NBA’s refusal to confront mental health issues a death sentence for some of league’s top talents

Playing in the NBA is not easy. The 82-game regular season schedule criss-crosses teams around the U.S. (plus Toronto) in a six-month marathon that must feel never-ending. For fringe NBA players, this can also include back-and-forth visits to the D-League. Once there, the plane trips are replaced by bus rides. Keeping your body and mind right for this daily struggle is a job in itself. Doing so while dealing with a mental health disorder is an arduous undertaking.

It’s a late May evening in Halifax, Canada. While the majority of basketball fans are anxiously awaiting the third act of the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers’ rivalry, another battle of hoops goliaths has just concluded. In a resounding performance, the London Lightning defeated the Halifax Hurricanes 105-92 in game three of the National Basketball League of Canada Finals. The epic match-up pits the NBLC’s defending champion, Halifax, against the team with the most regular season wins in league history, London. It also features the league’s MVP, an American who averaged 19.8 points, 9.7 rebounds, 5.7 assists and set the NBLC record for triple-doubles (5) this season. The former one-and-done has continued his strong play into the playoffs, dropping 22 points and 14 rebounds in London’s game three victory.

A star’s battle with anxiety — and the NBA

You’re probably wondering why this guy isn’t scoring those buckets for an NBA team. At 6-foot-8 and 270 pounds, it’s certainly not due to a lack of size. There are no issues with substance abuse or domestic violence in his past. He isn’t a bad teammate, either. No, this former Iowa State star is out of the NBA because the league simply didn’t do right by him.

Royce White was a first-round pick of the Houston Rockets. His rookie contract made him an instant millionaire, too. It had all come together — those countless hours spent in the gym working on his game had paid off. He was 21 years old and everything he had dreamed of was in front of him. There was just one problem – flying on a plane gave Royce anxiety attacks. It was an issue he had dealt with since he was diagnosed with general anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder as a teenager. It was something he hoped the Rockets would be understanding of. If he was willing to deal with long bus rides, the team would surely accommodate him, right?

Source: Twitter
Source: Twitter

Houston wasn’t sure of how to handle White, though. He missed the opening of training camp as the team tried to find a reasonable solution for his travel concerns. An agreement was made, but the dissension continued. A few games into the season, White had another exchange with the Rockets, forcing him to the D-League. From there, the relationship completely soured. The Houston brass said they were doing all they could to integrate White, but he claimed they were not really behind him. In July 2013, after playing in zero games for Houston, White was shipped off to the Philadelphia 76’ers.

Oh, Canada

Over the next two years White continued to fight for his career, but stints with the Sixers and Sacramento Kings were no more accommodating. His request for a meeting with then-NBA commissioner David Stern was rejected. Without a plan to help him manage his mental health disorders, the NBA was nothing more than a dream again. With that, White turned his sights northward.

While the salaries are not comparable, playing in Canada offers White something priceless: a health care system that takes care of him. In the NBLC, White’s mental health disorders aren’t treated all too differently than, say, a knee injury. The NBLC is, plain and simple, willing to take care of White no matter what the issue is.

Mental health disorders are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the NBA is not doing enough to assist its players with these disorders. Former Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick Larry Sanders, who battles anxiety, depression and mood disorders, has also been unable to stick in the league. The NBA’s hardwoods simply aren’t the safe havens they should be for players with these disorders. It’s an issue that isn’t just going to go away with White and Sanders, either.

The NBA might be “where amazing happens”, but if the league can’t care for all of its players, another slogan will be “where ignorance happens.”