Brandon Roy turns 29 today, and will likely never step foot on an NBA court again. The six-foot-six natural shooting guard was forced to retire from the game due to severe degenerative arthritis in both knees.
Roy’s sporting life has been far from easy. He was a standout basketball player for Garfield High in Seattle, Washington, but getting into college was difficult. After working with tutors and taking the SAT four times, Roy reached the NCAA requirements for academic eligibility and began playing basketball with the Washington Huskies. In his first season, he played just 13 games and averaged only 6.1 points per game. He persevered. After the departures of teammates Nate Robinson and Martell Webster, who both played in front of him and are now successful players in the NBA, Roy became the go-to player on the Huskies by his senior season. His maturity in college and understanding of the game was a rare combo — likely the biggest reason why he blossomed into an immediate all-star upon arrival with the Portland Trail Blazers
In his first season in the NBA, he won the Rookie of the Year award. In his second season, he averaged 19.1 points per game with 5.8 assists and 4.7 rebounds — impressive numbers from a 23-year-old shooting guard. And by his third season, he was among the games best. He finished 2009 with 22.6 points per game (10th in the NBA) with 5.1 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. He had also played a career high 78 out of 82 total games in the regular season and finished ninth in MVP voting.
In his fourth season, Roy collected a few more accolades and signed a new contract before his knees began to slow him down. Before the season began, Roy agreed to a four-year maximum-salary contract with a fifth-year player option that would keep him in Portland until at least the end of the 2014 season. He had gone from a bench player in college to an NBA superstar in six years.
And for the city of Portland, it was a welcome sign for a franchise mired in a history of bad decisions. The Blazers are notorious for their awful draft selections: picking Sam Bowie ahead of Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft; the disaster in 2007 when they selected Greg Oden ahead of Kevin Durant. Bowie and Oden both were big-men with big injury concerns — a usual red flag for NBA franchises — and were both taken ahead of guaranteed superstars. But the 2006 NBA Draft was a robbery for the Blazers; they selected Lamarcus Aldridge with the second pick and traded Randy Foye for Roy from the Timberwolves who had selected him number six overall. From that draft, only three players have made an All-Star team so far: Aldridge, Roy and Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics who was drafted 21st overall. In a draft without true elites, the Blazers pegged arguably the two best.
Trouble, however, was looming. Before Roy’s incredible 2009 season began, he underwent a minor offseason procedure to remove cartilage from his left knee. And towards the end of his 2009-2010 season, the knee troubles started to get worse and worse. In April, Roy tore his right meniscus and was expected to miss the rest of the season — though he returned for Game 4 of the first round of the playoff’s just eight days after the procedure to repair the meniscus.
The meniscus tear was a concern for the Blazers, but what was in store for Roy and the Blazers next season no one could have predicted. One month into the 2010-2011 season, Roy was visibly slower and in pain on the court. The Blazers listed Roy out indefinitely due to soreness in his knees and it was speculated that he’d never return to his elite form ever again. A month later, arthroscopic surgery on both knees would keep him out until February. But Roy’s determination landed him back in time for the end of the season in a reserve role. He helped the Blazers force the Dallas Mavericks to a Game 6 in the first round of the playoffs, single-handedly winning game four, but they eventually lost and it would end up being Roy’s last time in a Blazers uniform.
Roy shocked the world by announcing his retirement from the NBA before the beginning of the 2011-2012 season. With three years and $63 million left on his deal, the Blazers used their amnesty clause for salary cap flexibility. Roy spent the entire 2011-2012 season resting and rehabbing his knees — and quietly working his way back to another attempt in the NBA, against the advice of his doctors. Roy signed a two-year deal worth $10.4 million with the Minnesota Timberwolves before this past season began — a lot for a player who had retired at age 27 due to chronic knee injuries. Which should give any observer a sense of how talented a player Roy was. But had, in a literal sense, nothing left to give: there was no cartilage remaining in either of his knees. He lasted just five games before needing surgery on his right knee, ending yet another season. Two months ago, Roy was waived from the team.
A brutal end to a promising career. We’ll never know how good Roy could have been. Not LeBron James, not Carmelo Anthony — but close. His abortive career lends a new poignancy to the idea of living on your knees.