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Rockets rookie White faces fear of flying

Caption
(Pat Sullivan — AP)
Houston Rockets first-round draft pick Royce White speaks with the media at a news conference on June 29 in Houston. White already missed the first week of NBA basketball training camp. He has asked the team to help him cope with his anxiety disorder and his fear of flying.

HOUSTON - Royce White couldn’t wait any longer.

Last weekend, just before the Houston Rockets opened training camp, he called his agent and told him he had a problem. He needed to map out a plan for dealing with his general anxiety disorder and his fear of flying.

It needed to be done before his first NBA season began. Before the brutal cross-country travel schedule kicked in and before the disorder got any worse.

And if the Rockets, who drafted him 16th overall in June, wouldn’t work with him, then he would walk away from basketball - no matter how much money was on the table.

It was that simple.

“It was going to come down to, hey, are they going to do this?” White said. “Or I might have to think about never being able to play anymore. Ever.”

The Rockets were receptive, though, and will allow White to travel by bus to selected games. White stayed in Houston to work out details of the arrangement while the team held its first week of training camp in McAllen, the home of its developmental league affiliate near the Texas-Mexico border.

The team is returning this weekend, and White will rejoin the Rockets on Monday.

The Rockets haven’t commented on White’s absence, other than to say they are “committed to Royce’s long-term success” and will “support him now and going forward.”

Chatting at a quiet park, overlooking a pond near his home in a Houston suburb, White told The Associated Press he doesn’t plan on missing any games this year. He’ll fly when he has to.

But he’s also shopping for a bus, and can’t make any promises about how he’ll react if the team is forced to take off in stormy weather or if a certain flight hits unnerving turbulence.

“If a game isn’t drivable, then I’ll have to fly. And we’ll see,” he said. “I mean, if we’ve got to play and there’s a thunderstorm over a city, am I going to be more apprehensive about getting on a plane? Maybe. Maybe I miss a game. In the end, it’s more important to understand that, as important as basketball is, nothing is worth someone’s health.”

White says his teammates all offered supportive text messages.

“It’s going to be tough and it’s going to be different,” forward Chandler Parsons said after Friday’s practice, “but the Rockets are a very generous and nice organization. They’ll do whatever they can to accommodate him. But he’s not one of these guys that’s doing it for attention or looking for it to be extra care for him. He’s just trying to find ways to make him be the best player he can be and I think the Rockets are willing to do whatever they have to do to get the most out of him.”

But Michael Edger, who runs the website “Sports Psychology Today,” foresees problems. Edger oversees doctoral students and certified professionals specializing in sports psychology, mental training and performance enhancement.

“You may see a trend with him that he performs much better in home games than he does in away games,” Edger said. “Another thing he’s going to have to consider is that he may get worn out. If he’s traveling on his own, that will probably take more time. He may not get quality rest between games.”

Edger also thinks White’s anxiety may eventually catch up to him and hurt his play.

“With any type of fear, that leads to doubt and that can lead to performing tentatively,” Edger said. “That can take your head out of a game and lead to mistakes.”

White’s anxiety was never a secret. Now 21, he’s been open about it since he was diagnosed in 2007. But his ideal combination of size — 6-foot-8, 260 pounds — and talent proved irresistible to NBA teams.

He was a prep star in Minnesota and went to college at Minnesota, where all did not go smoothly. He arrested at the Mall of America, accused of shoplifting two shirts valued at $100 and assaulting a security guard. He was suspended and withdrew from school, sat out the 2010-11 season and transferred to Iowa State.

He didn’t miss a game last season, and his play blossomed. White was the only Division I player to lead his team in scoring (13.4), rebounding (9.3), assists (5.0), blocks (0.9) and steals (1.2). He earned all-Big 12 honors and took the Cyclones to their first NCAA tournament appearance in seven years.

He laughs now that “15 or 16” NBA teams offered to fly him to their cities for workouts — only so they could inquire about his fear of flying. A few months ago, that idea scared him to death.

“I had to stop those,” he said. “It was too much. They made me anxious, and then wanted to ask me about anxiety, you know?”

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey called him a “top-five” talent and a “pretty unique player” at the introductory news conference for White and fellow first-round draft picks Jeremy Lamb and Terrence Jones.

Morey said then that Fred Hoiberg, White’s coach at Iowa State, reassured the Rockets about the anxiety issues. Hoiberg played for current Rockets coach Kevin McHale in Minnesota in 2004-05.

“We got comfortable with him,” Morey said at the time.

Hoiberg did not return a phone message from The Associated Press on Thursday.

Over the summer, it seemed as if White had learned to corral his “aerophobia.” He flew with the team to its summer league mini-season in Las Vegas, then flew to New York City for NBA rookie orientation. As training camp approached, though, something didn’t feel right.

“I was just feeling like, ‘You know what? I don’t see how this is going to work,’” he said. “It’s honest to just say, ‘I have some anxiety.’ It’s a whole different level of honesty to say to the Rockets, ‘I have anxiety, and this is what I need to do to be healthy and can you accommodate me?’ I felt that it was necessary to take that step.”

He signed a standard contract with the Rockets, and it made no mention of his disorder. He doesn’t expect to amend that contract, or draft a new one to lay out his travel arrangement with the team.

“To go back and rewrite a contract would be extremely inconvenient,” he said. “We’re kind of going ahead in a good faith kind of a deal. Putting it in writing is going to be tough.”

The league wouldn’t comment on White’s situation. White said the NBA has “approved some things,” but hasn’t been deeply involved in his discussions with the Rockets.

Neither the NBA nor the NFL could cite any players who made requested similar travel requests to their teams in the past. White’s anxiety, however, is not unprecedented among professional athletes.

Former European soccer star Dennis Bergkamp was nicknamed “the Non-Flying Dutchman” after he developed a fear of flying during the 1994 World Cup. During the tournament, a journalist flying with the team from Orlando, Fla., to Dallas joked about a bomb on board and the flight was delayed. The plane also encountered engine trouble during the flight, and Bergkamp never flew again.

White can’t pinpoint the moment when plane travel became so terrifying. He was 10 years old on Sept. 11, 2001 and he vividly remembers watching the horror of that day unfold with his mother, Rebecca.

“As much as I want to say that’s not it,” he said, “I can’t deny that every time I get on a plane, I wonder if somebody on this flight has bad intentions. That’s just being honest.”

But White says there’s more to it than that.

As a prep standout, White flew often during summers to basketball camps with his AAU team. The panic attacks started setting in before flights, on flights, whenever he thought about air travel.

“I wouldn’t let anybody know I was having a panic attack. I had to kind of keep it in,” he said. “That’s how I built up the fear of planes. I’m scared of heights, yes. Planes make me uneasy. Before I started having panic attacks, planes never bothered me to the point where I felt it was unhealthy. Now, I’ve built up a thing where I feel like planes and traveling, basically represent death.”

No single episode prompted him to reach out to the Rockets. He hasn’t had a full-blown panic attack since he started taking Fluoxetine, a generic form of Prozac, three years ago.

But he started thinking about his future — five years from now, 10 years from now. He’s educated himself on mental illness, able to rattle off sobering statistics from memory, and he’s learned about people whose lives were ruined because of it.

“I will not allow myself to become an example where, 10 years down the line, I’ve been dealing with a stressful work environment for so long that now I’m depressed, now I’m drinking all the time and now, I flip my car,” he said. “That’s not going to happen.”

White knew his request to the Rockets would attract attention. He’s been fielding interview requests from media for a week. He embraces the opportunity to be an advocate and help change the stigma of mental illness.

“One of the things I would tell people is that it’s a disability, like any other,” he said. “Just because you can’t see my wheelchair, doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

White points to the growing awareness of concussions in the NFL and other sports and outbursts of violence at schools. He’s hoping his story reaches children, most of all.

“How many kids are getting bullied at school? And then, all of a sudden, they bring a gun to school and then we have something that has tragic consequences,” he said. “By me talking about it, maybe I could save someone else’s life, who knows?”

White thinks that if he hadn’t taken measures to help himself now, he might have spiraled into the abuse of alcohol, drugs or another addiction.

“If I’m stressed out, if I have an anxiety disorder that gets out of control, and I start to do heroin, for example, how dangerous am I?” he said. “So tackling it from the front was important. That’s what I kind of did, to take care of my own health first, but also to take a stand for tackling mental illness on the front end, instead of the back end, when the negative things emerge.”

For now, White has no grand visions of basketball glory. Whether he becomes an All-Star or leads the Rockets to an NBA championship is not as important as confronting his disorder.

“Everybody looks at it like, ‘Man, it’s the NBA. Anyone would kill to be there,’” he said. “But who would kill themselves to be there? That’s basically the choice you’re making.”

___

Associated Press Writer Chris Sherman, in McAllen, Texas; and AP Sports Writer Luke Meredith, in Ames, Iowa, contributed to this report.

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Online: http://www.sportpsychologytoday.com/

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