When you ask Royce White what kind of time he's having playing basketball these last few months, you get a pretty obvious answer—he's having a great time.
How could he not be? He's turned in one incredible season. He was named the National Basketball League of Canada's MVP, averaging (postseason included) 20.1 points, 10.1 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1.3 steals per game for the London Lightning and helping lead the team to a 35-5 record, best in the league's short history.
In doing so, he's played a lot like the guy the Houston Rockets hoped they were getting when they drafted him in the first round five years ago, not the anxiety-ridden player traded after his rookie season and cast off by three more teams.
So is this season supposed to be proof that he can still play after his NBA career?
Not according to White, who feels he's always been able to play.
"Confirmation bias is a big thing going around," White says. "You can use anything to confirm anything you want. Fans of me didn't need to see this season [to] already believe what's true. But if you're talking about people that are looking for a reason to believe all the BS that's been said because they're going to believe [it] no matter what, it's going to be hard to sway them. And swaying them will have nothing to do with basketball, and them not believing in me had nothing to do with basketball."
London, Ontario, is a far cry from the warm weather and bright lights of Houston. About two hours from both Detroit and Buffalo, the city boasts one of the best minor league teams in the Canadian Hockey League, the London Knights, the jewel of the city's sports scene since the 1960s. But it's also a place White's agent thought could be ideal for his client to get back into professional basketball and get a fresh start.
Though talent can be found across rosters in the NBLC, it's clear it isn't the NBA. Teams generally travel by bus, arenas can be smaller than some mid-major colleges and the pay isn't, well, anywhere near the NBA minimum. But there are good players across the league, many of whom were stars in college, such as Scoop Jardine, Jahii Carson, Korie Lucious and Carl Hall.
While most are working their way up for what they hope will be the next step in their careers, White is a guy who's trying to work himself back into the career he had before him. That potential was intriguing to Kyle Julius, who, like any coach, was looking for ways to build a winning roster.
Like just about everyone else, Julius only knew White from what he was able to find on the internet and via college highlights. That was a LeBron James type of talent, able to score, rebound, pass and play defense at a high level, someone who could run an offense. He also undoubtedly read about a player whose anxiety (link contains profanity) made it all but impossible for him to fly, a reality that had him asking the Rockets if he could travel by bus to some games and some in the NBA writing him off as too big of a headache to handle.
"It's really hard to read an unbiased story on Royce before he came over," Julius says. "It really was. [So we] called former coaches, former teammates and did aggressive research, and I couldn't find anyone to say anything bad about him."
White would end up coming in on a weekend in late 2016 with his family to meet Julius and team owner Vito Frijia and to go through a few workouts to see where he was physically. Having been out of high-level basketball since a summer league stint with the Clippers in 2015, coupled with his recovery from an ankle injury suffered earlier in the summer during a pro-am game, White had to work his way back into shape right as the NBLC season was about to start.
"When he came up for a tryout, he was awful, but you could see the potential," Julius recalls. "It was really obvious. He wanted to play and didn't care about the money."
That potential was enough for the team to take a chance, signing him to a deal last December.
Despite the rust and his arrival well into training camp, White didn't seem to have that steep a curve to negotiate as he put up big games early.
On Boxing Day against the Niagara River Lions, White notched his first double-double in his debut, going for a modest 11 points and 13 rebounds to go with four assists and a steal. Two weeks later he went for back-to-back triple-doubles and ended the week averaging 22.8 points, 11.5 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.3 steals and a block in four games over a five-day span. In 40 regular-season games he would record 16 double-doubles and four triple-doubles in helping the Lightning capture home-court advantage for the entire playoffs.
With each week, White felt more in the flow with his team, and that familiar feeling that made him one of the best college players in the country for his one season at Iowa State returned. Everything he did—backing down a defender in the post, throwing an outlet pass to start the fast break, filling the lane for a dunk on the break—seemed effortless.
But life off the court is still a struggle at times for White.
The anxiety disorder that short-circuited his NBA career hasn't disappeared just because he's been away from the spotlight. The Lightning have made support available to him when he's needed it. And he has needed it. He has had episodes during the season. That's the nature of his affliction. But he's been able to manage things and play through it, as he says he has in the past.
"The anxiety fatigues him, and that's where I've gained so much respect for him," Julius says when asked about how the issue has affected his star. "He's a warrior. He's played many games with severe fatigue. He pushes himself through these rough patches, and no one would ever know."
For his part, White doesn't give any indication that he's overly concerned that his anxiety affects him on the court. To him it's a non-issue. But the specter of his disorder looms whenever there is talk of him and whether he could return to the NBA.
"You wouldn't hear that Royce White can't play in the NBA; you'd hear Royce White's anxiety is keeping him from playing in the NBA, which isn't true, and it has nothing to do with basketball," White says. "So a basketball body of work doesn't help that. To even have it be that this season is some type of testimony or some type of proof that I can handle anything is ridiculous because I've already shown that I can handle myself and can play.
"I was able to handle it enough in college to be an elite player and now this season as the best player in this league. So what is there to suggest that I wouldn't handle it well now? This season shouldn't be proof that I can do X, Y and Z, [because] there shouldn't have been any need for proof. I'm not proving anything to anybody."
Right now, White is focused on enjoying the moments he's had and has left this season. He's become a fan favorite, regularly offering high-fives and autographs along with standing for the many picture requests he receives. Before games, he'll chat with fans sitting courtside and shoot around with the ball boys. It's clear White has found a place that allowed him to get back to the game and have fun within it.
"Every time we lace up and do it, I have fun," Royce says with a smile. "We've made history. We're 35-5, the best team in this league's history. Since high school I've played three seasons—my senior year in high school we went 31-0, my one season at Iowa State we went [23-11], and this year 35-5. I'm a f--kin' winner. I'm a big ol' hairy American winning machine, as Ricky Bobby would say it. How could you not have fun winning?"