After chronic knee problems, everyone thought Brandon Roy's career was over, except Roy.
By JOAN NIESENFS North
MINNEAPOLIS – Talk to Brandon Roy, and this is a very different story.
Talk to Brandon Roy, and this isn't quite a comeback. Talk to Brandon Roy, and this isn't exactly miraculous. Talk to Brandon Roy, and hope for the Timberwolves' sake he's right.
When the Timberwolves introduced Roy at the Target Center on Thursday afternoon, they began with the story we all know, one of shock that this man, this star, is sitting at this table in this arena in this city, about to play for this team.
This one came out of left field, Timberwolves president of basketball operations David Kahn said. He didn't expect it. The world didn't expect it, not after those knees and that retirement and the tragedy Roy's career seemed to have become.
But here's the thing: Brandon Roy did expect it.
It took Roy only a few minutes and a microphone to begin to correct what he perceived as the misconceptions. It took a smile and a few reassurances to turn Roy's retirement into a pause and to add nuance to this perfect little story of player retires, player recovers, player returns.
In this case, it just might not be that simple. At least, the Timberwolves are banking on that, because in many ways, this seems too good to be true.
"It was never really officially my decision to retire." – Roy
Brandon Roy didn't do this by choice. Brandon Roy didn't even really do this. Roy's 2010-11 season in Portland was plagued by injury; he missed 35 games, started only 23, and averaged 12.2 points per game, nearly 10 points less than his average the season before. After it ended in the first round of the playoffs, Roy met with the
Trail Blazers' team doctor. They had a good relationship, Roy said, after five seasons together, but when Roy went for his physical, the doctor recommended that the shooting guard end his career. His knees had no cartilage, and in that condition, continuing to play basketball would be the worst decision.
From there, it was the team's decision. They could have pursued a medical retirement for Roy, but in the end, they decided to apply their amnesty clause to him, still paying his maximum contract but ensuring it wouldn't count against their salary cap. The Brandon Roy era in Portland was over, but what to what all the world looked like a retirement was for one man only a break.
"For me it was never, 'I'm retired,'" Roy said. "I knew, with my knees, I'd have to decide whether I wanted to continue playing. And just after a few months of sitting out, I decided, 'Hey, I don't want to stop playing basketball.' I wanted to continue going forward. It was never a situation where I said, 'I'm done forever.' It's just more of a pause."
Look at the numbers, and that makes sense. Sure, Roy had his low points in 2010-11, but in the third-to-last game of the first incarnation of his career, the supposedly hobbled Roy tottered his old-man knees onto the court and finished with 24 points in 24 minutes, shooting 69.2 percent from the field.
It was one of the greatest moments of his career, Roy said, not only because he led the Trail Blazers to a playoff win against the Mavericks, but because of everything that surrounded it. He was already thinking about the threat his knees were posing to his career, and yet in that moment, he felt fine. In that moment, he was himself again, and the fact that he could feel that way must have been overwhelming.
"I felt physically that I could go out there and make plays and help the team win," Roy said. "That helped. You look back at your last moments of playing, it's like I felt good that time of year. That really helped with my decision saying I wanted to come back."
To not try would have been to ignore reality.
"I never really said, 'I'm coming back. It was always, 'I'm thinking about coming back.'" – Roy
If this were tied up in that neat little box of an improbable comeback, then June 16, 2012 would be a big day. June 16 was the day that Roy posted on former teammate Will Conroy's Twitter account that he'd be returning to play. That day, when the messages of support came pouring in, should have been a new beginning. But for Roy, it hardly was.
At that point, Roy had been weighing his options and floating the idea of a comeback for some time. After taking time off after Portland applied its amnesty clause to his contract in December, the shooting guard had begun to test himself and to think about a comeback. He wanted to let his body rest naturally, he said, without medical treatments or unnecessary workouts. But late in the winter, Roy was feeling no pain in his knees in everyday life, and he decided to take the next step.
After easing his way back into the game, Roy soon became more serious about his recovery. He underwent Regenokine, a version of platelet-rich plasma therapy that Kobe Bryant has used, two months into his workout process, and he began to test the NBA waters.
"I just kind of put feelers out there to see which teams were really excited about me and really believed in me," Roy said. "And Minnesota, they were that team. They just really believed in me, along with some other ones, but they just continued to call and watch me work out."
So this was no apoplectic Twitter announcement. Brandon Roy didn't wake up one morning, decide to come back and suddenly have the entirety of the NBA chasing after him. He tested the process, bit by bit, and in the end, he emerged a member of the Timberwolves.
"The issue isn't that his knees will change or something will occur within them. The issue is can he withstand the pain and the swelling?" – David Kahn
Brandon Roy isn't going to suddenly collapse on the Target Center court in the second game of the season. His knees aren't going to snap, and he's not going to morph into some jelly-legged mutant. At this point, it's not about anything worse happening, necessarily. The cartilage is already gone. The damage is done. Now, it's about pain.
Kahn said that when the team first started scouting Roy, it was accidentally. Timberwolves personnel saw him work out at a gym in Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount, and they were amazed at what they saw. From there, various members of the team's staff began to watch Roy train, and the team also did its due diligence medically, looking into the situation in those two joints that could doom the Brandon Roy Experiment at any moment.
What the team found was in keeping with what Roy was telling them, Kahn said. That first day at Loyola Marymount, Kahn asked Roy if he was in pain. No. He asked him if he felt stiffness. No. Those are the issues that Regenokine works to correct, and if he can continue to stave them off, the problems should be at a minimum.
"The issue is can he withstand the pain and the swelling, and as he described today, he's not experiencing any of it right now, which is really a big thing," Kahn said. "If that continues, this should really work out well because that's the only thing then that would hold him back."
So for now, there are no expectations, Kahn said. There's no doubt that Roy will be a mature, charismatic force in the Timberwolves' young locker room. Roy wants to get back to being a 35-minutes-per-night player, but getting there will be a progression. One reason the team appealed to him was because it told him that he could earn more and more minutes; it wasn't automatically placing restrictions. So, depending on pain and stiffness and resilience, Roy could be a major factor.
But the pain is the biggest gamble. Regenokine usually lasts for up to a year and a half, Roy said, so if it does what it claims, it should get him through this season. At that point, if Roy has found success, perhaps it's more treatments. Perhaps it's something else. Perhaps the issues have abated. Perhaps he'll have retired for good. There's no way to know, but right now, being informed is the best solution. And the Timberwolves seem to be.
"When people started hearing that Minnesota was interested, they was like, 'You know you was drafted there.' And I was like, 'Yeah I know I was drafted there.' The talk just kept going… and it brought back some memories." -- Roy
Roy coming to Minnesota brings the process full circle. The Timberwolves drafted him with the sixth overall pick in 2006, but he was traded to Portland immediately. There, he became No. 7, the Trail Blazers' star. Eventually, he became their hobbled liability, and now, back in Minnesota, back as No. 3, the same number he wore at the University of Washington, he's hoping to be that same, fresh Brandon Roy who first put on a Timberwolves' hat on draft night.
that is a good story. It'll never come true – Roy is six years older and down two healthy knees – but it might come close. Because now, Roy can go to his mother's Seattle home and not feel a weird pang when he looks at the shrine to his basketball career and sees a picture of himself on draft night in a Timberwolves hat. He can dig that hat out of the piles of memorabilia at his mother's house and laugh at what a funny thing life can be.
Now, he can think back on his friend Will Conroy's reports from Timberwolves camp last winter and realize what a blessing they were. Conroy, who played in Houston for Rick Adelman, attempted to make the Timberwolves this year, and though he didn't, he repeatedly told Roy that Minnesota would be a good place for him to make his comeback.
Back then it was talk. Now, it's reality. There's no denying that Brandon Roy is a gamble, but the upsides are too huge to ignore. So now, we wait. We let Roy meet his teammates and train. We let those tiny forces in his knees either heal or break down. We revel in the story, and we wait to see if indeed it's too good to be true.