HOUSTON — Royce White may never make it in the NBA.
The Houston Rockets’ first-round draft pick might drift into anonymity as a role player, someone more familiar on the bench than on the court.
Yet no matter what path his career takes, he’s already built a legacy — as a fierce, outspoken advocate for the mentally ill and their legal rights in the workplace. In his case, that workplace is the highest level of professional basketball in the world.
White has general anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder and he’s finally back on the court after refusing to play for 2 1/2 months until he got special additions, or protocols, put in his contract to help him cope with his condition. The basis for White’s stand was the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal law that requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees with a physical or mental impairment.
White’s often contentious and very public dispute with his team culminated in late January with a unique (cut ‘written’) agreement that addresses White’s issues. White joined the Rockets’ developmental league affiliate two weeks ago to resume the career that got him all the attention in the first place.
“It was tough not being able to play,” White said, “but it was necessary.”
Lawyers say White’s campaign raises intriguing questions about how the ADA addresses mental illness in professional sports, and may provide a road map for other athletes to follow. Psychiatrists say White’s openness about his disorder has already helped lift the stigma of mental illness and may embolden other athletes to publicly acknowledge their afflictions.
In itself, an athlete dealing with mental illness is not a recent development.
Outfielder Jimmy Piersall famously coped with bipolar disorder in the 1950s, spending seven weeks in a mental hospital at one point. He returned to baseball, was twice named to the All-Star team and played in the majors until the late 1960s. Pitcher Zack Greinke almost quit baseball because of his social anxiety disorder, but learned to control it and was named the AL Cy Young award winner in 2009. Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall has been named to four Pro Bowls despite an acknowledged borderline personality disorder. Retired NFL running back Ricky Williams won the Heisman Trophy at Texas and played 11 NFL seasons while dealing with social anxiety disorder.