Royce White faces an extraordinary challenge at the start of his rookie year with the Houston Rockets, before the season even begins. He is terrified to fly.
"It's a day-by-day struggle for me," he said. "I'm very happy that I made it here, and that the Rockets gave me the chance that I have."
The 21-year-old forward speaks openly about his generalized anxiety disorder, and the demands of his new role as a professional basketball player. "But at the same time, just knowing what I know about anxiety and mental health, there is a side of my mind that can't look away from the fact that I do think about it every day. I wake up (and think), 'Am I cut out for this?'"
He calls his career in the National Basketball Association a dream come true. But living that dream is a challenge for the first-round draft pick from Minneapolis, Minnesota. His anxiety manifests itself in his fear of flying, as well as in his obsessive-compulsive disorder. Both could jeopardize White's career in the NBA, with all of its rigors, and rewards.
He missed the Rockets' training camp in McAllen, Texas, earlier this month, apparently because of his flying phobia. That flight would have been his first with his new NBA teammates on the team plane, according to White.
He appreciates the comfort of first-class air travel. But that doesn't completely alleviate his fear: "I'm definitely afraid of heights," he said. "And I'm not really running from that."
In a phone interview with CNN, he recounted the panic attacks he had at airports when he flew to basketball camps and skills academies during high school. White said that he has managed to fly several times since he was drafted earlier this year. And he plans to fulfill his obligations for the team. But when there's turbulence: "I'm scared sh**less."
Once the NBA season kicks off later this month, players will need to crisscross the country for games, often several times in a week. The season holds more than 80 games, nearly triple the demands of a college basketball season.
White was the star player at Iowa State University last season, both on and off the court. The 6-foot, 8-inch tall power forward led the Cyclones in scores and rebounds, not to mention in assists and steals.
Basketball analyst Nate Ross points out that the transition from college star to NBA newcomer is tough for any rookie.
"They are going from playing 30 games a year to almost 100 games a year," he said. "That's three times as many games against bigger, quicker players than they've ever seen in their lives."
Of course, the NBA compensation is also far more than a player would have seen in college. And a $1 million-plus contract brings its own set of surprises for White as he grapples with his OCD.
"I live in a bigger house than I'm used to," White said. "So the toughest thing is going around and seeing that dust has collected in a room you don't use often. And then I've got to spend 30 minutes dusting that thing. That's a new one for me."
He is candid about his personal struggle with anxiety, which is playing out in a public arena. White said he is grateful to the Rockets for their support.
"They're being very open to helping me in any way that I need and giving me the support I need," he said.
For their part, the Rockets won't comment specifically on White's condition. A team spokesperson released a statement from General Manager Daryl Morey, which said: "We are committed to Royce's long-term success, and we will continue to support him now and going forward."
White speaks publicly about his anxiety, for which he takes medication but isn't currently in therapy, because he wants to boost awareness about mental illness. He uses Twitter to share his own stories and respond to people who reach out to him.
"I'm actually starting an entire campaign, raising awareness to mental illness and destigmatizing it," he said.
He lent his star power to his community while he was playing college basketball in Iowa. He spoke to young fans at Orchard Place, a charity for children with mental health and behavioral disorders. He signed autographs for more than an hour, and told his audience of enraptured young fans that his condition parallels what some of the children there have.
"It was inspiring to them," said Nancy Bobo, vice president of development and marketing at the charity.
White said his new team is encouraging when it comes to continuing his philanthropy work and spreading his message. His new role already looks like it will resonate beyond Houston.