Two years ago, after declaring that he was done with college basketball, the most perplexing prospect in Thursday's NBA draft taught himself to play the piano. Those who know 6'8", 265-pound Royce White, of course, weren't terribly surprised. He has always felt an acute connection to music and its subversive icons. If you ask him about his idols, he'll skim over Michael Jordan to hold forth—for hours, if you'd like—on John Lennon, Prince and Frank Sinatra. But it was not until early 2010 that White dared to attempt, and perfect, his very first chord. "I looked around," White recalls, "and I said, 'Oh, s---: I'm not a basketball player. This is real life.'"
It's a cumulous June afternoon in Ames, Iowa, and White is sitting in the back room of The Asylum, a tattoo parlor just across the street from Iowa State. In 48 hours he will work out for and field questions from Larry Bird and the Pacers, one of eight scheduled predraft visits. But no job interview can deter White from conscripting an artist named Hot Rod to work on the forward's 13th and most detailed tattoo yet: a portrait of Ol' Blue Eyes himself, abutting the words ATTACK EVERYTHING ALWAYS on his bulging left forearm.
As the needle purrs, the bushy-bearded White talks. "I'm all about transparency," he says. Topics include: the known universe ("Have you heard about the Eagle Nebula? It's a gaseous pillar, 7,000 light years away"); existential philosophy (he's fond of quoting Nietzsche); past missteps at Minnesota, where White never played a millisecond; his lone season on the court for Iowa State, where he established himself as the nation's foremost quintuple threat; and, in between, that plunge into music—which helped him cope with the subject that has propelled NBA talent evaluators into uncharted territory.
White, 21, is the first prospect to freely say that he suffers from anxiety and a severe fear of flying. And he has turned mental illness into a cause célèbre, even if his candor may cost him millions. "It would've been selfish for me to say I'm not going to start helping people the way I want to because I want to make it to the NBA," he says.
Understand: As a redshirt sophomore this past year, White was the only Division I player to lead his team in points (13.4), rebounds (9.3), assists (5.0), steals (1.2) and blocks (0.9). A balletic point power forward, he can bench 185 pounds 28 times, as much as an NFL lineman. Opposing coaches have likened him to Magic Johnson, Kevin McHale and Charles Barkley. "It's unfair to Royce," says Cyclones assistant Matt Abdelmassih, "but LeBron is the one guy you can compare him to."
Still, White says, "I'm a 'high-risk, high-reward' player," mocking a popular scouting refrain. His agent, Andrew Vye, and Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg, a 10-year NBA vet and former Timberwolves vice president, attest that they've never seen such a wide range of potential landing spots for a player, stretching from the lottery into the second round. Which is all to say that NBA executives have been struggling to answer a familiar question: Who is Royce White?
The National Institute of Mental Health will tell you that 26.2% of Americans ages 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. But only one active NBA player, free-agent guard Delonte West, is on record admitting to such a problem. So did White, who lists raising mental health awareness as one of his life goals, rehearse a psychiatric spiel for his interviews? Commit family-friendly definitions of anxiety to index cards? "Everybody around me is trying to get me to do that," he says. "Hell, no."
White's inner circle knows a fundamental truth: In a draft with one sure thing—Kentucky's Anthony Davis going No. 1 to the Hornets—the careers of G.M.'s will rise and fall on the valuation of intangibles, sports' preferred euphemism for the hurdles separating promise from performance. Can Baylor forward Perry Jones III develop a killer instinct? Will UConn big man Andre Drummond have the work ethic to fully exploit his 7'7" wingspan? Does Syracuse center Fab Melo's off-court dysfunction prefigure trouble to come?
White was 16 when he started having agonizing panic attacks, and a doctor finally diagnosed generalized anxiety disorder—defined as a pattern of constant worry—when he was a senior at Hopkins High in Minnetonka, Minn. Before his current 20-milligram daily regimen of medication, his mother, Rebecca, would take him on drives along the Mississippi River whenever his anxiety swelled. After an hour with the window down, hard air in Royce's face, his heartbeat usually slowed.
Today, White's panic really surges only around airplanes, the residue of a lifelong fear of heights. "I know flying's safer than driving," he says. "But if I even start to talk about flying, it does something to me physically." Most often, his ride to the airport—when his imagination begins to fixate on the possibility of a crash—winds up being more punishing than the flight, which White survives by watching movies and interrogating attendants about the slightest bumps and noises. "It's an adrenaline thing," he says. "If the plane goes down, I'm ready to open the door, cartwheel out, and try to hit a tuck-and-roll on the ground."