How a former NBA player and activist became a far-right media darling

Royce White during a protest on July 4, 2020, in Minneapolis. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Royce White during a protest on July 4, 2020, in Minneapolis. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
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On the last Saturday in March, Royce White stepped into a Capitol Hill townhouse and descended the steps into a basement studio. He shook hands with his host and settled into his chair in front of a microphone.

The host asked White to share some of his life story. For a few minutes, it was standard fare for an interview with a former pro athlete. White was raised by a single mother in Minneapolis, he said, before becoming a standout college basketball player and a first-round NBA draft pick. The only unusual thing about the interview at first was the setting. The show was called “War Room: Pandemic,” and its host was Stephen K. Bannon.

Until recently, White was known for his battle with the NBA over mental health policy. In 2013, he asked for accommodations for his generalized anxiety disorder, and the dispute essentially ended his career after he appeared in only a handful of games. Then, after the murder of George Floyd in his hometown of Minneapolis, White led several large-scale protests against police brutality. He was hailed as an emerging civil rights activist.

Since that summer, White, 31, has publicly rebranded himself as a far-right populist. He has embraced conspiracy theories ranging from the origins of the coronavirus to the integrity of the 2020 presidential election and satanic influences in the federal government. He has appeared on Bannon’s programs at least 25 times, and he considers the former Trump strategist — who is under indictment for refusing to cooperate with the Jan. 6 Commission — a “friend, a mentor and an American hero,” he said. White has, in turn, been warmly embraced by figures on the far right, from Tim Pool to Alex Jones, who appear to find his backstory useful to their causes. “Here you got a Black guy, a basketball player, in Minneapolis, that actually talks about real issues,” Bannon said. “That, I think can resonate.”

In February, White announced that he would run as a Republican in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, a Democratic stronghold held by Rep. Ilhan Omar since 2019. In his opening campaign video, he said his “problem” with Omar was “not that she’s not an American or that she’s not from Minnesota” but that “she’s in on it; she’s a globalist.” A campaign spokesman for Omar, who became a naturalized American citizen in 2000 at 17, declined to comment.

The odds against White unseating Omar are overwhelming: The district hasn’t elected a Republican since 1960. And the long-shot nature of the campaign has left some political observers in the state wondering whether his real aim is to drum up attention for a future as a political commentator. But the radical shift in White’s rhetoric has left some former teammates, coaches, friends and family stumped — and saddened.

“It’s all f---ed up,” said one former coach, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he hoped to salvage a relationship with White. “I think — I hope — he’s doing it because no one on the left is going to give him that platform that he’s getting on the right. He’s smart enough to realize the power of this platform even though deep down inside he knows that the people he’s associating with are despicable. They’ve said things about his race that are despicable. He’s not an idiot.”

During that interview with Bannon, White discussed the NBA as being part of a “neoliberal, globalist, Marxist, radical-materialist establishment” and talked about how faith in God helped him outlive his perceived adversary, Jewish former NBA commissioner David Stern, who was 49 years older than him. Twice in the interview, Bannon expressed his belief that White was further to the right than he was. And as it wound down, he gave White a ringing endorsement.

“Ever since Trump’s come onto the scene,” Bannon said, “you’re the second-worst news they’ve seen. They’re going to freak out.”

“I can’t wait,” White replied. “Me and him, we’re both coming roaring back. Me roaring back from 2013, him roaring back from the cheat in 2020.”

Turmoil and talent

Even as he was becoming one of the best amateur basketball players in Minnesota, Royce White wanted more for his life than to be a sports star. His mother was a waitress who paid the rent primarily through tips, and he lived with his grandfather, Frank, for the first three years of high school. Their morning drives to school took them by River Road, an upscale suburban street lined with sprawling estates. Frank White remembered watching his grandson lean his head against the window and tell him: “I’m going to have a big house like that someday. I’m going to be somebody.”

White spurned offers from blue-blood programs to stay home and play for the University of Minnesota. But after he was arrested for shoplifting at the mall and suspected in a dorm-room theft, he never appeared in a game for Gophers. (He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and theft in the mall incident and to trespassing in the dorm-room case.)

The turmoil of that season, and the way he was treated by police and the university — or what he now calls the “neoliberal academia community” — planted the seeds of his political awakening. He considered quitting college basketball, but Iowa State assistant coach Matt Abdelmassih convinced him to restart his career with the Cyclones. “He was in a dark, dark place,” Abdelmassih said. “It took a while for him to wrap his mind around playing college basketball again.”

At Iowa State, Adbelmassih and head coach Fred Hoiberg worked with White to help him deal with his generalized anxiety disorder. White remembers feeling anxiety even as a child. He experienced his first panic attack, he said, after his first and only time smoking marijuana, and he said he developed obsessive-compulsive disorder-type tendencies as he devoted himself to basketball as a teenager. In Ames, Abdelmassih helped White manage his anxiety through conscientious communication, preparing him in advance for hostile away-game environments and talking to him throughout takeoff for every flight. White went on to become the only player in the country to lead his team in five statistical categories: points (13.4), rebounds (9.3), assists (5.0), steals (1.1) and blocks (0.9).

As the NBA draft approached, analysts focused not on White’s anxiety but on his fear of flying. The Rockets selected him 16th, a slot where players are expected to play right away. But before he came to camp, he read the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement and discovered there was no mental health policy. He lobbied for the league to add one and asked the Rockets to make reasonable accommodations for him to drive to games when possible.

“The flying thing was always a scapegoat by the mainstream media,” White said in an interview. He continued: “Do I think the NBA had a direct hand in promulgating this narrative that the reason I wasn’t playing is because I couldn’t fly, and that’s a mandatory requirement of the profession? Yeah, I do. But I also think that the greater spirit of it was: ‘We don’t want to have a real full conversation about mental health policy because that’s where we’re actually lacking, so it’s much easier to give the mainstream media a story about the fear of flying, and that’s something that they can just run with.’ ”

Ultimately, White played in part of one season with the Rockets’ developmental league team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, before being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, only to get cut and sign with the Kings. In Sacramento, he made three appearances in NBA games in the spring of 2014, but he didn’t record a point, rebound, assist, steal or block.

“He was ahead of his time,” said Maalik Wayns, who played with White in Rio Grande Valley and is now on staff at Villanova. “Now mental health awareness is a topic in the country and around the world, but back then it wasn’t something people talked about. He was definitely talented enough to have a long career, but it didn’t work out that way.”

In 2016, White re-emerged with the National Basketball League of Canada, leading the London Lightning to a championship (and, yes, flying with teammates to select road games). But his anxiety didn’t dissipate. Frank White remembers having to hospitalize his grandson during bad panic attacks as he was getting ready to return to Minnesota. And he was suspended for 11 games during the 2017-18 Canadian season after getting into a shouting match with fans, an official and the league’s deputy commissioner.

During those two years in Canada, White became more politically aware. When controversial Canadian psychologist and right-wing culture warrior Jordan Peterson was condemned for criticizing a bill that would have prohibited discrimination based on gender identity and expression, White did a deep dive of Peterson’s posts and clips. “I wanted to go hear what he had to say,” White said. “And when I went to listen to him, I thought: ‘This guy is clean. . . . What is all the hatred towards him for? I’m not getting it.’ ”

Those who know White well say he always has had a conspiratorial streak and that it was exacerbated by his battle with the NBA, which he came to see as an institutional injustice. “He’s always had that ‘question everything’ energy,” the former coach said. “And his experiences with the NBA worsened that for sure.” But it wasn’t until he returned to America and joined a different basketball league that he found his footing in the far right.

A new league, and friend

In July 2019, White returned to American pro basketball as the No. 1 draft pick of the Big3, a three-on-three league started by rapper Ice Cube and his longtime business partner Jeff Kwatinetz. Each year, the Big3 attracted a compelling mix of former NBA and college stars as well as a collection of has-beens and never-weres.

White’s season wasn’t exactly the comeback he hoped for — he finished 31st in points and 22nd in rebounds — but he was grateful for the opportunity. White said that working with Kwatinetz to develop the Big3’s mental health policy was one of the most fulfilling parts of his career.

Kwatinetz, who graduated from Harvard Law School the same year as Barack Obama, was a longtime Democratic donor. But he became disillusioned by what he saw as the party’s lukewarm defense of free speech. After the election of Donald Trump, Kwatinetz went out of his way to defend Bannon, who had worked for him at the talent management company The Firm. In White, Kwatinetz felt he had found another man without a party.

“Our first conversation about politics wound up being at least an hour and a half or two hours long,” Kwatinetz said, remembering a late-night conversation the two had during a Big3 stop in Dallas. “We talked until the arena workers came in and told us we had to go home.”

The following summer, the Big3 was canceled because of the pandemic. At home in Minneapolis, White saw the video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck and texted a group chat of 30 athletes that had, until then, been used to organize pickup basketball games. From that group chat, the 10k Foundation was born, and White helped to organize multiple protests that each aimed to include 10,000 people or more.

He was featured in outlets from MSNBC to The Washington Post, with a message that sounded similar to others in the Black Lives Matter movement. “We’re talking about pushing the police all the way outside of the circle of trust and having them reestablish their entry into the circle of trust through their actions and through proving that they can be trusted in that circle,” he told MSNBC host Joy Reid.

But he had a bigger battle in mind, which is why he led a march from U.S. Bank Stadium, home of the Vikings, to the Minneapolis branch of the Federal Reserve, which White has since described as an “unconstitutional, inappropriate use of state power — state and corporate merged power — of globalist power, of financial tyranny.”

“What I was protesting was that we were living under the thumb of a corporatocracy . . . this sort of merger of government and corporations at the world scale,” he said. “The NBA is the perfect representation of that.”

That year, White received a link to Bannon being interviewed on PBS show “Frontline” from a friend, AJ Barker. Barker, who has been White’s best friend since they played high school basketball together, had co-authored a book with him in 2019. Following that recommendation, White soon started tuning in daily to Bannon’s “War Room,” which became a primary source for 2020 election misinformation and coronavirus conspiracies before being banned by YouTube. The next summer, back at the Big3, White asked Kwatinetz to connect him with Bannon.

“It was just a result of going down rabbit holes,” said Barker, who has written that Democrats’ “deepest craving is the annihilation of spiritual beings (humans).” “We shared videos back and forth all the time, and half the time, we didn’t even know who the person was.”

That summer, at the Big3, White wore a shirt that said “FREE THE UYGHURS” — a reference to the ongoing human rights abuses of a group of ethnic minorities in China — and featured a backward Nike swoosh. That fall, he began appearing on Bannon’s programs and posting to a Substack. His more radical views — misunderstood or misrepresented at the time of the protests — emerged in each newsletter.

He has dismissed gender fluidity as “patently insane,” despite ample research to the contrary. In an interview with The Post, he went further, saying that the glorification of the “church of LGBTQ” is having a “pervasive effect” on society, mirroring a recent resurgence of homophobic and transphobic rhetoric on the right. “I’m opposed to us using public school and tax dollars to teach homosexual ideology or LGBTQ ideology,” he said. “Absolutely, absolutely, especially as it pertains to young Black men in public schools, it’s offensive and it’s dangerous.”

He also questioned the science behind the vaccines. He said he was not vaccinated in part because of the “new technology” and in part because before he got the coronavirus last fall, the vaccines had received only emergency FDA authorization. Nonetheless, he self-medicated with Ivermectin, which has never been FDA-approved for the coronavirus and which recent research has shown does not prevent hospitalizations, on the advice of his doctor, Pierre Kory. A popular doctor on the political right — and the sole person White follows on Twitter — Kory has performed covid research that has been repeatedly debunked.

In another post, White wrote that “we are in a golden era of conspiracies.” A few paragraphs later, he went on to write that “The State we’ve erected is openly in league with the will of Satan” and is “an explicit vehicle of Satan.” He has defended Jones and appeared on Infowars, a platform on which Jones has claimed that some members of the KKK are Jewish actors and that the Sandy Hook massacre was staged.

“He’s somebody that’s taken the time to pay attention to these things and tried to wrap his head around and make sense of what forces are at work,” White said. “I see him as somebody who’s done that, who’s been very entertaining at times in doing that, who has been just right on the money in his assessment of things.”

In these far-right figures, White seemed to find what he was looking for all those years ago when he entered the NBA: acceptance and an audience. In turn, he helps to diversify and mainstream a movement often associated with white nationalism.

“If you go and see the guys that are farther right than I am, I’m attacked all the time by people that said this inclusive nationalism is terrible, and you’re including too many Hispanics and Blacks, stuff like that,” Bannon said. “That’s the future of the country.”

‘No downside’

Although White said he has never voted, he has discussed running for political office with friends as far back as 2016. His original vision was to run for statewide office, which is why he used the 10k Foundation website to pen an open letter to Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) titled “Winter is Coming.” When White received no response from Walz, he decided it was time to take office himself.

Bannon encouraged him to pursue national office instead, since many of White’s main issues — the federal reserve, immigration and the economy — are federal. Bannon also thought that White’s public profile could draw national attention to the race.

“Can he beat her?” Bannon said, referring to Omar. “I don’t know — it’s a D+24 district or something. He’s the long shots of long shots. That being said, this campaign is going to be tightly contested on ideas, and I think it’s going to draw in a tremendous amount of money and a tremendous amount of fight, because I think it very quickly is not just going to be a national election; it’s going to be a global election. … There’s no downside for us.”

White may not even make it to a general election campaign against Omar. On April 2, Minnesota’s Republican delegates voted 77-26 to endorse another candidate, Cicely Davis, in the district. Over a chorus of boos, White said he would primary his fellow Republican. In the background of a recording captured by an independent journalist, one person can be overheard saying, “That’s the opposite of a graceful loss.”

To White, the delegates choosing another candidate was just the latest example of power structures attempting to censor him. “That’s why I’m always looking for the people who people are telling me I shouldn’t listen to,” he said. “There was a time when the establishment was telling people they shouldn’t listen to me. And nothing could have been further from the truth.”

For those who have known White for years, though, the downsides are obvious.

“I know Royce is intelligent,” said one family member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating themselves from him. “I know that he’s a good person. At the same time, I wonder where he’s getting his information and where he’s getting this agenda. What if he says all this terrible stuff and loses? … Or what if he wins?”