The Natural: Brandon Roy’s First National Cover Story

On Friday, when we posted the unfortunate news about Brandon Roy being forced into medical retirement, we were moved by the instant outpouring of love for B-Roy from our readers. So we thought today was as good as any to post Roy’s national magazine cover debut from Dime #48.

In just his third season in the NBA, the two-time All-Star had become one of the young talents expected to carry the League into the future. The Portland Trail Blazers handed him the keys to their franchise from the moment he stepped into the practice facility, and B-Roy had responded by putting them in position to make their first playoff appearance since 2003.

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As the Blazers wrap up one of their final practices before 2009 All-Star Weekend, a couple handfuls of reporters and cameramen surround head coach Nate McMillan, who talks about his team while still keeping his eyes on three baskets around the gym: one where Greg Oden works on his post moves; another where Nicolas Batum and Travis Outlaw take turns burying mid-rang jumpers, and one far off where Jerryd Bayless and Ike Diogu play a mismatch game of one-on-one. No one on the court is older than 25, a reminder of why McMillan has to keep watch over this young group — the youngest team in the League when you take forever-inactive Raef LaFrentz out of the equation. And as each player makes his way off the court, he’s greeted by small groups of media with short rounds of questions.

But really, everyone is waiting for Brandon Roy. Having disappeared moments after McMillan dismissed the team, Roy is still scheduled to take questions in his own post-practice quasi-press conference. When he finally emerges, the other Blazers in the room suddenly become invisible, as the scribes and shooters converge on Roy like sand rushing to the skinny part of an hourglass before he’s made it three steps out of the weight room. Bright lights, boom mikes and handheld recorders poke at his face like stiff left jabs as Roy, unflappable as usual, takes questions about earning his second straight All-Star berth and his team’s place in the standings — fourth in the Western Conference going into the break.

One local beat writer asks B-Roy about the cameras and lights and backdrops being set up on the opposite side of the gym, the ones there for Brandon’s Dime cover photo shoot that will take place after this interview session. Asked if he likes what this kind of attention means for his mainstream profile, Roy glances over at the rack of outfits laid out for him.

“It’s hard to say. On one hand, I want the respect of being a great player, but on the other hand, I don’t like all the attention,” Roy says. “But I definitely feel like a national magazine cover, yeah, that’s great for me. I’ve never done any big magazine covers; I’ve done some local stuff, but on a major magazine? That’s pretty cool. It’s almost like I’m taking that next step to being one of the guys that are, like, stars in the NBA.”

Roy, 24, might be the only person in the basketball world who doesn’t think he’s already one of those guys that are, like, stars in the NBA. Since coming into the League in 2006, his quick resume reads like this: Top-10 pick, Rookie of the Year, All-Star, All-Star. And barring a catastrophe, this year the 6-foot-6, 211-pound guard will make his postseason debut. Through the All-Star break Roy was averaging 22.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists, hitting 47 percent from the field and 82 percent from the line. Through his first 48 games of the season he’d compiled nine games of 30-plus points, had one January outing against the Wizards where he picked up 10 steals, and on Dec. 18 had his breakout 52-point bludgeoning of the Suns on national TV. The rate at which B-Roy has gone from promising rookie to unquestioned star has been fast even by today’s standards of over-hype and hair-trigger evaluation.

“Did I see him being this good? Hell no!” laughs Blazers forward Channing Frye, a University of Arizona product who played against Roy in the Pac-10 while he was at the University of Washington. “His game wasn’t so much different than it is now, I just think his confidence is different now. He’s blossomed.

“The number one thing is his confidence,” Frye says. “His swagger at the end of the game is just ridiculous. I think he’s in the Jordan-esque phase at the end of the game. He’s never rattled; he’s always got the same face. You look at the best guys in the game: Kobe, LeBron, D-Wade, Amar’e, Steve Nash, Tim Duncan, Ginobili … you look at them at the end of the game, and B-Roy is definitely up there with them.”

Even for me, who grew up playing Little League football alongside Brandon at Rainier Community Center in Seattle, then followed his progress at neighborhood Garfield High School and hometown UW, it’s been a surprising ascension. The Brandon Roy who briefly threw his name in the NBA Draft pool coming out of high school didn’t even seem like an NBA player, period, let alone a multiple-time All-Star.

“It’s weird sometimes,” Roy says. “I remember I asked everybody on the team once, ‘Who played JV in here?’ and nobody did but me! Like, I’m the only guy that played JV in here. I never got treated like a star until I made it to the NBA. In college I was a sixth man my junior year. So it was new to me when I got here – I wasn’t used to everybody wanting to talk to me after the game, to having to talk to the media, then after that doing photo shoots and stuff. I’ve grown to understand it, and now that I’m in my third year, I think I handle it better.”

Do you feel like a third-year player?

“I really don’t feel like a third-year player,” Roy says. “There are times during the year when I sit back and say, ‘Man, I wish we had more older guys,’ just so I can ask questions and have them help lead me. I’ve got a lot of experience. I’ve been through a lot. Sometimes I feel more like a five, six-year veteran.”

Anyone who has watched Roy play would expect to hear that answer. The man seems to have been struck with a touch of Oden Syndrome in that he acts as old as his Cosby-browed rookie teammate looks. You can’t read an article or watch a game featuring B-Roy without somebody praising his maturity and poise that seem well beyond his years, whether it’s his throwback game, his throwback look (no tats, no accessories, no mohawks), or his off-court demeanor. A few days before his Dime shoot, Roy was the subject of a Sports Illustrated feature with the headline, “Young Star, Old Soul.” And if the media gave out report cards, B-Roy would always have one of those “A pleasure to have in class” notes jotted next to his name.

While young superstar/media darling colleagues like Chris Paul, LeBron and Wade have a noticeably vast divide between their off-court cool and on-court fire, Roy’s game is almost right in-line with his personality. Words used to describe his game by his peers are smooth, deceptive, easy-looking. He doesn’t have that Big Pun style — quicker than Kung Fu, with the reflexes of a cat and the speed of a mongoose — but remains as unstoppable as anyone in the League.

“I think that I can put guys to sleep with my pace,” Roy says. “I’m not really the fastest guy, buy I can be quick. Guys will be trying to guard me, and I’ll be coasting…then, BAM! I’m gone. I think that’s what guys mean when they say I’m deceptive. You can’t let me fool you; I’ll put guys to sleep, then explode. I’m not the fastest guy, but I am pretty quick getting from Point A to Point B. I don’t waste a lot of movement.”

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Taking off after his interviews to get a quick haircut, Brandon returns for the photo shoot wearing his black Portland uniform. After a few shots there and some more in his white home uni, he changes into an Armani suit from Mario’s in downtown Portland to wrap up the shoot. Brandon’s fiancée and two kids have been in the gym the entire time, along with his personal assistant, a couple Blazers employees, a Nike rep, and that’s about it. The Dime camera crew, along with photo assistants, a stylist, a videographer and a writer, is actually rolling deeper than the NBA star. Throughout the shoot Brandon takes breaks to tend to his son, Brandon Jr., and when in front of the camera, sometimes gets distracted watching the little boy who looks just like Dad.

The image of Roy toting his family to work only bolsters the nice-guy image he’s fostered in his rise to stardom. Because of his status and personality, Roy has become an in-demand commodity, especially for a Trail Blazers franchise working to rebuild trust and support with its local fan base after the early-2000s “Jail Blazers” era, as well as increase its global profile. Roy now admits that, as a rookie, he felt the crush of carrying the weight of the organization on his shoulders 24 hours a day.

“It gets taxing, and sometimes people will take advantage of you,” Roy says. “Everyone says you gotta learn to say no, and I think people know that I don’t like saying no. So they’ll be like, ‘Brandon can you do this?’ ‘Brandon can you do that?’ And sometimes early in my career, I kind of got pushed into doing some things I didn’t want to. Now that I’m older and more mature, I understand that I gotta break my time up better. I gotta be rested for my team first. If I can’t do it for my team on the court, you’re not gonna want me off the court anyway.”

Ironically, with that added maturity comes a newfound freedom to be a little immature. While Brandon has seen other sports stars handle the pressures of their job by becoming jaded and recalcitrant, he tries to cope through comedy. In contrast with his image, he can be just as silly as you’d expect for a 24-year-old with Monopoly money.

“Oh yeah, I’m just as immature as anybody,” Roy laughs. “There’s times in practice when Coach has to tell me to be quiet and stop joking around so much. But I think he knows there’s a lot of pressure on me at a young age, and the way I kind of deflect it is to relax, joke around, get guys to laugh. For me, that’s important. I like to laugh, I like to joke; I just gotta pick my spots since I’m the leader of the team.”

It’s fitting that Roy even calculates his jokes. It’s his nature. On the court his game is cerebral: an exercised physical study in geometry, physics, probability and logic. For somebody who’s been nicknamed “The Natural” by some national analysts, he’s actually a byproduct of intense preparation and careful thought.

“I’ve always kind of had that in my game, that maturity,” Roy says. “Even in high school, my coach would pull me aside and say, ‘You’ve gotta be more patient with your teammates. Things will come faster to you than it will to them.’ I had to learn that at an early age, ’cause I would get mad and get on ’em. I always thought the game, while most players react. It’s kind of been a gift of mine. In college, Coach (Lorenzo) Romar would say, ‘Just because a play comes easy to you, it may not come as easy to your teammates. You gotta learn to trust your teammates and be patient with them.’ I learned to be more patient and think the game. It’s worked for me all my life, and it’s not gonna change now.”

And in the fourth quarter, when players’ legs get tired and their minds weaker, Brandon only gets sharper and stronger. In his nascent career he’s already become of the League’s foremost fourth-quarter snipers, this season has seen him hit buzzer-beating game-winners against the Rockets (on a blind turnaround 30-footer) and the Knicks (up-and-under scoop shot over David Lee). And in the aforementioned 52-point Phoenix game, Roy had a run where he scored 14 straight points in the third quarter, then scored another 14 in the fourth. He also didn’t commit a single turnover that night.

“He’s always had a killer mentality,” says Outlaw, one of the Blazers who have been in Portland since Roy’s arrival. “You can see the animal in him.”

“I think it’s something you’re just born with,” says rookie Bayless. “Not everyone’s gonna have that mentality, but Brandon has it. He’s a winner.”

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Three days after his cover shoot — and the morning after he dropped 37 points on the Warriors in the last NBA game before the All-Star break — Roy is in Phoenix with the rest of the best players in the world.

At the Western Conference team Media Day, Brandon sits in a ballroom at the downtown Phoenix Sheraton, at a round table between Phil Jackson and Chauncey Billups. Directly across from Roy’s table is Shaquille O’Neal, who isn’t even visible thanks to an international media army devouring his table. While the breathless attention bestowed on Shaq offers Roy a much-appreciated break from the attention with which he’s admittedly still not fully comfortable, he also sees in front of him a portrait of what could lie ahead in his future.

And while some of the All-Star veterans — the Iversons, Kobes and Duncans of the group – may dread these kind of circus exhibitions (even LeBron came up with an ingenious plan in Phoenix, passing out gifts to his East teammates, slowly making his way around the room and eating up a good 15 of the scheduled 30-minute session), Roy can still crack a smile, take a breath and enjoy this. After traversing the parasite-filled high school circuit, four years of big-time college ball, and three years in the NBA where he’s been met with big expectations and franchise-player responsibilities from Day One, he’s still having a good time.

“It never gets old,” Roy says. “Growing up watching All-Star Games and all those great players — Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, John Stockton, all the guys I watched — I would say I’d love to just make it to the NBA. To be an All-Star, it’s been unbelievable.”

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Brandon Roy spent last summer working out at a gym in Seattle. It’s been his regular routine. Sometimes, as early as the day after his season ends, he goes back up Interstate-5 to Seattle and gets with Garfield and UW teammate Will Conroy (a point guard with the D-League’s Albuquerque Thunderbirds) and childhood friend Jamal Crawford, and the three embark on a summer-long reign of terror on the Emerald City’s playground circuit, in between honing their pro games at local health clubs.

Roy tells the story: “I was working out this summer at this gym. I worked out every day for three months, and it was the last day I was working out. A guy came up to me and was like, ‘I know this might be crazy, but I worked out with you for three months, and I never would have guessed you were anybody special. I heard people talking about you and I went home and asked my son and he went crazy. Like, You worked out with Brandon Roy for three months and you didn’t even know? You never once let off you were better than anybody in the gym.’

“That made me feel good, because that’s what I like; to go places and be a good person, not this star,” Roy says. “Here we are working out together and talking, me and this guy, and not once did I come off as an NBA player to him. That made me feel good, made me feel like I’m being a good person first and an NBA player next. I want you to meet me and say, ‘Man, he’s a good person.’ And I don’t want that to be associated with the NBA – I want to be my own man. I want people to say, ‘He’s a good dad,’ ‘He’s a good role model.’ I don’t want a person to say, ‘He’s an athlete, huh?’ I want them to be like, ‘Do you play ball?'”

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