The first time I saw Brandon Roy, he was standing with some friends, bouncing a ball off to the side in a middle school gym on the edge of Capital Hill in Seattle. Saint Joseph’s, a small Catholic feeder for big Catholic schools in the city, hosted open gyms, AAU practices and pick-up games frequented by players like Roy and Nate Robinson. My team was wrapping up practice; we whispered about him on our way out.
I next saw him playing for Garfield High on local TV in a showcase game against Garfield’s rivals from Portland, Jefferson.
Back then, Roy, who toyed with entering the NBA straight out of high school but ended up graduating from University of Washington, dominated with his athleticism.
He was big and fast and aggressive. He was first to the ball. He hadn’t yet developed his uncanny knack for creating space off the dribble and he hadn’t yet refined his superior footwork and touch within ten feet. But he was Seattle’s best player, maybe ever, and when he found out he wouldn’t be drafted in the lottery, we knew he was going to stay at home to play for the Huskies.
Being a fan of your local college team, unless they are a perennial superpower, is a bit like the boring part of surfing where you hangout a couple hundred yards out, waiting for a good wave. When one comes along, you don’t want to miss it.
Washington fans had been floating offshore for decades, just hoping for a ride. You could see Roy coming from way off on the horizon, a big, exciting thing moving inexorably towards us, and greatness.
Then, all the sudden, instead of winning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year he was working on a dock in downtown Seattle. Nothing special.
But his detour gave us all a chance to fall head over heels for the subtle, sophisticated talent with his peculiar inner Seattle accent. Roy is easily the most loved Husky of my lifetime in any sport. He was the kind of player who played almost too selflessly, with an uncommon grace in tight spaces and the most pressurized scenarios.
Even in college, Roy’s style could thrill fans of killer crossover isolation play and purists who loved nothing more than a wicked jump stop-upfake-stepthrough combination.
Out west you sort of always suspect that no one knows when you have something special. But when Roy’s wave re-emerged and gently lifted us all to a dizzying peak, we felt the specific excitement a fan feels when the player he or she most loves is doing something great, really doing it.
In his first years in Portland, Roy was like a more talkative Derrick Rose. He carried himself with that same understated confidence, and had a similar ability to get nasty on anyone unlucky enough to end up isolated against him. Roy’s was easily the most underrated crossover in the NBA. He would hang it low and wide off his right knee then convulse his upper body to the right before ripping it low and hard across his body. Somehow he preserved his balance in the aftermath of his violent juke, ever ready to rise up for his smooth jumper or explode for a layup off the window.
For Northwest fans, Roy was the perfect player on which to project our belief that, despite the fact people around the country ignore us, despite our rain jackets and blue jeans, we were actually special–superheroes in disguise. That’s how Roy seemed when he made it look easy, punishing the likes of Kobe Bryant with pragmatic footwork and effortless fallaways.
I wasn’t a Portland fan, but I became one when Brandon Roy went there, even before the Sonics left town. He was just an incredibly easy player and public personality to like. And he paid you back for your devotion by making the big shots, by gracefully accepting his duty to be great, by never appearing overwhelmed by the moment.
I can’t imagine the internal drama Roy has navigated since it became apparent his once powerful if not exactly explosive legs would never be the same. His unabated desire to regain his skills, and I suspect, our admiration, visibly impacted his usually calm, collected demeanor. I wish I could say I didn’t allow myself hope after his bright moments against Dallas, and the reports this summer that he might be ready to again play major minutes. His surrender to medical retirement only makes clear what we should have understood for more than a year. For fans riding on that tall and brilliant wave, it was a Wile E. Coyote moment. We looked around and not only was our surfboard missing from under our wiggling toes, but so was the wave altogether.
It was nothing so satisfying as being tossed about in a violent surf or smoothly coasting into the shallows, upright the whole ride. Roy was just there with us and then his game was gone.