When I came across the video produced by my colleague Brandon Mitchell following the retirement of Brandon Roy, I couldn’t stop watching it. It was incredibly powerful and fueled its fair share of tears. I got chills. And I was certainly not the only one to experience this kind of raw emotion. Roy was the face of the franchise. He brought the team out of the Jail Blazers era, making basketball in Portland revolve around a sensible star and not a group of troubled, albeit talented, players. He made me, personally, love the Blazers again.
During the 2005-2006 season, the year before Roy entered the league, I went to see the Blazers play the Milwaukee Bucks. I was rooting for the Bucks — rooting for Michael Redd, a lefty like myself, in particular. Yes, a kid born and raised a sports fan in Oregon cheered for the opposing team. That’s how little I followed Portland, how little I liked the Trail Blazers. Then Roy came along and changed everything. He was a breath of fresh air. He won the Rookie of the Year award. He wasn’t a headcase, like some players who consumed the previous era. He went about his business. He was beloved immediately. It was his team, and there were no complaints about that.
He never looked to be very fast, but he still managed to, time after time, blow by defenders. He lit up the opposition with a wide array of moves, notably his step-back, making basketball in Portland fun again. He was sneaky quick. He was aggressive. He knew what his strengths were and rarely tried to do too much. He played within his realm, and was a three-time All Star as a result.
Then there are the fourth quarter comebacks and game-winners — so many of both. He was The Natural. It was a comforting feeling when the ball was in his hands; all was well with him leading the team. He was easy to trust. Defenses would know how lethal he was, how important he was to Portland’s success, and they couldn’t stop him from controlling games, from sometimes single-handedly winning them.
There was the infamous final three seconds against the Houston Rockets in December of 2008: the stop-and-pop from 15 feet on the wing that sent Tracy McGrady sliding across the floor, and then the 35-foot hoist that dropped through the net and simultaneously sent the Rose Garden into a frenzy. Then there was his final memory, the 18-point fourth quarter against the Dallas Mavericks in Game 4 of their 2011 playoff series, remarkably helping erase a 23-point fourth quarter deficit. He was the Roy of old. He was difficult to put into words.
Looking back, I can’t help but think of these extraordinary finishes and the many others that had the Rose Garden rocking. The buzzer-beating whirling dervish against those same Rockets in 2009. The game-winning drive against the New York Knicks. The 52-point outburst against the Phoenix Suns. The list goes on and on. And they will never be forgotten.
Considering how good he was, considering that he was the heart and soul of Portland — both the team and the city — considering his talent was taken for granted, seeing him forcibly hang up his sneakers is saddening beyond belief. As The Oregonian‘s Jason Quick documented after interviewing Roy on Thursday, the severity of the guard’s knee problems meant a career cut far too short was inevitable:
”The more I would try to prepare to have this big comeback year, the worse my knees would continue to feel,” Roy said Thursday in his first public comments since July. “As we approached training camp, there was clicking in there, there was something in there really bothering me, and I was starting to feel like I would have to have another (surgery) just to help me get by day-to-day.
“Even when I felt like my knees were giving me problems, I remember telling my dad that I have to play in every game because I don’t know how many I will get to play,” Roy said. “There were times my knees were swelling up so bad I didn’t know how long they were going to hold up. So I felt I had to go for it, now.”
He came back eight days after surgery to help Portland to victory over the Phoenix Suns in the 2010 playoffs. It was his sixth surgery. He had no meniscus left in either knee. His bones were grinding as he twisted, turned, and jumped. Yet, he played through the pain. He gave everything he had. Now, the Blazers’ hero, the franchise-altering player, the leader, the natural, is left to deal with a different kind of pain — the reality that, at 27, a once oh-so promising career is over. Heartbreaking.
He leaves the game that he once dominated just as good friend Jamal Crawford joins the team and fills his spot on the roster. Crawford can’t fill his shoes; he can never replace Roy. No one will. The Natural was so memorable, so effortless, so enthusiastic, so talented. This is why, as tears stream down my face while watching Mitchell’s beautiful tribute, I manage to smile, to be mesmerized by Brandon Roy at his best, to be happy to have seen him — a player who created fans like me and changed Portland basketball — play.