It finally happened.
At some point this year I reached the age where I’m old enough that there's a legitimate language barrier between myself and teenage athletes. I was hanging in there, thanks to Twitter, Lil Wayne, The Wire and the like, able to stay somewhat versed on the latest hoops slang. This year I turned the corner, though, so I’m not exactly sure whether the proper usage is "to cook" or "cooking" when describing a player who has it going and is taking it to his defender. Either way, I'm positive that some variant of that phrase is (or was recently, these things change often) a cool thing to say among some subset of the next generation of elite basketball players.
After that convoluted introduction let me say this clearly: Portland Trail Blazers guard Brandon Roy, he of the so-called "old man" game, could f****ing cook.
He could slice you up. He could fillet your team defense. He could shove a dunk down your throat. He could put you in the blender and, by extension, he could shake, shake, shake. He could bake, roast and toast. He could burn you. He could roll and pound. He could microwave at a moment’s notice. He could get red hot. When he sized up defenders with his rocking dribbles, his body looked like a mortar and pestle, grinding towards a method for breaking down his man. His repertoire had all the trimmings and plenty of careful seasoning. His game was the connoisseur’s choice delivered fresh every day. He could knock you off your feet while leaving you hungry for more. He was ice cold in game-winning situations.
Brandon Roy had an all-NBA, all-around game. He had instincts, IQ, physical gifts, polish, size, strength, reflexes and all the rest. But he will be remembered, above all else, for his ability to cook your best defender, or defenders, at will. For a good three years, he was The Man, mano a mano.
In a one-on-one tournament composed of every Blazers player in franchise history, I’d take him without a second thought. Said clearly: Roy in his prime would get the ball on an important possession before anyone else who has worn the pinwheel. Like Blazers coach Nate McMillan, I would run the 1-4 with 2009 Brandon Roy 100 times out of 100 with a fully starched shirt, buttoned as tightly as humanly possible, and I would not sweat a drop.
His knees, the weapons that ultimately betrayed him, were 360 degree swivels. His hips were made for a Broadway dancer. Ankles that functioned like brake pads. Both hands, unusually, trustworthy. The ball, often left exposed but rarely in danger, always on a string. His understanding of attacker/defender spacing and momentum too advanced for an outsider to describe. A virtuoso.
He completed turnaround jumpers spinning at angles, going both directions, like I have never seen. His body worked on more diagonals than a game up pick-up sticks. He extended the idea of a shooting pocket to the point where it seemingly ran from court level to his head. It was more like a stretched out version of a massive holster from an old Western. He could pull up into a shot from anywhere, at any time, as if his man was invisible.
Brandon Roy made the free-throw line extended cool.
In reading accounts in the aftermath of the abrupt end to his career, it’s amazing how often writers have employed the first-person. I didn’t even think to try to write this post without it. Roy was a phenomenon in that sense, a player and person so magnetizing and magnificent that he left those who came in contact with him thinking, "I just talked to Brandon Roy. I’m probably going to be telling my grandchildren about this."
There were many times over the past few years where I stopped to think that he was the most popular person in the state and that I hadn’t a clue who was second.
Brandon Roy left those who covered him thinking they knew him. That was a product of the quality of his communication skills. He presented so genuinely and personably and humbly, when he wanted to, that he was overwhelming. Saying that Roy was the best quote on the team is like saying Earth has the most interesting human beings in our solar system. There have been a lot of Neptunes and Saturns compared to Roy.
When I listened to Blazers president Larry Miller, Acting GM Chad Buchanan and McMillan talk about meeting with Roy last Monday, I was taken aback by how positive their comments were, how eager they were to believe in the return of Roy’s capabilities and how badly they wanted it. I don’t know how much of what those three said was what they believed and how much was what they wanted to believe. I don’t know what Brandon Roy could have provided during the 2011-2012 season. I suspect that Roy would have been slightly better than last season but it would have been very difficult to watch nonetheless.
If you scoffed at last Monday’s press conference because you doubt Roy’s current abilities, realize this: if you were in a room listening to Brandon Roy tell you what Brandon Roy can do, you would believe him. I don’t care if you’re the biggest cynic in the world or the most strident believer in a rebuilding effort or an orthopedic surgeon with a specialty in meniscus damage. If Brandon Roy told you something and he meant it, you would believe it. He was hypnotic, and it only got stronger as he had to talk himself into increasingly difficult physical challenges and had to talk himself through increasingly complicated states of mind. And it was a constant, impossible struggle over the last two years to balance the things the ears heard him say with the things the eyes saw him do.
Others know Brandon Roy way, way better than I. But I have observed him during and after more than 100 games in person, at least another 100 or so practices and dozens of other events, press conferences, and the like since December 2007. Like many of you, I watched every second of professional basketball he played.
I stood two feet away from him when his eyes beamed with a level of personal pride and accomplishment I have never seen elsewhere, or felt myself; I stood two feet away from him when they glistened with tears of unimaginable sadness. I watched him hit game-winning shots and hit the deck due to injury. I listened to him explain surgeries and describe how he would evolve his game. I have likely used more than 50,000 words trying to explain how damn good he is at basketball and I have used thousands to call out his lack of defense, lament his shot selection and hope that he might shut up during a couple stretches of adversity last season. I have taken s*** for being too nice to him; I have taken s*** for being too hard on him. I have been in every possible argument and discussion that there is to be had about him.
I listened as one of his bosses told me he was completely untradeable and I listened as another told me he was totally tradeable. I listened to his boss say that he was going to start, then, ten days later, I listened to that same boss announce that Roy had been waived using an amnesty clause -- paid more than $60 million to stay home -- in an effort to achieve financial flexibility.
For years, I watched him dress in front of a sticky note on his locker that commanded him to "Stay Humble." I watched him dress in front of that note thinking that he truly hadn't lost sight of that message despite superstardom; I watched him dress in front of that note thinking that he might want to take a second look at it.
I watched him wear matching head-to-toe University of Washington outfits with his son like the proudest papa peacock. I watched him try to hide a motivational book on his hip in hopes that I wouldn’t notice, then attempt to laugh it off when asked about it. I watched him cut design patterns into his hair and I saw Portland kids get the same pattern cut into their heads, sometimes, it seemed, within hours.
I watched "The Natural" switch from being a baseball reference to a basketball one here. I watched No. 7 transform from a numerical digit to a piece of the State of Oregon's history. I watched a player who will be for an entire generation of kids what Clyde Drexler was for kids my age.
I happened to ask Drexler about Roy at the height of his powers in 2009.
"I really like Brandon Roy," Drexler said, his voice punctuated with near-laughter as it often is. "I like him because he has poise, he has patience, and he has a lot of talent. He's got a legitimate position, he's a real two guard, he plays with intelligence, and he's a leader off the court. Those are characteristics that every leader must have."
But. And the tone shifted slightly.
"I don't like to compare guys [this early]," Drexler said, when asked to pit Roy against the all-time greatest Blazers. "I like to see them do it for about six or seven more years and then we can have this conversation… In order to be considered among the greats, you've got to have some kind of longevity."
I have watched this video so many times this week that the song will be stuck in my head until 2013.
I watched Patty Mills, Dante Cunningham and Nicolas Batum call him a mentor and their "big brother"; I watched Roy snap at Armon Johnson last season over a harmless comment.
"I been had that," Roy sneered at Johnson, then a mere rookie who dared to interject into an interview to quip that knee injuries had forced Roy to expand his all-around game. "I was a complete player since I was born."
Roy walked off in apparent disgust, the only time I can remember that happening.
I watched him throw teammates under the bus in defense of his right to control the offense; I watched him rush back from surgery and return to the court like Superman; I listened to him try to explain what a message of support from Charles Barkley meant to him; I listened to McMillan stand up for him more than one hundred times, in all manner of circumstances. I have gotten sick of covering him and I would gladly cover him for the next 15 years if it was possible.
This week, after thinking about it, I came back to the same place as all those writers that I mentioned above. I came back to asking what Roy has meant to me. That took me to a brief 2008 exchange that followed that memorable victory over the Houston Rockets, when Brian Wheeler made one of the greatest calls you will ever hear, when the United States met Brandon Roy for real. That night, as most nights that year, Roy’s corner locker was a magnet, but the nationally-televised game’s late start plus overtime forced many writers back to the work room to beat deadline. I felt compelled to ask an obvious question, in a suddenly empty locker room, just to see how he would respond. "Are you clutch?"
That "clutch" word is about as valued a term as you will find in the NBA. LeBron James has never held it. Kobe Bryant has it but even he still fights off the doubters. Michael Jordan definitely had it. But who else? Who else in the modern NBA can really claim it as part of his identity?
Roy, at that point, was starting to develop that reputation. It was two days before my 25th birthday. I had written for this site less than a year and only in a moonlighting capacity. I was just starting my second season; Roy was just starting his third.
"Are you clutch right now?"
Roy laughed. Not at the question, which happens all the time and isn’t as awkward as you might think. It was a happy laugh, as if it was exactly the kind of question he had grown up hoping that he would be able to answer and because this was probably one of the greatest days of his life. He was less than an hour removed from his feat, his face still flush with adrenaline.
"I believe in myself," he began, before continuing to explain that he always asked McMillan for the ball late in games. And then he delivered the line that stood out to me at the time so much so that I underlined it for emphasis in the transcript.
"I am more calm in those situations," Roy said when asked if his pulse picks up when the stakes get higher. "I’m relaxed."
I remember him saying those words, despite how straightforward they read after the fact, as much as I remember the shot itself. He said them while looking straight into my eyes without equivocation and without an iota of braggadocio. This wasn't bragging; this was stating scientific fact. Here he was, a 24-year-old talking to a 24-year-old, and he sounded like a wise expert in the black arts of performing under pressure explaining his patented approach to a slack-jawed child.
I guarantee that will be my favorite exchange with an NBA player for the rest of my life. Getting home to type it up; watching his words instantly circulate the next morning; embracing the national discussion that unfolded over the next few months about where he ranked among the game’s elite. That was a rush. Hindsight tends to gloss up this type of thing but that night probably hooked me on this sportswriting thing. I started writing about basketball because of Kevin Durant. I am still writing about basketball because Dave took a chance and has limitless patience. And, it dawns now, because of Brandon Roy.
Am I writing this piece without Brandon Roy? Of course not. Am I writing any story without Brandon Roy? Possibly not. Are you reading this site without Brandon Roy? Does this site exist, in its current form, without Brandon Roy? To at least some degree, I have the opportunity to write this, right now, and you have the opportunity to read this, right here, because of Brandon Roy. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people in the Portland area owe some of their best memories to Roy; Hundreds, if not thousands, of people owe him their livelihoods. I feel like I owe him mine. And I feel like I owe it to him, in some way, to admit that publicly. Watching Miller, Buchanan and McMillan during their press conference last week, it felt like perhaps they were doing the same thing.
I can understand why the end of the Brandon Roy Era might not leave the best taste in your mouth. That's an unavoidable reality when an All-Star's career is cut short at 27 because of meniscus. This last month was tough. It was bitter, and salty, and sour. It was disappointing, and confusing, and clunky, and protracted. But Roy poured his every ounce into his game and into his status as a role model, and he gave writers damn near every emotion – good and bad -- to reflect upon.
History has a way of forgetting the bad endings and remembering the masterpieces. I would not be surprised in the slightest if Roy finds a way back to the basketball court despite the reports that he is finished. But history won’t remember this ending or any comebacks bids. Before all else, history will say, assuming it still is -- or ever was -- the cool thing to say: Brandon Roy could cook with the best of them. He leaves the Blazers and the game of basketball way too early, but he left no doubt about that.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter