A star Rockets rookie faces his fear of flying

Associated Press Modified: October 6, 2012 at 4:17 pm •  Published: October 6, 2012

"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.

___

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