NBA shouldn't punish White for his anxiety

In the coming weeks, Royce White will tell men and women who can make him rich -- before the month ends -- about his trials with an anxiety disorder that’s hounded him since he was a teenager.

During last week’s NBA pre-draft combine, the 6-8, 270-pound forward told ESPN.com’s Andy Katz, “I've just got to be 100 percent honest in the interviews and everywhere this week and in the process. It’s hard to keep up with the lies, and it's harder with anxiety. It's a stress-booster. I've got to be 100 percent honest."

If they’re wise, NBA executives, owners, coaches and other personnel folks will ignore the stigma as they evaluate the former Iowa State and Minnesota forward. If they’re smart, they’ll focus on the beauty of his vulnerability.

Grown men and women with millions of dollars on the line usually remain quiet.

They don’t expose their weaknesses or private battles. We didn’t know that Chamique Holdsclaw – one of the greatest female basketball players of all time – battled depression until she nearly ended her life. And that’s also why we didn’t discover the demons that plagued former NFL standouts Junior Seau and Dave Duerson until they'd pulled the trigger years into their respective retirements.

The latter could only communicate the strain through their untimely deaths.

But White has chosen to confront his disorder, not suppress it. He’s risking all by opening up. No surprises.

When I traveled to Ames, Iowa, in January to profile the pro prospect, I wondered if he understood the potential ramifications. For months, he’d expressed his desire to open up about his anxiety disorder, as he evolved into one of the nation’s most versatile players.

A few minutes into our conversation, however, I recognized that White hadn’t made a na├»ve decision. He knew exactly why he wanted to talk.

He wanted to help.

He figured that his status as a premier college basketball player could raise awareness about mental health in general. And it did.

Within days, he’d received dozens of emails, tweets and requests to speak from people who’d read about his story and wanted him to know how much it meant to their personal plights and causes. They felt like they had an advocate in the spotlight. They didn’t have to hide anymore.

I do not know everything about White, although I covered his basketball career for a few years during my time as a reporter in Minneapolis. I know plenty about his background but can’t say I’ve followed him around over the years and understand the good and bad of his personal life -- or anyone else’s for that matter.

But I knew the kid who brought a posse with him to an AAU game. And I knew the young college player who talked about his desire to be the life of the party whenever he hit the town in Minneapolis.

The more mature man I encountered in Ames, however, didn’t speak like that teenager. He talked like someone who’d finally latched onto a mission, a goal.

Within days, however, the chatter related to White’s confession turned to concern. White arrived in Ames with red flags stemming from a high school expulsion plus a shoplifting conviction and theft investigation during his brief stint at Minnesota.

The anxiety disorder, some suggested, would give NBA execs another reason to avoid him in the draft, even though he’s built like Karl Malone, played point guard for Fred Hoiberg and led his team in every meaningful statistical category last season.

Perhaps he’ll fall when final decisions are made at the NBA Draft June 28 in Newark, N.J.

White certainly worried his past would haunt him when I talked to him months ago. He even doubted that he’d crack an NBA roster. He wondered if the league would accept him.

The NBA minds probing White’s background have every right to question his future. With big dollars on the line and dozens of players to consider, it’s only prudent to scrutinize.

But too many players in White’s position -- those who’ve disclosed delicate personal challenges such as mental illness -- face punishment for being forthcoming.

So they don’t speak. And the men and women suffering from similar ailments remain silent, too. And then, a universal dilemma -- 26.2 percent of adults in the United States are diagnosable for at least one mental disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health -- festers underground due to a collective refusal to acknowledge it.

White and other standout athletes who’ve spoken up about mental illness have tried to change that. Maybe this will be the year that an athlete earns credit, instead of criticism, for their honesty.