The Portland Trail Blazers general manager had sent Brandon Roy to the sound stage in Secaucus, N.J., to be the face of the franchise on that improbable draft night a year and a half ago. Roy was the fresh-faced kid sitting on the podium with Jerry West and Larry Bird. He had such a precocious poise and presence. He was the natural. The NBA’s rookie of the year was the smoothest, surest soul in the room.
The ping-pong balls bounced the Blazers' way, the room gasped and everyone had to confess to thinking that, well, Portland belongs to Greg Oden now.
“I can’t believe that Greg Oden has a chance to be my teammate,” Roy would say a few minutes later. There was no suggestion that he had lost something that night. Not stature, not standing. Nothing. He was so secure in himself, so hopefully wrapped in the hype of Oden. Roy had rapidly become the most popular player in Portland in years, but everyone was sure that the true savior would come with the franchise center of a generation.
"We have a chance to start putting together a championship contender,” Roy said.
Two seasons later, the Blazers are slowly, surely constructing that championship contender, but make no mistake they’ll do it around Brandon Roy.
When a lot of America was going to bed on Thursday night, Roy delivered the performance of his life at the Rose Garden. He dropped 52 points on the Suns in a 124-119 victory. “This was the best game of my career,” Roy said. It happened to be the best performance in the NBA this season, too.
Something’s happened with Roy. Something’s clicked. Across the past five games, he’s gone for 34.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and five assists. There’s no stopping him now. Before everyone’s eyes, Roy is making that leap from a terrific young player into an established star. The night had started with Oden and Shaq on the marquee, but ended with the unmistakable truth that the Blazers’ franchise player is Roy.
There’s something so accessible about his talent. The best players at his shooting guard position – Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade – play a game that mere mortals are unfamiliar. Yet there’s something so subtlety genius about Roy’s game. He isn’t fast. He doesn’t jump at all. He isn’t the best shooter. There are tougher defenders.
All alone, his talents are fine.
All together, they’re extraordinary.
“I’m not great at any one thing, but I do all things equally well,” Roy said. “That's always been my goal as a player.”
Whatever Oden becomes for the Blazers, he’ll never be the leader. He’ll never be the soul of these Blazers. Yes, everyone understood that it would take time for Oden. He blew out his knee a year ago, lost a full season and Portland had patience.
Only, no one knew that he would return so moody, so withdrawn. Where did the class clown go? It’s been unsettling for Portland. Oden has spent too much time feeling sorry for himself. GM Kevin Pritchard has come close to trading for Oden’s childhood buddy, Memphis point guard Mike Conley, because he’s always been able to snap Oden out of his funks. Truth be told, Oden should be embarrassed that his bosses even considered it. Everyone knew his body was fragile, but his spirit too?
No one has ever needed to babysit Brandon Roy. In 2006, he walked into a cesspool and willed it back to respectability. This year, he’ll get the Blazers to the playoffs. “He is a great provider on our team,” Pritchard once told me. “He makes sure everybody is taken care of and then he worries about himself second.”
All the way back to that May evening in 2007, when the Rookie of the Year stepped onto a Secaucus stage and brought back the No. 1 pick, Brandon Roy never lost sight of the truth. Maybe Oden, the glum center, will become a ferocious force for the Blazers, but the most improbable truth of that draft lottery turned out to be this: Before those ping-pong balls ever bounced Portland’s way, the Blazers already had themselves a franchise player.