HIDALGO, Tex. — This is what Royce White wanted, to be fighting through picks instead of fighting to be heard, chasing down rebounds rather than understanding.
Three months after he separated from the team and five weeks after he’d been suspended by the Rockets, White finally took his story from the court of public opinion to the basketball court.
The 6-foot-8 rookie forward shot 3-for-8, scored seven points and had eight rebounds, four assists and three turnovers in his NBA D-League debut as the Rio Grande Valley Vipers whipped the Maine Red Claws 139-122 on Tuesday night.
“It was good. I liked it,” White said. “I started getting a little cramping in my quad and tried to play though it. It felt good just to be out there and playing.”
Especially after a road that was far longer than the 350 miles between Houston and this border town and had turned into an odyssey of recrimination and doubt.
The Rockets had made White the No. 16 pick in the 2012 draft due to his all-around skills and versatility, but his notoriety level went through the roof when he did not report to the first week of training camp while requesting that the club and the league come up with a “protocol” to properly treat his diagnosed anxiety disorder while balancing the demands of the NBA schedule.
The Rockets had twice previously tried to assign White to the D-League. But when he would not report the second time, the club suspended him on Jan. 6. The suspension ended when the two sides reached an agreement on Jan. 26 and White was reinstated.
“It was tough not being able to play, but it was necessary,” White said. “I feel like I’ve been right on the verge of coming back the whole time. I’ve kind of been just waiting right on the edge of my seat to come back.”
That comeback began when he checked into the game with 2:47 left in the first quarter and the Vipers already ahead 31-12. Less than a minute later, White got his first assist by setting up Kyle Fogg for a 3-pointer out of the right corner. The next time down the floor, he looked off his defender on the elbow and delivered a nifty shovel pass inside to Glen Rice Jr. for a layup and a three-point play. Somehow the official scorer did not regard that as an assist.
Early in the second quarter, White demonstrated that he was so thoroughly comfortable by deciding to flip a behind-the-back pass to Fogg on a fast break that wound up in the stands and didn’t exactly tickle Vipers coach Nick Nurse.
“Not especially,” Nurse said. “Pretty cool. If he completed it, I would have been allright with it. But that one was a little wild.”
White shrugged sheepishly.
“I guess, you know, that’s how I do it sometimes,” he said.
It was about what you might have a expected from a guy playing his first game of the season and who’d admitted that prior to the last two weeks of workouts, had not been staying even close to game shape.
White says he’s at 272, just two pounds over his preferred playing weight and wants to get his arms “really ripped.”
He often appeared sluggish moving around the floor, but showed the nose for the glass, the ball-handling skills and the versatility that made the Rockets believe he was worth the game, even with history of anxiety. He also put up a couple of air balls that almost landed on the other side of the Rio Grande.
“He was pretty solid,” said Nurse. “It could have been worse, that’s for sure. It’s nice to get a game where our Viper guys busted it open early and we could be liberal with the minutes. He was a little rusty as far as general movements and stuff, but I think he showed some of his talents.”
Late in the third quarter, White had his highlight reel moment, grabbing a defensive rebound, going behind his back as he dribbled down the court, drove into the lane and then dished to Terrence Jones for a dunk.
“That’s my game,” he said.
White gave himself an “F” for a first night grade.
“I didn’t play well,” he said. “I had three turnovers. You always like to keep your ratio lower than that. I like to think of myself as a point guard and that’s just not gonna cut it. I don’t cut myself slack. When it comes to the court, I keep my standards really high and if we didn’t play so well, I couldn’t have carried the team.”
White would not put a timetable on getting to Houston to play with the Rockets this season, but doesn’t doubt his ability.
“I always feel like I can help a team,” he said. “I feel like I could make things easier for James (Harden) or Jeremy (Lin) or whoever else. Hopefully down the line, the Rockets feel the same way. I have no expectations basketball-wise. It’s been such a roller coaster.”
However White doesn’t regret that ups or the downs.
“”I think it’s all been real positive,” he said of his overall experience this season. “I feel blessed and honored to be part of what has taken place the last two months despite how tumultuous it might have seemed, it was a very progressive kind of thing and it needed to be done.
“I expected a negative reaction, for sure, just because I’m aware of the stigma that’s represented with mental health,” he said. “But as far as how hateful it got, you know death threats and things like that are way out of line, I think, for sporting types of interactions. It suggests a lot about mental health.”
“A lot of the people who actually said really hateful things have now come back and apologized and admitted they deal with mental health issues,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of dynamic to what we saw as far as reaction.”
About 30 minutes after the game, White boarded a customized RV to make the trip to Frisco, Tex., where the Vipers will play the Texas Legends tonight. His teammates would fly in the morning. Driving is one of the key components of the agreement to get him back onto the floor.
“I appreciate the Rockets and the NBA being patient with such a new topic like mental health,” White said. “Now, I’m moving forward and this isn’t the end or the beginning. It’s just another piece and we’ll just try to do the best we can with it.”