Trading a player a year too early rather than a year too late makes sense if you’re Branch Rickey, the fabled Brooklyn Dodgers general manager to whom that quote is attributed, or any of the other flesh peddlers who build and rebuild professional sports teams.
But quitting a year too early, or “retiring” or exiting or however else one wants to put it? That might be the wrong way to go. Or, to be precise, the wrong time to go.
It’s a scenario we see played out time and again in the NBA. The great Michael Jordan made like Ali or Sinatra, assuring himself of multiple retirements through repeated comebacks. The not-quite-as-great Rasheed Wallace is back now with the New York Knicks after two idle years, not only playing better but seemingly enjoying it more (18.7 ppg, 11.0 rpg per 36 minutes this season compared to 14.9, 7.7 over his “final” seven seasons from 2003-2010).
Then there’s Brandon Roy, who sounds a lot more ready to limp away from the game now than he was a year ago, when his bone-on-bone knees were arguing against his disbelief, his ego and fears he had not yet faced.
Roy ought to be making a
triumphant successful active return to Portland’s Rose Garden Friday night but, as so often has been the case through his six NBA seasons and the basketball adventures that preceded them, he’ll instead be recovering from knee surgery. The Minnesota Timberwolves’ shooting guard, who has played all but five of his 326 NBA games so far for the Trail Blazers, underwent the seventh such procedure since he was a junior in high school.
This one, they said, was to clean out debris in his right knee and thus carried a whiff of encouragement, considering how the talk about Roy’s degenerating knees usually focuses on how little soft tissue – debris or otherwise – is left in them. He figures to be sidelined for a month or more before he tries again to resume his interrupted and possibly torpedoed career.
In anticipation of Roy’s return to Portland, the Oregonian had reporter Jason Quick stop in Minneapolis for a glimpse at the player’s comeback attempt. What he got instead was more of a snapshot of Roy’s basketball mortality, which came back into focus two weeks ago but has been in play for a year, ever since he made his initial decision to retire on the eve of the hectic, post-lockout season last December. Writes Quick:
He knew there were risks — long term, life-altering risks — when he embarked on this comeback.
Not just one doctor, but multiple doctors have told Roy that he should stop playing basketball. His knees are getting worse by the day. By now, at 28, he has had so many surgeries, so many treatments and seen so many doctors, he sounds like a specialist. He explains that he has degenerative arthritis, which erodes and eventually eliminates cartilage, with the same precision and ease that came to define his run of three consecutive All-Star appearances. And with the calm that made him one of the game’s best finishers, he explains that his knees have reached Level III arthritis. There are only four stages.
“Level IV,” Roy says fearlessly, “is when you get a knee replacement.”
So why do this? He doesn’t need the money. He doesn’t want the attention. He doesn’t need the validation. Why risk his long-term health? Why endure the pain?
Roy talks in the story about values such as not quitting when faced with a formidable challenge (how could he explain that to his kids), and of testing himself to see if he could handle being merely ordinary on a basketball court. But by the end, it’s way more than that.
Going out when he did and staying gone would have been way more on him, a 27 year old’s decision that might gnaw at him across a life not even one-third lived. Going out the next time – whether that comes later this season in a failed bid to reliably help Minnesota or sometime thereafter from more modest, non-All-Star heights – will be on someone (doctors) or something (his knees) else.
“I wouldn’t be disappointed either way,” Roy said. “If it ends in three weeks, it ends. It’s over. I’m totally satisfied with what I’ve done. I know the sacrifice and the effort that I put into coming back. … I’ve had an unbelievable run.”
Most important, it won’t have been ended by his own hand; better to have that forced on him by his knees. That might snuff any lingering what-if’s and liberate Roy to seize whatever it is he targets next.