One night after I got cut from the Knicks in the fall of 2008, I crashed with two of my friends at their apartment in New York City. After hanging out for a while, they went to sleep, explaining to me that they had to wake up in the morning for this thing they kept calling "work." While they slept, I just lounged on the couch, alone, watching some late-night NBA hoops. Portland and Houston were playing on TNT, and if relaxing in my underwear at my friends' place with a belly full of Chinese takeout and nothing to do the next day isn't a good enough example of heaven on Earth (besides actually making the NBA team I was trying out for), the awesome game between the Blazers and the Rockets put some extra hoisin sauce on my already excellent Peking Duck pancake of an evening.
It was a classic game, and until last week, I hadn't thought about it for a while. Unfortunately, it took the sad news of my ex-competitor Brandon Roy's retirement to bring the memory back. Upon hearing that B-Roy's amazing career had ended early due to chronic knee problems, this night suddenly seemed a lot more relevant.
As mentioned, I was getting my Al Bundy on in my friends' living room, enjoying some suspenseful NBA basketball, all the while in a state of constant admiration of the genius chicken-mystery-man known as General Tso. I was on the edge of my seat, because in a big-time game in front of a packed crowd at the Rose Garden in Portland, the Blazers were trailing by one in overtime with the clock ticking. When B-Roy dribbled down court and buried a tough jumper from the right wing to put his team up one with a few seconds left, I was psyched. It was a clutch shot, and it was everything you hope to see when you're on the couch watching late-night NBA hoops in your skivvies. But the game wasn't over.
On the next play, Yao Ming got the Rockets back on top with a ridiculous shot of his own with just under a second left, but it still wasn't over. With 0.8 seconds to go, B-Roy received an inbounds pass, rose up, and nailed an improbable 30-foot fade-away bomb at the buzzer to win it.
His teammates mobbed him, the crowd went crazy, and Marv Albert gave his patented "YES!" It was incredible to watch, and I even considered making a run to the fridge for a celebratory spare-rib surprise party, but I ultimately refrained amidst understandable cholesterol concerns.
I still remember that night with fondness. It wasn't just a very cool basketball moment; it was also a statement. B-Roy, a guy whom I had become friendly with from our years battling it out when he was at Washington and I was at Stanford, was already an All-Star. On that night, though, on national TV, he showed the world that he was on the verge of becoming a superstar. And he was only 24 years old at the time. Holy Wonton Soup! That level of NBA success and all that comes with it is pretty much unfathomable, but he deserved it, because it certainly wasn't given to him. He had to fight for it.
Before enrolling at U-Dub, he worked on the Seattle docks cleaning shipping containers, and it took him all four years of college for health and opportunity to align so that his talent could really shine through. And shine it did. To add to his superb ability, at the University of Washington and then in the NBA, he never played or acted like an entitled star destined for greatness (at least not from what I observed). To the contrary, he displayed the perseverance and character needed to overcome the adversity he faced, and he conducted himself with class.
Now, just a few years later, at the age of 27, he has been forced to retire from professional basketball for reasons that are beyond his control. That really, really sucks. It's not fair to his family, his friends, his fans, his teammates, or his organization, but most importantly, it's just not fair to him. I've heard some people say that his retirement is not that big of a deal, since he'll still receive what's left of the $82 million contract he signed with Portland in 2009. After all, he's rich, so what else can he really complain about, right?
While that kind of cash can probably make a whole lot of things feel a whole lot better, and while I've always wondered what chinchilla socks would feel like on my feet (just kidding, PETA), there is no sum of money that can completely heal the wound of an exceptional athlete's career being cut so unjustly short.
I can't speak for Brandon Roy, but from my experiences, the greatest and most competitive of basketball players (a group into which B-Roy undoubtedly falls) almost always view the game as more than just a job and more than just a paycheck. Think Kobe, KG or Manu Ginobili. Those guys hold the game in their hearts and pump it through their veins. It shows in the way they play, and B-Roy is no different. For them, and probably for the majority of pro players, the game is not just a job; it's a very big part of who they are. It's a journey. A passion. It's something to believe in. It's an identity, and it almost has to be, because it's such an incredibly hard level to reach. It takes blood, sweat and tears, even once you become a professional, and sometimes especially when you become a professional. It turns into a way of life, a way to provide for your family and the best way you know to express yourself. And at the end of the day, regardless of the ups and downs, it's the thing that you love to do. After all that goes into making it that far, it's not such a simple thing to let go of early.
Don't get me wrong, this is certainly not the case with every NBA player. There are obviously guys out there who don't really appreciate the game and are stealing money every day, straight robbin' their teams like the Wet Bandits (or the Sticky Bandits if you prefer the sequel). But from what I know of Brandon Roy, he is far from one of those guys. He cares about basketball, plays it with feeling and accordingly, because it means something to him, I'm sad that he has to hang ‘em up before his time.
I think his retirement has affected me far more than I ever expected (enough to inspire me to write this article) because I'm familiar with the long journey he took to become the Brandon Roy I guarded in college and watched bury the Rockets that night in my buddies' apartment. Also, at least to some extent, I can relate to it. We both had knee issues in college, and I remember talking to him at length about our respective injuries and rehabs at Pac-10 media day before the start of our senior seasons. During this time, I witnessed firsthand just one small part of his struggle, and because I was going through similar things, it resonated with me then, as it does now. It's also part of the reason why I've always rooted for him -- aside from the fact that he's a good guy -- because it was nice to see him rise above everything he'd been through.
I'm sure that I'm far from the only one who relates to this kind of story. Anyone who has set goals for themselves, no matter what they are, knows that disappointments and difficult circumstances are an inherent part of the process. As they say, everyone has a history, and it's not a new theme by any stretch. Still, it's an important one in sports, because it underscores the fact that the real shame of this early retirement has nothing to do with missing out on money or fame or glory. The real shame here is that a formative journey of a very personal nature, one that he without question put his heart and soul into since he was a kid, was cut way too short, and there was nothing he could do about it.
It's not fair, and it's just one example of how fickle and fleeting the career of a professional basketball player can really be. With one step the wrong way, or one movement that didn't go quite right, your career can be over, or at least permanently altered. With B-Roy, it was a chronic condition, but freak injuries also happen, whether we like it or not. It's an unbelievably scary thought that a lifelong pursuit can vanish that quickly, but for professional basketball players (and athletes in general), it's a reality. Not only have I seen it happen to very good friends of mine at the most inopportune times, but also, it's happened to me. Thankfully, I'm still a professional player doing what I enjoy, but my career was forever altered at the age of 21, all because of one bad step.
This is the painful side of our business, both physically and emotionally, and B-Roy's unfortunate retirement couldn't help but that into perspective. As players, we're extremely vulnerable to the wings of fate, which can sometimes be cruel. You just never know what's going to happen. This is a big reason why I believe that athletes need to appreciate their loved ones, get a good education and cultivate other interests along their journeys. Freak accidents and injuries aside, this unbelievable profession can only last for so long, but life keeps moving long after it's over, and we need to be prepared for that.
For Brandon Roy, his time came far too soon, but I think he's an inspiration to young players everywhere, because he was amazing, and he played the game and conducted himself in the right way. I'll miss watching him play late-night-style, with or without being a Chinese food glutton, but I'm still very hopeful for him. The characteristics he possesses that were largely responsible for his great success on the court -- perseverance, work ethic, character -- will be with him forever and will no doubt serve him well in whatever he chooses to do. I'm happy for him about that, and regardless of what his next pursuit may be, I wish him nothing but the best. I'm sorry to see him go, but eventually, all of us athletes will have our time. All we can do is hope for the best, prepare for the worst, be grateful for our opportunities, and play ball to the best of our ability in the meantime, because at the end of the day, that's what we've loved to do since long before it was a job. And it won't last forever, even for the guys who deserve it the most.