"I don't want to put words in his mouth, but he told me I was finished playing basketball," Roy said.
At first, he felt the knees. Then, Brandon Roy heard them.
It was last week, days before training camp was to start for the Portland Trail Blazers, and Roy was intensifying his efforts to come back from yet another round of knee surgeries the season before.
His workouts, casual and playful during the lockout, became serious and strenuous, just like they always did as he prepared for a season during his storied career.
He was determined to make a comeback. To prove people wrong. To prove that the people who were standing by him were right.
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But something wasn’t right. And he knew it.
“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.”
Days earlier he had met with the Trail Blazers’ brass: president Larry Miller, interim general manager Chad Buchanan and coach Nate McMillan. And later he would talk with owner Paul Allen. They all made his heart swell with unyielding support.
But deep down, he knew about his aches. And he knew about the clicks.
“The Blazers were supporting me 110 percent, and it made me feel that if they could give me that much support, then I had to be 100 percent honest about how I was feeling,” Roy said. “I felt I owed it to the organization to be as honest as possible.”
He scheduled an appointment with team orthopedist Don Roberts, who over the years Roy said had become more than just a doctor, but also a friend.
“I didn’t tell anyone else,” Roy said. “I wanted to ask questions; I wanted to get answers. And he gave me answers about what he truly felt — not as the Trail Blazers’ doctor, but as a friend of mine who knows my knees more than anybody.”
The answer would alter the course of Trail Blazers history.
“I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but he told me I was finished playing basketball,” Roy said.
That night, Roy called the Blazers and told them his career was over. He would seek medical retirement because of a career-ending injury.
A dream dashed
It had been one week since Brandon Roy heard those words, and yet, he still hadn’t repeated them until Thursday.
“When I say it, career-ending … it’s hard,” Roy said, his voice cracking. “Ever since middle school … you want to be the best player, and to know that dream of aiming to be the best is over, it’s tough. Very tough.”
The Blazers on Thursday waived Roy, using the NBA’s newly instituted amnesty clause, which allows teams to wipe a contract off the books. Roy will be paid the remaining $63 million left on his contract, but none of it will count against the Blazers’ salary cap. As a result, the Blazers were eligible for more free-agent money, which they used Thursday to sign high-scoring Jamal Crawford, one of Roy’s closest friends and, like Roy, a former Seattle high-school star.
He says he is at peace with the Blazers’ decision, and pleased that the move enabled them to sign a quality player like Crawford.
“I’ve been drooling to play with Jamal; the timing just wasn’t right,” Roy said. “But Portland will love him.”
Roy said he would never play again. Not this year. Not next year. Not five years down the road. In the background, his 4-year-old son Brandon Jr. and 2-year-old daughter Mariah are audible, and he adjusts the phone to tend to them.
“As much as I want to prove right that one guy who says I still have something in the tank, I have to think about my family and what the doctor is telling me,” Roy said.
Hard to say goodbye
He admits it hasn’t really hit him yet. He has internalized many of his feelings, and the subject has become somewhat taboo around his family.
“We try not to talk about it, and change the subject,” Roy said.
But truth be told, he always knew it would come to this. He just didn’t think it would come so soon.
His knees have bothered him since high school, when he had the first of his six knee surgeries that eventually left him without the meniscus in either knee, causing bone-on-bone friction when he jumped and cut.
Swollen knees became as common as blisters, but he was always able to play through it, sometimes heroically, like Game 4 of the 2010 playoffs against Phoenix, when he returned eight days after knee surgery to play and help the Blazers to victory.
“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.”
In a meeting with Allen, the Blazers owner made Roy a standing offer to return to the organization in some capacity. Roy said he appreciates the gesture, but right now, the hurt is too sharp, the pangs too deep.
At 27, Roy says the only thing on his agenda is to return to the University of Washington, where he is three quarters shy of completing his degree in American ethnic studies. He said he also wants to take some communications courses.
“Getting my degree, that’s as much of a goal for me as winning an NBA championship,” Roy said. “I think getting that will help cure some of the pain, because coming out of high school, I didn’t think I would be able to even go to college.”
Career full of memories
He carries the pain of leaving the NBA at such an early age, but he will also carry memories that will never fade. His fondest, he says are getting drafted in 2006, and getting his first start in an exhibition game against Ray Allen. Also, his first NBA game, which happened to be in his hometown of Seattle. Then, there was the first of his three All-Star selections.
“I ran around the house for 10 minutes yelling, ‘I made the All-Star team! I made the All-Star team!’ ” Roy said, chuckling.
He remembers scoring a Rose Garden-record 52 points against Phoenix in December 2008 and returning home to find 52 snowballs placed on his steps. He remembers his wife, Tiana, being brought to tears seeing the gate outside his home littered with notes and signs from supporting fans after Game 2 of last year’s playoffs, when he made emotional comments about not playing. And there’s the 41-point game on Christmas, the 42-point playoff game at Houston, the rainbow three-pointer with 0.8 seconds left to beat Houston in a game televised on TNT.
“I don’t know what other people were expecting, but for me, I remember so many times going home after a game and laying in bed going, ‘Wow! This is crazy,’ ” Roy said. “Every time it was new. I was on cloud nine.”
But his biggest memory, he admits, is Game 4 against Dallas last April, when he scored 18 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter, leading the Blazers back from 23 points down. He said he felt like a hand came down and touched him that day. Never before has he felt like that on a court, so much so that he says he got chills during the game.
One day, he says, he wants to relive those memories. One day, he wants to come back to the Rose Garden, when it’s completely empty, just him and the rim. He wants to soak it in, he says, and remember that shot from here, and that move he made there. One day, he wants to remember.
“I think Paul (Allen) would let me do it,” Roy said.
But that day is not today. And it won’t be any time soon. Roy admits that he has not yet come to grips with his departure from the game. And he doesn’t know how he can ever replace that special relationship he had with the Portland fans.
So he cannot yet come back, because he has not yet allowed himself to go.
“You can walk away from someone who doesn’t love you. And you can walk away from someone you don’t love. But when the love is mutual,” Roy said.
“The hardest thing is to walk away.”