December 19th, 2004. I will never forget that day. I spent most of it outside, huddled under an awning extending forth from Hec Edmundson Pavilion. I was a student then, content to loiter for hours on end for a good seat at Husky basketball games.
The Huskies played North Carolina State that day. It was a Sunday. A 5:00 p.m. tip-off on the West Coast.
Just one year prior, the Dawgs had been on no one’s radar. They had been in the midst of a four-year stretch of futility that spanned two coaching regimes. But then they kicked off the 2004 calendar year by winning ballgames. And lo and behold, they returned to relevance by making the ’04 NCAA Tournament. Now here we were, nine months later, and Washington was in the early stages of their 2004-2005 season, ranked 18th in the nation, playing a meaningful game against a nationally-ranked opponent.
The Wolfpack marched into Seattle ranked 12th in the country. They brought an undefeated 8-0 record with them to Bank of America Arena. They were led by six-foot-seven-inch shooting guard Julius Hodge, the very same Julius Hodge who would be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft the following June. Long and lanky, Hodge was a matchup nightmare at the college level. He was too athletic to be guarded by forwards, too tall to be picked up by guards. It would take a special player to shut him down.
The Huskies had that special player who could guard Hodge, but he was injured. It had been three weeks since Brandon Roy had undergone arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. A six-foot-six-inch shooting guard, he had torn his meniscus and was slated to miss between four and six weeks of action. There was no way he could return after three weeks. Three weeks was incredibly ambitious. Even the best players at the highest level of the game didn’t return that quickly from that type of injury. But there had been rumors buzzing that Roy might try to play tonight, anyway. That the junior would give it a go for the sake of his team. That he was determined to show up against this marquee opponent, on the prime time stage, in spite of any physical limitations that may have been holding him back.
At 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time the doors to the arena were opened and fans were let inside. We walked to our seats and saw him, in his warmup gear, shooting around with his teammates. The buzz grew. Brandon Roy was suited up. Just seeing him in something other than street clothes had everyone stirring with excitement. This was our guy. And he was going to give it a try, bad knee and all.
The contest got underway an hour later. The Huskies won the tip and controlled the opening possession. A shot went up and was immediately blocked by N.C. State’s Hodge. His impact was already being felt.
Back and forth the scoring went. Neither team could grab a lead of greater than four points. Neither team was relinquishing on defense. Neither team could find its groove on offense. Then, late in the first half, it happened. Head coach Lorenzo Romar walked down his bench and tabbed his star. Roy stood up and took off his shooting shirt. He walked to the scorer’s table with a brace on his right knee. The noise level grew. Play stopped. The horn sounded. And from the sidelines, in walked No. 3.
The game was sold out that day. Ten-thousand people filled that building and not one was sitting down as Brandon Roy’s name was announced. It was, quite possibly, the most heralded substitution in Husky basketball history.
He jogged down court, gingerly at first. He caught the ball and passed it. He hesitated. He wasn’t one-hundred-percent. It was evident. He grabbed a rebound and the crowd roared. The clock ticked down to halftime. His return, for the moment, was interrupted.
In the second half, the Huskies reemerged with Roy on the bench once again. This time, however, he checked backed in before five minutes had elapsed. And this time, he refused to be contained.
He sprinted up and down court. He recorded a steal. His passes were crisp. He manned up on Hodge, keeping the star from imposing his will on the offensive end of the floor. He would hold the future first-round pick to 15 points on the night, his worst performance of the fledgling season.
He took shots. He made them. He didn’t miss. Not once. He would finish with 10 points on 5-for-5 shooting. His final basket was undoubtedly the biggest. With 2:36 remaining in the game and the Huskies clinging to a three-point lead, senior Tre Simmons, Roy’s high school teammate, put up a jumper that rattled out. Knifing through traffic, Roy emerged from a crowd of would-be rebounders, reached up with his left hand, grabbed the errant shot, and slammed it through the hoop. The audience erupted. The brace on his right knee could not limit him. Brandon Roy had returned.
Two minutes and thirty seconds later, with Washington up by two points, Julius Hodge put up one final attempt to tie the ballgame and send the action to overtime. Brandon Roy blocked the attempt. Simmons corralled the loose ball and was fouled by Hodge. He knocked down two free throws. Game over. The Huskies won by a count of 68-64.
After the contest, Roy talked about his return. “I was nervous before going in,” he admitted, “and then the coaches talked me into going in. I love our fans and there is no better feeling than walking on the floor and hearing those fans cheering for you. They let me know they loved me as much as I love them.”
He would go on to finish a stellar four-year career at the University of Washington. He helped take the Huskies to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances. He was named the 2006 Pac-10 Player of the Year as a senior. He would be selected sixth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves — before immediately being traded to the Portland Trail Blazers — in the first round of the ’06 NBA Draft. He would become the 2007 NBA Rookie of the Year. He would be sent to three NBA All-Star Games. He was chosen Second Team All-NBA in 2009 and Third Team All-NBA in 2010. He played five NBA seasons. He was bestowed seven different awards in that span.
His No. 3 jersey was retired by the University of Washington on January 22, 2009, not three years after he had played his last game as a Husky. He was only the second player to have his jersey retired by the program, joining Bob Houbregs in receiving the honor.
He was arguably the greatest basketball player in UW history. He became a fan favorite in Portland, where he played the entirety of his pro career. He was respected by rival fans as often as he was hometown fans.
He may not receive another playing contract. He may not earn more endorsement deals, or be on television, or shoot baskets in front of tens of thousands of people any longer. But what he does have, one cannot put a price on.
As children, we view athletes as our heroes. Every kid who grows up watching sports has a hero. Rarely, however, do we enter adulthood and find heroes in our contemporaries. Brandon Roy was the rare exception. In college, he was our hero. He was our classmate, yet he was who we idolized. He was who we wanted to be, who we wanted to associate ourselves with, who represented our school and our team the way we all wanted to represent it. For those who call themselves Washington Huskies, Roy is more than just a fellow Dawg. He is a legend in every sense of the word.
Beyond the affiliation with his school, he is an ambassador for our municipality. He has something invaluable, something every public figure strives to attain. In no other city in the world will an athlete be revered and respected the way Brandon Roy is in Seattle. He will be talked about for years. Children who will never see him play a game will hear about him, will learn about him, and will understand that this was the player you measured yourself against if you called this area home.
He will be forced into retirement far too soon. It’s not fair. But he will never be forgotten. Brandon Roy leaves behind a legacy that cannot be measured in statistics, dollars, or hours. I’ve never enjoyed writing about anyone as much as I enjoy writing about him.
This is our hero. This is his legacy.