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Brandon Roy, Damian Lillard, Achilles and the Paths of Glory

Photo by Prabhu B Doss on Flickr

Photo by Prabhu B Doss on Flickr

All anyone remembers about Achilles is how he died, which is kind of messed up given how he lived, tossing sturdy souls down to the House of Death. In The Iliad he’s the badass commander of the Myrmidons, themselves the biggest badasses of the Achaean army. He gives Hector — the greatest warrior in Troy — the ever-loving business, sending a spear through his neck and then lashing Hector’s body to his chariot and dragging it around like Brandon Knight after DeAndre Jordan rearranged his molecular structure.

Sure, he was also a moody sonofabitch, refusing to fight and sowing locker room discord by making burnt offerings to the gods to turn the tide of the Trojan War against his own team, the Greeks. But when he was on? He nearly had to kill the river god Scamander because he was pissed that Achilles was clogging his river with too many bodies. But all this — the rage, the tempestuous feud with Agamemnon, his furious battle with Hector — falls away because what we usually associate with Achilles is how he got shot in the heel by that wet towel Paris — possibly the douchiest prince in literature until Joffrey Baratheon.

And now, that’s kind of the way we remember Brandon Roy.

Before his too-early exit from the Blazers, before his sadly truncated attempt at returning for the Timberwolves, Roy was the guy who beat the Rockets back in 2008 with not one but two clutch shots in overtime.

And what god drove him to fight with such a fury when he led the Blazers to their greatest-ever fourth quarter comeback against the Mavericks in the 2011 playoffs?

Of course, by 2011 Roy had already taken several arrows in the knee, which made that performance all the more epic. It clearly had an effect on players like Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge, who were quick to liken Damian Lillard to Roy after Lillard’s 3-pointer with 0.9 seconds remaining pushed the Blazers into the second round this year.

But just as quickly as the cheers rose for Lillard after he buried that three came a chorus of doom-laden prophesying from Blazers fans in response to Batum and Aldridge: “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!?” “Goodbye knees …” “Hopefully not… We want him to stick around a little longer.”

This represents a fundamental disconnect between players and fans, two notoriously superstitious groups of people. It’s almost a job requirement that players have short, fuzzy memories for failure, especially when it comes to injury. If you spend some time in NBA locker rooms you’ll hear players continually brush off concerns about what’s hurt. On one level, this is simply about PR — players are no doubt coached to say as little as possible about injuries. But there’s also a level at which it’s internalized: continual conscious reinforcement (“spoke it into existence” is one of Kevin Love’s odd, recurring ways to put it) is meant to ingrain a subconscious disregard for limitations.

When Batum and Aldridge compare Lillard to Roy, they do so because they’ve blinded themselves to the frailty of the body, because what they see in Lillard is that same manifestation of pure will that Roy could summon. Players who put too much faith in the power of the body as a mechanical thing are setting themselves up for disappointment — it’s at least part of the reason they often downplay physical advantages when talking about matchups. It’s part of why they lean so heavily on clichés about “who wants it more,” about “focus” and “playing hard” and “coming through in the clutch.”

That trite sportstalk is its own kind of armor, passed down from Roy to Lillard, a player that Blazers’ fans hope is more like Odysseus, who won the honor of inheriting Achilles’ armor after Achilles’ death. Following the glory that capped the Blazers’ victory in the first round, Lillard has looked lost facing the Spurs. Against the Rockets, he shot 48.9% from 3-point range; against the Spurs, just 14.3%. The difference between his offensive and defensive ratings (points scored and allowed per 100 possessions) has gone from a +5.8 to a -20.3. It’s not injury that’s doing it, nothing so dire as what fans feared he had been cursed with by Batum and Aldridge. It’s just the Spurs, the NBA equivalent of Scylla, Charybdis, Polyphemus, Circe and the Laestrygonians all rolled into one. Armor of Achilles or no, Lillard’s not getting back to Troy any time soon.

But players don’t fall into neat little narrative boxes so easily as heroes of myth, not least because they’re actual people. Mythological heroes like Odysseus, Achilles and Hector have fates. They’re guided this way and that by the hands of fickle gods. Fans, the media, even other players want to write these stories into legends of triumph and redemption, as if they’re preordained. On one side are fans, wary of curses and witchcraft, all too familiar with how deceptively vulnerable a champion’s body can be. On the other are the players, plowing forward time and again, willing away their vulnerabilities. The games lie somewhere in between, with results dictated by flesh and bone bent on becoming something more.

Steve McPherson

Steve McPherson is an editor for Hardwood Paroxysm and his writing has appeared at Grantland, Rolling Stone, A Wolf Among Wolves, The Cauldron, TrueHoop, Complex, Narratively, Polygon and elsewhere. His Twitter handle is @steventurous.

  • lw_or

    This. This is writing.