Sitting in the sunlight on a corrugated metal bench Brandon Roy straightens his legs and looks down. There and there. He pushes the skin right below the kneecaps with his index fingers. No visible evidence remains of the medical procedure that helped bring him back to basketball. The only indication something needed to be done about his knee ailments is that creak which will never go away, a feeling in the knee like when upper and lower teeth grind over each other. Otherwise, the swelling has been deflated and pain lifted.
The women at the front desk of the Rainier Vista Boys and Girls Club in south Seattle know Roy works out daily in this shiny gym for kids built with high-end donor dollars. You can walk in, ask for him through the glass, and they’ll hit the buzzer after you sign your name.
It's easy for the manic kids playing foosball in a room adjacent to the gym to love Roy. The high-pitched cracks in his voice disarm as does the light in his eyes and persistent smile. The kids in Seattle celebrate Roy because he’s one of them. A star at nearby Garfield High School, then the University of Washington -- Roy is a card-carrying member of “Home Team,” the name a group of Seattle-area basketball brethren has given itself.
Most at the Boys and Girls Club don’t know that for the price of a reputable used car the ache in Roy’s knees, his confounding, heartbreaking, game-winning hinges, was removed. They don’t care he can point to the place a needle re-inserted his blood to provide a second self-healing in less than a year, this one physical, the first one mental and emotional following the sudden, yet temporary, end of his career.
Bill Bayno came to an auxiliary court in Hec Edmundson Pavilion, home to Washington basketball in Seattle, back in 2005 and settled in to watch Roy and forward Bobby Jones. In charge of West Coast scouting for the Portland Trail Blazers, Bayno was only there because of one year in his life.
In 1986, Bayno went to work for Larry Brown as a graduate assistant at Kansas, where the Jayhawks’ third-leading scorer was freshman guard Kevin Pritchard. In 2005, when Pritchard replaced fired head coach Maurice Cheeks in Portland, he hired Bayno as a scout. Those events landed Bayno in the Huskies’ gym.
Roy dominated those games with his size and crisp change of speeds. At the time, all the basketball hype in the Pacific Northwest centered on shaggy Gonzaga small forward Adam Morrison. Bayno, however, believed there was other talent in the region, and as he watched Roy and Jones play an unsupervised pickup game, he saw something. Jones, despite knowing an NBA scout was watching, dogged it over and over. Roy dominated those games with his size and crisp change of speeds. Bayno told Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar about Jones’ lackadaisical approach and lauded Roy, who after being a starter as a sophomore, began having knee problems as a junior which forced him to come off the bench. Romar told Bayno the whole season hinged on Roy. After the departure of star Nate Robinson and the decision of Washington recruit Martell Webster to enter the NBA draft straight from high school, Roy became the face of the team and offensive focus. Bayno called Pritchard.
“This kid's a steal,” he said. “He's a definite first-rounder.”
Pritchard watched Roy, who averaged 20.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists his senior year, and agreed. Portland initially had Roy rated in the middle of the second round before moving him into its upper tier by the time the draft came. In a Karmic swipe, Minnesota, where Roy would eventually return, made him the sixth overall pick the following June. It then traded him to Portland for Randy Foye, who was acquired from the Celtics, in a draft-night deal. Bobby Jones slipped to the second round and in only two years, slipped out of the NBA.
Two driving forces pervade Portland: an affinity for the odd and Blazers basketball.
Two driving forces pervade Portland: an affinity for the odd and Blazers basketball. Until recently, Portland had a minor league baseball team, the Pacific Coast League Beavers, and in 2011 the local professional soccer team, the Timbers, joined Major League Soccer, but nothing grips the city like the Blazers and “Blazermania.” From the time coach Jack Ramsay and an Afroed Bill Walton led the Blazers to their only title in 1977, through a series of conference titles in the early 1990s, the 42-year-old team has been the town’s sports soul.
Roy, along with skilled Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, brought a new light to the organization. Following the consistent missteps of players like Ruben Patterson (registered sex offender and domestic abuse charge), Rasheed Wallace (marijuana charges), Damon Stoudamire (marijuana charges), Zach Randolph (DUI and floored Patterson in practice) and Bonzi Wells (who was stripped of his captaincy and suspended for yelling at coach Maurice Cheeks, plus was fined for making an obscene gesture at a home fan) in the early 2000s, Roy helped turn a team that became known as the “Jail Blazers” from recidivists to rehabilitated. He was soccer-mom approved and given credit for changing the culture of the franchise.
What resulted was a trash-novel romance between the city and Roy. The people of Portland developed a clingy, soul-wrenching, desperate love for Roy as he delivered heroics with a smile. In his rookie year of 2006-07, Roy was the first Blazer to head to the NBA’s All-Star weekend since Wallace in 2001. In his second season he averaged 19.1 points, 5.8 assists and 4.6 rebounds. Giant billboards across from the Trail Blazers’ arena used to encourage fans to “Rise up” with Roy, the centerpiece leading the resurrection. He made the All-Star team three times and altered their beloved franchise with his grace and play.
Prior to the 2008-09 season, Roy had knee problems as a pro for the first time. Prior to the 2008-09 season, Roy had knee problems as a pro for the first time. Team doctor Don Roberts removed an irritable piece of cartilage from Roy’s left knee. At first it didn’t matter, but the end result would be a festering drama that preceded an operatic end.
Roy later scored 52 points in a game that season. He hit a 30-foot buzzer-beating game-winner in overtime at home. He finished ninth in MVP voting, was named second team All-NBA, and his consistent ability to control fourth quarters earned him the nickname, “The Closer.”
The Blazers feted him with cash and public relations campaigns. With Brandon Roy Jr., then two years old, on his lap, Roy sat smiling next to Pritchard Aug. 6, 2009. The Blazers were announcing Roy’s new maximum five-year deal for $82.3 million which was supposed to keep him a Blazer through the 2014-15 season.
Roy was again selected as an All-Star. But, on April 11, 2010, he injured his right knee and had surgery for a slight meniscus tear five days later. He returned for the first round of the playoffs, played in only three games, shot barely 30 percent and averaged less than 10 points in a 4-2 first-round loss to the Phoenix Suns. Still, Roy was named to the all-NBA third team.
One surgery begat another. And another.One surgery begat another. And another. On Jan. 17, 2011, Roy had arthroscopic surgery on each knee, and the condition of his knees was the prime reason for his inability to step back into his starring role when he rejoined the Blazers that year. Head coach Nate McMillan had settled on his rotation and his end-of-season approach by the time Roy tried to come back. The surgeries had reduced his lift and lateral movement, leaving Roy coming off the bench for the first time since college. His playing time dropped by almost 10 minutes per game, to a level he was not accustomed to or pleased about. Soon, the problems extended beyond Roy’s lack of cartilage.
“I would always try to encourage Brandon, go talk to Nate, Nate will talk to you,” Bayno, who was then a Portland assistant, said. “Voice your concerns and come to an agreement. I think there was just a period there Nate had his rotation and he felt more comfortable with Brandon coming off the bench and in fairness, too, Brandon wasn't the same after that last surgery and was still trying to find his way.”
“There was a lot of things behind the scenes, it wasn’t just my knees giving me a lot of trouble,” Roy said. “It was just the fact that the team was playing well and I just couldn’t break into the lineup.”
Roy fought back tears after he was Portland’s last substitute in Game 2 of the Western Conference playoffs. He was inserted into the game at the end of quarters, duty usually reserved for an NBA short-timer. He played less than eight minutes and missed his only field-goal attempt and two free throws.
The night before Game 4 he privately met with McMillan. “It kind of came to a head,” Bayno said. “He and Nate went in a room and talked it out.” It's not a coincidence a final drop of majesty followed when Roy scored 18 points in the fourth quarter to help Portland beat Dallas. But Roy only played two more games for the Blazers, who lost 4-2 to the eventual-champion Mavericks. The drama that closed 2010-11 was a prequel to the guillotine that awaited.
Once the NBA lockout ended in late November of 2011, when owners and players agreed to a shortened season and new collective bargaining agreement, Roy went to Blazers camp. Doctor Roberts, the same physician who had performed surgery on Roy prior and was his main doctor throughout his time in the NBA, told him MRIs showed his knees getting progressively worse. Roberts said if Roy was his son, he might recommend that he stop playing basketball. Roy says his knee pain was reduced and that he asked for no restrictions on his minutes heading into camp.
The Blazers referred to it as “Brandon’s announcement he is leaving the game.”
Roy says his agent, Greg Lawrence, relayed the medical information to the Blazers. Then Portland decided to explore the medical retirement route, though McMillan said days earlier that Roy would be the starting shooting guard.
The Blazers referred to it as “Brandon’s announcement he is leaving the game.” Lawrence said Roy had to medically retire and would not play again.
“I don’t know exactly what the Blazers were thinking, if what they were saying to me was what they really meant,” Roy said. “All I know is my side. I know I went down there ready to start camp and it didn’t work out that way. I don’t look at it as a situation where they were unfair.
“I’m sure [team owner] Mr. [Paul] Allen may be saying, man, I wanted it to go this way, and I’m saying I wanted it to go this way and [former team president] Larry Miller’s saying I wanted it to go that way.
“I don’t want to sit here and act like I’m mad at anything they did to me because I’m not. I’m not.”
Roy awoke the next day to a ringing and vibrating phone. The scroll across the bottom of ESPN broadcasts and multiple Twitter dispatches had delivered the news with punch-to-the-face subtlety. Roy was out.
At 27 years old, Roy was no longer a Blazer, no longer an NBA player.No ceremony marked his end and practice went on without him. Ten days later, the Blazers wiped him away by using the amnesty clause. Portland still had to pay Roy, but his salary no longer counted against the team's cap. At 27 years old, Roy was no longer a Blazer, no longer an NBA player. For the first time in his life, he wasn’t preparing for a new season. Training camp was starting and he was on the couch with nothing to do.
“It was a weird time,” Roy said.
That first day, his wife, Tiana, suggested he take a walk with their children Brandon Jr., 5, and Mariah, 3, to get away from the electronic noise. Roy wandered around his expansive property just outside of Seattle in a haze. He was stunned to be out of the NBA so soon. The kids snapped him back to reality by bickering about possession of something unimportant. Roy mitigated and received a preview of days ahead.
Roy was in a funk for more than a month as he adapted to his new life. He began to settle into not playing when his grandmother invited him back to the church he was raised in. Months passed, and, with the NBA season finally under way, Roy was a dad and an NBA fan. He took in games differently. Instead of tracking them for playoff positions or self-comparison to the elite, he watched for fun.
Roy took a step toward a new career. He talked to Lorenzo Romar, his college coach, about shadowing him to learn about coaching and recruiting. Romar was open to his star’s return, though they did not get far into the process. On March 20, 2011, Roy went back to the Rose Garden in Portland for the first time since leaving the league. Seattle pal Jamal Crawford, who was signed by the Blazers with the mid-level exception granted to Portland when it amnestied Roy, was turning 32. Roy went down from Seattle to join in the birthday festivities that followed the Blazers’ game against the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Blazers’ effort to keep Roy’s entrance quiet in order not to distract from the game was foiled when a television camera caught him in one of the arena’s tunnels on the way to the court. That smile was back on the Jumbotron. The Rocky theme played as he took his courtside seat with Tiana, whom he dated since high school, in the second quarter. He smiled and pointed toward friends on the Blazers’ bench.
Fans in the sold-out Rose Garden stood and roared.
“I think I’m a pretty good player,” Roy said. “But, I always thought they got maybe a little more out of me than maybe I thought I had. Just with them cheering and that constant support, I would go a little harder. I would play with just a little more confidence to just try to live up to their support.”
Seeing the game in person had made him think, “I can still do this.”It wasn’t just the audible frenzy Roy noticed that night. The tips of his shoes were inches from his former spots of glory, providing a different view than the television. Roy watched and thought the players aren’t bigger than he remembered. They’re not faster. Seeing the game in person had made him think, “I can still do this.”
Roy had turned away teams that called after he was jettisoned by the Blazers. But his Portland visit, of all things, made him decide to train for a return. Peace with his new life turned to unrest. Encouragement from old friends boosted his belief he could come back. He called his agent to discuss a plan for a return. The start would be simple. Roy would begin playing for fun to see how his body responded.
Roy and longtime cohort Will Conroy, who was a teammate at Washington and had played overseas, in the D-League and briefly in the NBA, began to workout together again. Conroy was abandoned-dog hungry, practicing every day to prove to an NBA team he should no longer toil on lower levels. Roy was taking his first steps toward a return.
In the spring, his body felt good after just shooting. Conroy and Roy started to play one-on-one and Roy was showing signs of being the player who averaged 19 points a game during his career. His knee pain was reduced. His back, which also had nagged him at times, didn’t hurt. Just to show he still could, he began to dunk again.
So, they upped the competition. Members of Seattle’s “Home Team” -- Crawford, Spencer Hawes, Isaiah Thomas, Terrence Williams and Tony Wroten -- would periodically join the workouts. Roy was grinding twice a day.
“B, I think it’d be a shame if you don’t play anymore,” Conroy told him. “I’d be disappointed if you didn’t try to go back to the NBA again.”
Roy was aware of how a blood spinning treatment in Germany benefited Kobe Bryant and that something beyond his recent rest was necessary to help the comeback effort. He and his agent didn’t put out word to teams about the possible return -- yet. Instead, they scheduled an appointment at LifeSpan Medicine and it was off to Los Angeles where Bayno would come into play again.
Doctors in Los Angeles explained to Roy the procedure they could perform known as Regenokine was the same as what Bryant went through in Germany. They took 60 milliliters of blood from his arm, about three times as much as the normal blood draw for a cholesterol test. Roy’s blood was then heated to more than 100 degrees in an incubator in order to give it a fever. The heat caused the blood to respond the same way it would if you were sick. It began to produce additional proteins, several of which are anti-inflammatory.
After a few hours in the incubator, the blood was removed and placed in a centrifuge in order to break down all of the cells and separate the proteins. Next, the blood was filtered to produce an amber-colored serum filled with the individual’s anti-inflammatory and healing proteins. The serum, which is a little thicker than water, was then frozen.
Patients can receive one injection a day over the course of a week or two shots a week over a three-week period to produce results confirmed in published studies. Dr. Moshe Ben-Roohi injected Roy’s personal serum into his knee joints with a 1.5-inch needle, the same size as one used for a flu shot, over the course of five days.
The procedure costs $9,000 per joint. To Roy, it’s worth millions.According to Dr. Chris Renna of Lifespan, and a colleague of Ben-Roohi’s, whether a patient has a lot of cartilage or none at all, like Roy, the root of joint pain is from ongoing inflammation. The Regenokine process reduces inflammation. In turn, it sets off a logical sequence of events for an athlete previously hurting athlete: No more inflammation, no more pain, increased workouts, and increased performance.
The procedure costs $9,000 per joint. To Roy, it’s worth millions.
“Right away I noticed a big difference,” Roy said. “I was like, ‘Wow.’ This stuff works.”
Bayno, now a Minnesota assistant, was also in Los Angeles working out Timberwolves players at Loyola Marymount University, where he had coached for a year. Roy called to ask if he could practice with Bayno to get his thoughts. His old friend told him to come by after he was done drilling Anthony Randolph and Derrick Williams.
Yet again a twist of timing favored Roy. Minnesota general manager David Kahn and director of player personnel R.J. Adelman, son of head coach Rick Adelman, were already at LMU to watch their players. Bayno suggested they hang around and watch Roy’s workout.
For three days, Bayno worked Roy solo for two hours. Full court, half court, one-on-one, pick-and-rolls, off the dribble, off the catch. He smacked him with arm pads and forced him into knee-testing counter moves, like pivots and drop-steps.
“Explosion was there, his lift was there, his first step was there,” Bayno said. “A lot of it, too, was Brandon telling us, ‘My knees feel different.’ He certainly acted a whole lot different than the last time I had seen him in Portland.”
At the end of the three days, Bayno had one question.
“You want to come to Minnesota?
Kahn, unlike Bayno, did not have a prior relationship with Roy. Kahn was spooked by knowing another team had decided to pay Roy $63 million to provide them cap space and go away.
“You come to the conclusion, just, boy, he must really be hurt,” Kahn said. “That’s a big number to bite off.”
The pursuit was on. Word spread. Minnesota, Dallas and Golden State were all after Roy.When word that Roy was coming back began to spread, Kahn still was not sure he should pursue him. Kahn had his doubt about how much Roy could help push Minnesota into the playoffs this year. Yet, what Kahn saw at Loyola Marymount changed his mind. “There was no way of detecting that he had any kind of injury, in any part of his body, much less his knees,” Kahn said. “That was kind of the kick start to all this, that day.”
Roy moved with painless fluidity. Then at lunch following the first workout Kahn experienced Roy’s charm. That made Kahn believe Roy’s contribution in the locker room would bring added value. The pursuit was on. Word spread. Minnesota, Dallas and Golden State were all after Roy.
Timberwolves head coach Rick Adelman flew to Seattle and explained that he envisioned Roy in the high post, plus running screen and rolls with Kevin Love and as a threat on the wing. He made comparisons to how he used Tracy McGrady in Houston.
Adelman also pointed to his management of Chris Webber in Sacramento as evidence of his comfort and skill at managing players with degenerative injuries.
“What that showed me was he was confident in knowing that he wasn’t going to let anybody from the outside dictate what he’s going to do with the team,” Roy said. “That meant a lot to me, to have a coach who says he believes in himself and he believes in his formula and what he thinks. He’s not going to let the media or anybody else dictate how he’s going to coach this team.”
Minnesota was also desperate for a large wing that could handle the ball. One time last season, a trio of point guards, J.J. Barea, Luke Ridnour and Ricky Rubio, were on the floor together with Rubio as the small forward. That’s a daunting lineup in a 6‘4-and-under league, but comic in the NBA.
Tiana wanted him to hurry up. Brandon Jr. starts kindergarten this year, so, the sooner Roy decided between Minnesota, Golden State and Dallas, the sooner she could get him into school.
Minnesota’s proximity to Seattle was appealing to a homebody like Roy. Between Alaska Airlines and Delta there are nine non-stop daily flights from Seattle to Minnesota. Terry Porter, another friend from Roy’s time in Portland, is on the Timberwolves’ staff, as is Seattle resident Jack Sikma. Rick Adelman impressed. And, of course, Bayno was there.
Kahn’s offer to Roy was standard, which had appeal in its simplicity. He did not promise a specific amount of minutes. Instead, he offered Roy a shot to play as much and as well as his body allows. That’s what Roy felt he didn’t get at the end in Portland. He also gave Roy a two-year contract worth $10.4 million. According to a source, the second year is dependent on his health through the first. He took it.
“I suspected some of the other teams that were pursuing him were really crafting a less ambitious minutes proposition,” Kahn said. “All I said was, ‘You’ll be like any other player. You’ll play what you deserve.’ If he’s capable of playing 30-35 minutes, if he’s capable of being our starter at the two guard position, then I assume coach will play him there. On the other hand, if he’s not capable of being our starting two guard, not capable of playing 30-35 minutes, then I assume that coach will play him whatever he is capable of.”
That’s all he wanted. Roy feels capable. He talks with energy, but not brashness. His confidence stirs inside.
“I know there’s still a lot that I can show, but I’d rather show it,” Roy said. “The love of the game never left, but I think (the time away) made me for hungry for it.”
His return is one of the great curiosities heading into this NBA season. Minnesota made several other moves, like signing Andrei Kirilenko, backup power forward Dante Cunningham and backup center Greg Stiemsma. Roy is a fresh name on the marquee while Minnesota awaits the return of Rubio, who is coming off a torn ACL in his left knee, and hopes to be back by mid-December. When Love broke his hand on Oct. 17, knocking him from the lineup for six to eight weeks, reliance on Roy increased.
“I still think you’re going to see the magical moments in spurts,” Bayno said. “I don’t think it’s fair to expect that he’s going to be the old B-Roy.”
To start the season, he may need to be.
Roy fiddled with the hangover of his gray jersey during warm-ups in mid-July preparing to venture onto the floor for a formal -- well, almost formal -- game. He had been touted for weeks as a participant in Crawford’s Pro-Am Summer League held at to the Boys and Girls Club. Finally playing in front of the crowd again, he was nervous.
Roy hadn’t been on the floor with referees, a scoreboard and fans since the playoffs against Dallas more than a year prior. He deferred throughout the first half. Before halftime, reality socked him when his coach told him he had two fouls and not to foul again. That was his first reminder of game strategy. This was real.
By the third quarter, he began to burst past his defender. He spun, ducked in with his shoulder, put up quick-release three-pointers. There were no braces or straps on his knees. There were glimpses of prior success when Roy shifted his aggression into high gear. After the game he disappeared into the back of the gym, near the foosball tables, to avoid autograph-seekers.
A week later, a black boom box played in the corner of the Boys and Girls Club as Roy went through end-game drills with Conroy and company.
Three, two, one, Roy hits. He hits again. Another time from deeper, leaving his hand up, shouting toward an imaginary crowd, maybe the one that filled his fibers in the Rose Garden, maybe the clamoring one he envisions in Minnesota.
He leaves the court and sits in the late summer sun knowing the silence will soon be filled. His big shoulders are covered by a black, sweat-soaked Manny Pacquiao T-shirt. Roy’s smile is surrounded by a moderately maintained goatee under his flattened nose. His hair is short and 6‘6 body fit. Below the drape of his baller shorts, nothing aids his grumpy knees. His explanation for his return to the NBA is simple.