Photo: benefit1970 on Flickr
Photo: benefit1970 on Flickr
Last week, Brandon Roy left professional basketball the way he came in: very quietly. Five years ago, his draft-day selection and subsequent trade to Portland were page-two headlines compared to the dawning of the Adam Morrison era in Charlotte. Now his exit has been overshadowed amidst the histrionics of a short, manic preseason. Yet the retirement of a 27-year-old three-time All-Star was the biggest transaction to have actually occurred this offseason before last night’s Chris Paul trade–and it’s the saddest basketball story to hit Seattle since the Sonics were stolen away to Oklahoma.
We knew he would hang it up sooner or later. So did the Blazers, who had to consider the end of Brandon Roy long before he announced his retirement. The Blazers suffered the consequences of Roy's tender knees for the entirety of his short career. One of their coping mechanisms was denial, illustrated by their unwillingness to rebuild even after it became clear he could no longer play at a star level with consistency. Another was to build a deep and athletic roster of guys like Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews to surround their star, at least somewhat mitigating his limited mobility and frequent injuries.
Roy's retirement is obviously a shame. The Blazers lose their most beloved player, NBA fans lose a unique talent who played fluid and beautiful basketball, and Roy loses the chance to play out a great career. But there is another, less apparent loser in all this: the many-times-wronged basketball fans of Roy's hometown of Seattle.
Brandon Roy is the best NBA player to ever come out of Western Washington. (John Stockton, like aforementioned fellow Gonzaga star Morrison, is from Spokane, well east of the Cascades.) The next best is probably Jason Terry. Roy also plays the role of the unassuming Da Vinci in a Seattle basketball renaissance that has produced players like Terry, Jamal Crawford, Rodney Stuckey, Spencer Hawes, Martell Webster, and Roy's University of Washington teammate Nate Robinson. With the Sonics gone, those hometown guys–along with ex-Sonics who stuck around the city like Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf–have taken on an outsized role in the hearts of local basketball fans. They rep Seattle hard at all times and congregate here over the offseason, showing up at college games together and putting on exhibitions. In fact, had the owners and players not settled the lockout, I would be attending the Jamal Crawford H206 Classic tonight.
The departure of the Sonics gets a lot of well-deserved attention for having been the culmination of a sleazy and corrupt chain of events that involved heaps of moral and legal failures by rich people and government officials. However, it does not get enough attention for striking a blow to the burgeoning Seattle basketball culture. I'm not here to say that because the Sonics left, there will never be another great basketball talent to come out of the 206–take a look at Tony Wroten Jr., a tall, dynamic freshman point guard who just lit up Duke for 23 points on national television and earned the praises of Coach K himself. Nor am I here to say that producing top notch guards ought to be a city's highest priority (Roy's Garfield High School also graduated Bruce Lee, Jimi Hendrix, and Quincy Jones). The ghost of the Sonics is still alive in Seattle–in throwback gear, in hip hop lyrics, and in hearts and minds. But an actual, tangible franchise means something else entirely. A real professional team allows local talent to play a meaningful game in the city at least once a year. It puts basketball games on local television. It helps curb the city’s justifiable bitterness toward the NBA. And it gives pro basketball legitimate stakes in this city, ensuring that a few generations from now the Sonics are more than a quaint, distant memory.
In Roy, Seattle had the next best thing to its own basketball team: a player who was born and raised in the city, stayed all four years to become an All-American at U-Dub, and played for the next best thing to the Sonics, a Blazers team coached by Sonics legend Nate McMillan and owned by Seattle billionaire Paul Allen. (I don’t mean to discount the ferocity of the Sonics-Blazers rivalry, but Pacific Northwesterners know in their hearts that Seattle and Portland are of the same spirit and that the Blazers suddenly became a lot less hideous when the Sonics left.) Hell, Roy even cleaned out shipping containers at the Port of Seattle for a year after high school.
Despite the latest round of grumblings about a new arena, the city remains nowhere near landing another NBA team. To make things worse, the Oklahoma City Thunder are only becoming a more enviable shadow dream to fans who were treated to just a single, lanky season of Kevin Durant. Now Seattle can’t even tie its dwindling spirits to Brandon Roy. Like the Sonics, he was here and then he was gone.