"I want to thank Paul Allen, Larry Miller, Coach McMillan, the entire Trail Blazers organization and our fans for all of their love and support during my time in Portland. It's been a great ride."
-- Brandon Roy
Lost amidst the turmoil over David Stern's erstwhile turn as owner of the Hornets and the wild free agency period we've been blessed with, Brandon Roy retired this weekend. I've spent a few days grappling with what this means for the league, and for me. To that end, I polled people on twitter today about their five favorite players. Explicitly left out Roy from my own list. Partly out of curiosity, partly to see if anyone would put Roy if I neglected to mention him. Much to my surprise, nobody did -- perhaps because to most people it seems he's been gone a long, long time. No longer Roy, there lies a ghostly crossover and the ever-fading image of the perfect fadeaway, an flickering image of the star once known as Brandon Roy. Maybe the real Brandon Roy died a long time ago. But it doesn't really matter whether you think Roy left his mortality behind long ago, or refused to believe his demise until he uttered the words I started the post with.
Let's take a few moments to reminisce over him, then.
• • •
Brandon Roy grew up in an extremely poor six person household. His father worked 12 hours a day, 7 to 7, and his mother worked as a cafeteria lady at his school. His older brothers worked too, though they all loved basketball more than their work. Despite their meager means, the Roy household was very supportive of Brandon's basketball talent. They'd work extra overtime to accure the $200 or so they needed to send their kin to the AAU sponsored trainings where they could one day get picked up by a scout. One of my fondest memories of Roy's is related to this -- I watched an interview (one I can't for the life of me remember the location of) where Roy shared a story about his youth. He described how, like most kids, he didn't quite appreciate the sacrifice his parents made to send him to the AAU training camps -- he used to take them for granted, when he was very young, and essentially treat them as glorified field trips. All until one day, when one of the kids at the training talked about how much money they cost. You could almost see the blood drain from his face all over again as he relived the moment, vowing from then on to make the most of his trips. As he did. Eventually.
You'd never think it from his generally squeaky-clean run as the face of the Blazers franchise (nor, if I'm honest, his somewhat absurd attempts to get Andre Miller traded so he could shoot the ball more), but Roy wasn't always particularly good at expressing himself or being any sort of leader. Nor was he always a lock to be a star at all. Roy and his brother Ed were born with substantial learning disabilities, which made it essentially impossible for the two of them to finish the SAT in the time allotted. I'm not sure how many of you have read Darcy Frey's "The Last Shot." It's a book about Stephon Marbury's legendary Lincoln high school teams, and the varied post-school lives of the members of it. Something you realize when reading the book that may not be immediately obvious is that the SAT can often be an incredibly hard thing to pass for quite a lot of people, especially athletes (who, for whatever reason, seem to lose the genetic lottery for learning disabilities as often as they win it for their athletic mastery).
Brandon Roy included -- it took him four tries to get through, and before his fourth attempt, he'd essentially given up hope that he'd pass it. Enough so that he'd gotten a job as a dock worker doing night shifts at $11 an hour, just in case he never made it to college. Failing the SAT one last time was hardly an idle threat. Marbury's brothers (some more talented than he), his high school team, and Roy's brothers could never quite get past the SAT. And their basketball careers were essentially DOA because of it. You can hardly expect to play basketball professionally if you can't qualify for a scholarship at an NCAA school and you haven't been suckled and raised as one of Dick Vitale's incorrigible "diaper dandies" from birth (a la LeBron James or Kevin Durant). Roy's brother Ed is a sad teaching example of the problem at hand -- unable to pass the SAT, Ed went to junior college and eventually lost interest in athletics after he realized he'd never make it to the NBA, and even if he did, he'd never get drafted and probably never get a guaranteed contract in his life. Such is the life of those who don't make it. As one who did make it, Brandon had an example of what could've been right there at home with him, day in and day out. But he passed that fourth try, and he got his well-deserved scholarship to Washington.
From then on, things were rather grand for the hard-working grinder from the north Pacific. Partly because of the work he put into his game, but partly because he managed to fine tune his game to be about as perfect as it could come. Roy has always been a master of the pass-before-the-pass type of distribution -- he's the setup man who sees plays two players ahead of him, who has always had a better sense than he has any right of which players just know to make the play he's seen. You watch his passes and you think they're nothing particularly special, until you realize the play frees LaMarcus off a screen to slam it home. Or frees Steve Blake from his man with a slip-screen pass just as it opens up the entire court for Roy to drive and rebound the miss. Roy's passing isn't technically advanced in a way that Chris Paul or Steve Nash pass the ball, but it's as quietly effective as a passer can get. His defense, in his heyday, was some of the most tenacious stuff you'd see this side of Manu Ginobili. Who is, by the way, a great comparison point for Roy -- at his peak, Roy was essentially a more athletic, stronger Manu. The same mastery over the Euro-step, the same skill at juking out whatever defenders opposing coaches would throw at him, and the same vocal leadership over his team's offense whenever he stepped on the court.
Not bad for a player who wasn't even a lock to be drafted in the second round his junior year in college, whose entire stock rose solely because of his lights-out senior year where he and his Huskies devoured all comers. And it was all behind Roy's own virtuoso NCAA performance that season, demonstrating for all to see the leadership and confidence he'd slowly developed over the course of his years at Washington. The success continued in the NBA, putting forth a fantastic rookie effort that had him handed one of the most well-deserved Rookie of the Year trophies in recent memory. Then in his sophomore year, Roy was forced to take full ownership over the Blazers upon Z-Bo's departure -- usually something of a challenge for a kid scarcely out of college ball, but not one Roy wasn't suited for. And in 2009? In what seemed like flashes of glory, Roy ascended to his seemingly rightful spot as the second best shooting guard in the league. A strong argument for the best, even. Elite scoring, elite passing, amazing rebounding, vocal leadership, and the best defensive guard this side of Manu Ginobili. A stupefyingly good first step, and the ability to put his team on his back at any time. The man who single-handedly erased the Jailblazer era and returned Portland to its deserved place as an elite team in the meat-grinding Western conference of the 2000s.
And then the degeneration began. Essentially the second he signed his max contract -- one that would have him pull in more money than his family or relatives had ever made in their lives -- Brandon Roy's body decided to betray him. Some incidental injuries to sap his quickness, to slowly remove bits and pieces from his game -- starting his nasty first step, of course. Continuing to his defense. The way he timed his passes. Little, incidental things that alone would mean little, but taken together were signs at a broader collapse that nobody really saw coming. Things came to a head with his torn meniscus about a month before the 2010 playoffs -- he got the surgery immediately, then went against doctor's orders to make sure he could play in the first round. Where, unfortunately, Steve Nash and the nearly finals-bound Suns to-be ran the Blazers to death and dispatched Roy in a depressing six game series that felt like two. Roy couldn't keep up with the Suns, and went home hurting. As someone who broke doctor's orders to help the team would tend to feel. Which led to last season's depressing and ghostly campaign -- Roy was a ghost of his former self. Except for the game against Dallas -- you know the one. Thank God for that, too. Because for one night only, Roy was... well, Roy. He was the star we'd been waiting since 2009 to see again, and he had his entire array on view for the masses gathered at the Rose Garden. His jab-step was rolling, the Mavs were playing off him (expecting him to shank the shot, as he'd done all year), and his offense only got better the more desperate the Mavs got to stop him. We've all seen Space Jam. For one night, Roy's talent was gifted back to him. His knees took the night off from betraying him, his hesitance left and his confidence returned. He was once again the man we knew he'd be.
And now? He's... gone. Just like that.
I've never been the best at dealing with loss. And in this case, there's very little I can think to say. Roy, to me, represents the loss of much more than the man I've spent this post describing -- though even if he just represented the loss of the man, he'd be a tough one to take. I touched on it when I discussed his childhood, but to me, Roy represents the purest form of the reluctant, emergent leader. A man among men emerging in the unlikeliest of straits from a challenged, reluctant youth. One doesn't need to be counterculture like Marbury or embody an otherworldly anger like Iverson to represent the constant struggle in one's soul for success and glory in an unfair and unjust world. But Roy isn't simply Brandon Roy, the NBA superstar struck down by his defective knees. He's much more.
Brandon is also Ed Roy, his talented older sibling who never made it in the NBA. He's Zach Marbury, the older brother who wandered astray and never made it to the league (despite talents arguably greater than those of Stephon's). He's every junior college D-League player or American transplant in the Euroleague, fighting off injury and a coach's lack of faith to try and make it in the world doing something they love with no promise of success and no safety net to catch them if they fall. Roy made it. He made it big. He worked hard, he did everything right, and he had a little bit of luck to help him along the way. But he could've just as easily been yet another cautionary tale, an apocryphal story whispered throughout the courts of Seattle about the high school phenom whose developmental disabilities sabotaged his basketball career before it even began. He could have just as easily been buried in the depth chart his senior year at Washington, a four year player who hadn't shown anything close to star potential and was a fringe NBA prospect at best. But he wasn't.
Roy could have given up at any point, as well. He could have stopped trying so hard to be the leader he felt he couldn't be, and he could've taken the job as a dock worker. But he didn't. Roy's career -- shortened as it may be -- represents, above all else, the triumph of an incredibly strong man. Roy looked the world in the eyes and told him he'd make it, and he did. It's easy to miss, as we mourn the loss of his career, how much he accomplished. Roy's family will never, ever miss a meal. Roy has made enough to send every one of his children to college, and to allow them to be whatever they want to be. He's made enough to bring his hard-working parents out of poverty, and made enough to keep him and his family secure for the rest of his natural life. The loss isn't his, really -- the loss is ours. The loss of a star who brightens the days of those who watch him, and a star who singlehandedly rebuilt a moribund, broken franchise from the depths of scandal. That's our loss. Roy? He shouldn't go out like this. He should be going out in a hall of fame speech, which he'd surely deliver in his own mild-mannered, soft-spoken way. But I think a family man like Roy (a man legendary for eschewing team parties for movies with his kids, or time alone with his loving wife) will appreciate the fact that, for all intents and purposes, his children (and their children) will never have to live through the same struggle that Roy lived through. At this point, though? I don't know what else to say.
Other than all I needed to say in the first place: I'm really, really going to miss Brandon Roy.
• • •
We will return to our trade coverage tomorrow. For now, let's just take a little bit of time to appreciate the loss of someone truly special to me and those who watched him. Here's looking at you, Trouble B-Roy. The Blazers should be hanging your jersey from the rafters at the Rose Garden soon enough, and I don't know about you, but I can't wait to cheer you on one last time when they raise it.
This post -- which doubles as Player Capsule #33 -- is dedicated to Caleb, the biggest Roy fan I know. Happy birthday, bud.