A star Rockets rookie faces his fear of flying

Associated Press Modified: October 6, 2012 at 4:17 pm •  Published: October 6, 2012
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HOUSTON (AP) — 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 late 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.

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