Last Wednesday, on a categorically miserable November night in Portland, the Blazers called an impromptu press conference. The news wasn’t good: Greg Oden would have to undergo season-ending microfracture surgery on his left knee – the same knee that coincidentally caused him to miss 52 games last season after fracturing his patella on a seemingly innocuous play during an early December game against the Houston Rockets. Though the recent injury is unrelated to the broken kneecap, the fact remains that the former number one draft pick will have to spend yet another season in purgatory before he can even think about returning to the court.
But there may be further implications: Greg Oden’s days in Portland might very well be numbered. Before the season, the team understandably decided against extending Oden’s rookie contract, giving him the dubious distinction of being the first number one pick since Kwame Brown not to be offered such an extension. Now, Oden’s future in Portland has never been more uncertain. With the mid-season acquisition of Marcus Camby last spring, the recent signing of Sean Marks, and the pending return of Joel Przybilla, the Blazers are poised to move forward with or without Oden.
That’s not to say that Oden doesn’t have the organization’s support, for the time being. During the press conference last week, both Nate McMillan and athletic trainer Jay Jensen were crestfallen while discussing the big man’s plight. Jensen, who had been working one-on-one with Oden during the offseason preparing him for his ultimately ill-fated return, said it was like “a death in the family.” McMillan added that Oden was “devastated” by the news. But perhaps the most curious comment came when Jensen was asked about the prospect of Oden returning to the team next season, to which he replied: “I believe in Greg Oden.” Coupled with the recent sidelining of Brandon Roy for an ongoing and mysteriously undiagnosed knee problem, questions have subsequently begun to arise about the competence of the Blazers’ athletic trainers, but both McMillan and team president Larry Miller are standing behind Jensen and the other trainers. Right now, everyone is saying all the right things.
In any case, throughout these multiple ordeals, the sports world has been less than kind to Oden, to say the least. He’s suffered the endless comparisons to Sam Bowie, who the Blazers famously picked ahead of Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft, and is being prematurely referred to as the “biggest draft bust in history.” Naturally, the injuries combined with the relentless scrutiny have taken a psychological toll. Teammates and coaches on a number of occasions have commented on his depressive tendencies, his self-criticism, his guilt for letting down his fans, his teammates, and his organization.
Nevertheless, a certain segment of fans and commentators alike, indulging their own cynicism and pettiness, are unwilling to offer any compassion for Oden, using the rationale that since he happens to make more money than they do, he doesn’t deserve their sympathy. Let’s set aside for a moment the time-honored existential quandary of whether money equates to happiness or personal fulfillment, and talk more about the simple fact that Oden is dealing with a physical injury that carries tangible implications on one’s normal, everyday activities, like being able to walk, for example, let alone the ability to play basketball. Following microfracture surgery, he’s facing a minimum of six weeks on crutches, followed by another six months of physical therapy. Anyone who’s broken a foot, blown out a knee, pulled a hamstring, ruptured their Achilles, had hip replacement surgery, or even suffered a severe ankle sprain knows how frustrating and demoralizing it is to be unable to walk like a normal person for even a brief amount of time.
My other favorite argument is “So what? He plays basketball for a living.” Whether the implication here is that basketball players don’t work hard or that being a professional athlete doesn’t carry any intrinsic cultural or societal value, consider the fact that since 2005, the NBA Cares initiative has raised more than $100 million and donated more than 950,000 volunteer hours for national and global charities and community outreach programs, and that figure doesn’t even scratch the surface when you begin to factor in the individual contributions and volunteer hours that players donate to their own preferred charities on an annual basis. Oden himself has helped organize a community outreach initiative aimed at providing mentors for 40,000 at-risk youth in communities across the state of Oregon. I personally cannot remember the last time I did something positive in my community. Can you?
Still, Oden’s professional career is a story of arrested development. The good news is that he’s only 22 years old and that plenty of other players have recovered from microfracture surgery and eventually regained their agility, athleticism, and explosiveness (Amare Stoudemire comes to mind), which are Oden’s biggest assets aside from his astounding stature, being that the hasn’t had the opportunity to develop the nuanced repertoire of low-post skills necessary to reach elite status.
The bottom line is that Greg Oden can still have a career in the NBA. Whether that career happens in Portland remains to be seen. Regardless, Oden deserves our ongoing support as Blazers fans because, ultimately, we all want the same things: we want him to be healthy, we want him to be a contributing member of this team, we want to watch him realize his potential, we want him to be able to simply play basketball. It would be a different story if he was lazy, dispassionate, a troublemaker, if he was only in it for the money. What we have instead, by all accounts, is a hardworking, good-natured individual who has been struck by the cosmic forces of the universe. You can hardly blame a guy for that.