Brandon Roy opens up about why he came back, what it means if he never plays again
MINNEAPOLIS -- Brandon Roy had hoped Friday would mark his triumphant return to the Rose Garden as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Not to stick it to his former team, the Trail Blazers, but to show everyone that it wasn't so much his knees that kept him out last season as much as it was his mind.
That mind would race at night last year, tortured by his inner voices that questioned his ego, questioned his motivation and questioned the doctors who told him he should stop playing. But it was one question that pierced, one that eventually got him out of bed and back in the gym.
"Did I stop too soon?," Roy said last week. "That was always the thing in my mind, that was the thing keeping me up at night. Did I stop too soon?"
His heart and his mind told him yes.
But this week, his body gave him a different answer.
Roy's determined comeback from medical retirement hit a snag nine games into the season when he underwent right knee surgery Monday in Minneapolis. It was the seventh knee surgery dating to his junior year in high school. The Timberwolves estimate he will miss at least a month, including Friday's game at the Rose Garden.
Roy spent five seasons in Portland, during which he won Rookie of the Year and was named to three All-Star teams. He holds the Rose Garden record for points in a game (52), which is also the franchise record for points in a regulation game. Friday was supposed to be his first game back at the Rose Garden since he retired last season for medical reasons.
Does he harbor any animosity toward the Blazers: "No, not at all. I don't have anything against the Blazers. In my mind I was hoping there wasn't any animosity from the Blazers about me ... just because everybody talks about the contract situation and having to pay me, so I didn't know if they were upset that they still had to do that. I really didn't know. I would understand that if they did, but when I went back to a game last year (as a fan in March) me and Paul (Allen) talked in the back, and he was cool."
How much has he thought about this game: I've thought about it a lot. A lot of the reasons I was conerned about playing again was because I didn't want to make anybody in Portland mad. You know, college was fun, and I don't want to make anybody mad at UW, but Portland gave me five of the best years of my life. I didn't want anybody to think Brandon Roy is looking to come back here and stick it to us ... that's not it at all. I just want to play basketball, and the rules say I can't play in Portland anymore."
Reflections on his career in Portland: "I don't mean to stroke my ego, but I felt like I was a big part of Oregon, of Portland. And to be able to go back there will be a special moment. People always ask me -- 'What was your best moment?' and I don't know. Even that fourth quarter against Dallas -- that was just one of so many things that I did there. I can't say one was better than the other.
"But I love Portland. It's a place that means a lot to me. At the same time, when I got into this situation with Minnesota, I have to give Minnesota my all, and if I'm constantly looking back, then I wouldn't be able to give them what they deserve.
But Portland ... it means more to me than the people there know."
-- Jason Quick
To Roy, Monday's surgery was more of an annoyance than a sign his career, and his knees, are through. He considered it a freak injury -- caused by banging knees with a Milwaukee Bucks player in the Timberwolves' last preseason game -- and totally unrelated to the arthritic pain that had sidelined him in the past.
The surgery was described as a "cleaning out" of debris, and the Timberwolves and Roy both say they expected his comeback to include some pitfalls such as extended time on the sideline.
Even so, Roy, who will spend Thanksgiving with his family in Seattle, knows he is playing a dangerous game with his body. He knew there were risks -- long term, life-altering risks -- when he embarked on this comeback.
Not just one doctor, but multiple doctors have told Roy that he should stop playing basketball. His knees are getting worse by the day. By now, at 28, he has had so many surgeries, so many treatments and seen so many doctors, he sounds like a specialist. He explains that he has degenerative arthritis, which erodes and eventually eliminates cartilage, with the same precision and ease that came to define his run of three consecutive All-Star appearances. And with the calm that made him one of the game's best finishers, he explains that his knees have reached Level III arthritis. There are only four stages.
"Level IV," Roy says fearlessly, "is when you get a knee replacement."
So why do this? He doesn't need the money. He doesn't want the attention. He doesn't need the validation. Why risk his long-term health? Why endure the pain? Why?
Two reasons, Roy says.
When he walked away from the Blazers and the NBA, he felt it wasn't on his terms. And as a result he lost himself.
This comeback, then, is not about rediscovering glory, or proving doubters wrong.
He is searching for himself. Searching for peace.
* * *
It was a difficult departure from the game last December when Roy decided he would medically retire because of his knees. He said the decision was all his, but in retrospect, he based his decision more on his immediate concerns rather than his long-term health.
The NBA lockout had ended, and a four-month, 66-game schedule was announced. Sometimes, teams would play games on three consecutive nights. Often times, teams would play five games in a week.
"I was like: No. Way. I don't think I can get through this," Roy said. "As bad as I wanted to, I just think that would have been the end. People say I could have sat out one game here and there, and I was like, I would need to sit out four. And I didn't want it to end that way in Portland."
He didn't want to be a bit player for the Blazers, not with the money he was making, not with his likeness hanging on the side of the Rose Garden. He decided to medically retire, and soon after, the Blazers used an amnesty clause in the league's collective bargaining agreement that allowed them to waive Roy. He was paid the remaining $63 million of his contract but no longer counted against the Blazers' salary cap.
"I don't want to speak for Portland, but medically retiring and them using the amnesty, I think it worked for both sides," Roy said. "During that whole process, my whole thing was I wanted to make it OK for Portland. I didn't want it to be one-sided ... I felt like Paul (Allen) had done so much for me, and I know how much people in that organization care about the Blazers, so I never wanted to handicap them. So it was the best way we could make this split, while at the same time I could be comfortable and keep my earnings and the Blazers could be freed. I don't know how we could have had a better ending."
But soon, like many athletes who retire young, Roy found it wasn't such a good ending. He missed basketball, but he couldn't watch it. Couldn't bring himself to play it.
"I'm not going to say I was depressed, but I was pretty down," Roy said. "I wasn't playing basketball. I wasn't mad at anybody, it was just ... I was 27 and I was a little confused on what to do next, or even if I was ready to move on to something next."
He isolated himself from the outside world. His days became an emotional tug-of-war. One day he would think he was ready to complete his degree in ethnic studies at the University of Washington, and the next he would rue his basketball fate. His nights were filled with the echoes in his head, and that nagging question: Did I stop too soon?
"I really didn't want to be around people, not in an upset way. And I wasn't embarrassed. But I didn't know who I was anymore," Roy said. "It's like I lost my identity. It's like I went through my whole life as underdog, underdog, then -- Bam! -- I'm a big star. And now it's like -- I don't want to say I was a nobody, but I wasn't a basketball player anymore. It's kind of like: Who is Brandon Roy type thing. And even to this day, I'm not fully sure I have recovered that, to where I know what my identity is. I think I'm still trying to regain it."
In an effort to find himself, he came to the realization that he had to lose part of himself, part of what often sets apart elite athletes -- his ego.
He was convinced he was still a basketball player. But he decided if he was to return to the game, he had to re-program his mind.
"I think a lot of people thought me not playing was all physical. I would say, no it probably has a greater mental side than it does physical," Roy said. "Of course I have to deal with my knees, and the ups and downs of having to sit out games here and there. But it was that part of being an average player ... Can I live with that? Can I go back and play and live with those results?"
He thought about his kids, Brandon Jr. (5) and Mariah (3). He thought about how he planned to tell them to never quit, to give their all. And he thought about never answering that question that kept him up at night.
"When I was 40, would I look back and say 'You quit because you couldn't be the best player anymore?' I didn't want to get older and regret that," Roy said. "And the biggest thing I thought about was my kids. I'm going to want to hold them accountable one day, and I don't want them to say, 'Well, dad, you stopped playing just because of this... ' I want to say, no, I gave it an honest shot. And that's the reason I felt I had to do this."
That's why Roy smiles when contemplating whether his comeback will have a happy ending.
It doesn't matter if that triumphant return to the Rose Garden is delayed until March 2. And it doesn't matter if he plays another game.
He has found his peace.
"I wouldn't be disappointed either way," Roy said. "If it ends in three weeks, it ends. It's over. I'm totally satisfied with what I've done. I know the sacrifice and the effort that I put into coming back. It took a lot of discipline to get to where I am. That's all I care about: how hard I've worked. So I can't say I'm disappointed, that would be selfish. I was just a normal player my junior year in college, and everything since has been a major blessing.
"I've had an unbelievable run."
OregonLive : Brandon Roy opens up about why he came back, what it means if he never plays again
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