. It's through conversation and that self-evaluation, but a lot of people don't want to have it. See, writers, we love that. That's why we write. That's why I write. Because through the process of writing, you understand yourself better. But captains of industry don't want that. Look, if you run a tobacco company and the question is posed whether or not tobacco should even be legal, that's a tough question. It's a complex question. But you don't even want to have that conversation because it makes it harder for you to sleep at night, now you have to play an active role in a complex conversation. So instead you go, 'Fuck that guy, he's just a progressive asshole,' and it's back to what you were doing. When actually it's not about whether it should be sold or not, it's not whether Nike should be boycotted or not, it's just about having open conversations and figuring out, can there be a better way? It doesn't need to be this tear-each-other-down thing. That's the war culture coming into play. If me and the NBA disagree, one of us has to lose. That's not sensible.
It goes back to your earlier point about sports as a microcosm. Everything has to be debated at the extremes rather than in the vast grey middle.
And we wonder why we have simultaneous epidemics of starvation and obesity. That's why, right there: Because we're too polarized. It's OK to be pragmatic. We've lost all sense of pragmatism. Since Donald Trump came up, I'll use that as an example. He said a lot of things that, being a mental health advocate, I see could strike a lot of fear in a lot of people. He said a lot of divisive things, actually too many to be president. But he also said some things that were spot on about D.C. politics. Because I'm progressive doesn't mean that I can't say that he said some honest things. Now, that being said, I don't believe the honest things he said about D.C. make him qualified for that office. He's not, clearly. He's bad news, in an exhaustible amount of ways. But even if Trump is impeached, which he should be, immediately, he still said some true things about D.C. politics, and there's nothing wrong with admitting that, no matter how you feel, because it's honest. But that's not how we are right now.
We'd be in a much better place if we were more pragmatic, and we're not. And even more so than mental health, the undertone of my story is all about that. All the talk about flying, that was the surface talk. We all really know it was about policy, that was the under layer. But the foundation of the conversation is that I'm progressive, and I'm very progressive, and I'm very articulate. I'm a product of an environment that has neglected itself, and I'm looking at the world from a pragmatic lens, and I'm challenging the status quo to improve itself. And that bothered the NBA. Even more so than the mental health policy thing. The mental health policy thing was just a representation of that. Behind closed doors, everyone agreed on the need for policy. The public never saw it, but we were in meetings and they'd say to me, 'Well, yeah, we could use a policy but it'll take us a while to get it, it's gonna be hard for us to get all 30 owners to agree.' It was never argued that there shouldn't be one. They never disagreed with that. But they still put the story out like I was an asshole. Yet, there still isn't a policy. But that's OK, stories tell themselves in the end.
The 6'9" forward is enjoying his time in Canada, where he's resurrected his basketball career. Photo by Stu Switzer, courtesy London Lightning
Like the people who prosecuted Muhammad Ali for not going to the Vietnam War look like assholes now. Stories tell themselves. Even more than the mental health policy, they were threatened because they knew that not only would I challenge them, but if I was to become the player that Anthony Davis is, what problems would they have then? With that reach, to your earlier point, about me playing and what good it could do. That's why I'm not playing. Imagine if LeBron James was willing to really risk his career or athletic legacy to stir the pot vigorously, the pot would look extremely different. They knew I could pose that type of problem. They tried to stop it, [but] they only added premium gas, instead of the unleaded I was already working with.
Do you think, then, it'll only take one progressive owner to push these ideas to start the momentum? Because then it came from them, it's theirs.
They'd be writing articles about him, they'd be letting him lead the way, they'd be smacking him on the ass. But because it was me, because I was 21, I was the threat. You have so many different egos there. You've got player-owner egos, you've got worker-superior egos, you've got progressive-conservative egos, and then you have age egos—a group of older men seeing a young guy come in and actually have a better pulse on humanity than they have. So there's a lot at work there. So when people ask me about the NBA, you have no idea. It's not about me playing, and it's not about anxiety. Those things are minimal. Those are small, minute things.
This shit is big, it's a culture signal. It's, 'We've been doing it this way and we want to continue to do it this way.' At the end of the day, the NBA is a big league, it's a big brand, but it's just a game. What you have to understand is that the same people that own that game are captains of industry in real estate, banking, entertainment, all of those things. And to signal a major progression in that league would be to signal major progression in their industries away from it, and by way of the entire world.
Your return to basketball, if it goes well, is obviously going to re-shine the spotlight on your story. Do you think anything will have changed in how it gets received?
We can talk about it a hundred times and people will still look at it and they'll read it and go, 'That's right, we gotta do something,' and do nothing. Not only will they do nothing, they'll let somebody tell them a story about an arrogant 21-year-old and repeat it like, 'Yeah, Royce White's an asshole, he needs to get on a plane.' Fuck you. I'm on the beat of where humanity should be going, and I'm damn proud of that. No words can change it. Very few people believed Galileo. It didn't change whether he was right or not. People were lining up against Muhammad Ali. Stories tell themselves. What I hope is this one will tell itself soon, because [if] it does sooner than we typically see, it would mean our perspective has changed. It would mean that people are getting more support. That's what I'm working on. I'm working to make sure this story doesn't tell itself over that traditional elongated generation or two. That's within our control now. Things change for the better.
I stood toe-to-toe with the NBA and said in front of the world on HBO that they could try and push me out for saying something progressive, but I'm not going out without a fight. And here we are, four years later, and they're still faced with the same question that they were faced with four years ago. And I'm still here, alive, 6-foot-9, 260 pounds, one of the most unique basketball players on the planet, and one of the most progressive and free thinkers of my generation. What the fuck can they do with that? What can they say or do? Nothing. They can sit in a room and tell themselves that they're doing something, but you can't change the truth. The truth is universal.