It’s Not So Easy

The circumstances and implications of Greg Oden’s nightmarish weekend are certainly ‘news,’ but to convey these happenings with the cold, clinical approach of an AP-style report is downright cruel. This is a tragedy in the truest sense, and though the final acts have yet to be written, it’s difficult to shake the overwhelming feeling that things are bound to get even worse before they get better.

I want to make one thing abundantly clear, and it’s a shame that this really needs to be reiterated: Greg Oden is not Sam Bowie. He is not Bill Walton. And at the same time, he is not Bill Russell, or Dikembe Mutombo, just as he’s not Shaquille O’Neal or Dwight Howard. Greg Oden is Greg Oden, and though that may not always be a beautiful thing on a basketball court, it’s an effective one.

It’s both simple and convenient to toss around Oden’s name with the NBA poster children for frequent injury. But sometimes NBA players avoid such convenient classification, and to me Oden is such a player. Kelly Dwyer nailed that point home with a magazine full of bullets at the beginning of last season, and another injury to Oden’s medical record doesn’t radically change what should be obvious: the man has had his fair share of injuries and he’s had some terrible luck. He’s had surgery on one knee, a kneecap problem in the other, a broken wrist, and a few sprains and twists. Hardly a clean bill of health, but there’s still a dramatic difference between Oden and those whose careers have been destroyed by new incisions on old scar tissue.

And because Greg Oden is Greg Oden (and no one else), his fractured patella is not just a line on a Wikipedia page or a quip in a blog post. This is a night that will forever change Oden’s career. And not only because a recovery from knee surgery could leave Greg a step slower or a bit less confident in his own skin, but because any injury-prone label he once had is now tattooed to his forehead. Fans, players, coaches, GMs, front office officials, talking heads, barbers, lawyers, trainers, beat reporters, and newborn babies will be active participants in creating and reinforcing a new aspect of our basketball consciousness: the notion that Greg Oden is a tremendous bust, and is destined to face injury for the rest of his career. It’s hardly a fair assessment to make about a 21 year-old, but if we as a society can’t understand sports in an easily digestible capsule of generalization and hyperbole, we can’t understand it at all.

So Oden will be left to walk alone, surrounded by a cloud of doubt, while the same fans that doubt his talent and durability openly praise DeJuan Blair. The man with no ACLs managed to slip through the cracks on draft day, and though the hype has been fully eclipsed by Jennings and ‘Reke fever, Blair is still considered a prize of the 2009 draft class. As a second rounder, it’s impossible to dispute Blair’s value. But while Oden is mocked for his inability to stay on the floor, Blair is beloved for fighting to ‘prove the scouts wrong,’ even if the balls of styrofoam in his knees act as a ticking time bomb for his career. I completely agree that taking Blair was not only a calculated risk, but a brilliant choice. But I also add the caveat that Blair is nowhere near the player Oden is. In this case perception is everything, and Oden’s significantly higher draft position distorts our ability to project expectations.

Here, again, is where that infamous Blazer of old comes into play. As Kevin Durant’s star rises with each day and each silky jumper, the Oden-Bowie comparisons will only spread. But Sam Bowie is essentially a myth, a creature who once roamed the Earth with promise, only to fall victim to a supernatural snake in the proverbial grass. I do think there was a legitimate school of thought that considered Michael Jordan to be a great in the making, but to claim that anyone within the Bulls organization had a firm grasp on what MJ was or what he would become is poppycock.

As Jordan bound up the league hierarchy, it’s understandable that those of Blazer Nation would have felt some anxiety over Bowie’s injuries. Those injuries precluded him from absolving himself and the organization of a draft day ‘blunder,’ even if the casual fan expects perfect science from the art of the NBA draft. No one ever said that picking superstars out of a lineup would be easy, and to turn Bowie into a punchline over medical history is ridiculous. The year was 1984, Bowie was a talented center out of a big-time college program, and he figured to be a franchise cornerstone (alongside Drexler) for years to come.

We all know how the story unfolds, and even though Bowie’s injury history and the greatness of that ’84 draft class have radically changed how we evaluate Portland’s choice, it’s not always about getting the best player possible or unearthing the prize of the draft. The managers who consistently succeed in the NBA draft are those who look to pick for value, not necessarily the highest value; while you’d like to end up with the best player in the draft or the best player available, it’s much more important that you come out of the draft with something, with a player able to contribute to your team (or at least act as trade bait) in a meaningful way. Bowie may not have been Jordan or Barkley or Stockton, but who’s to say he wouldn’t have been an impressive player in his own right if given a full head of steam and a reasonable shot at establishing his young career? And even if Oden never gets the best of Durant, isn’t it enough for G.O. to develop into a high-quality starting center and a bonafide defensive presence?

I know that there are few topics beaten to death more thoroughly or more frequently than the selection of Sam Bowie, but the fact that his name and Oden’s are inextricably linked really irks me. That’s nothing against Bowie, who ended up with a decent career, and it’s not meant to elevate Oden, who still has plenty to prove. A few basic similarities just aren’t enough to equate the two. And though I’ve been discussing the two in comparable terms, there’s a glaring difference between the Bowie narrative and the Oden one: one of them isn’t over. Not even close. While it’d be nice to see Oden further along at 21, every misstep is not an apocalypse. Every ankle sprain or knee injury should not have anyone fearing the end of days. There’s nothing but time for The Big Chill to get his career back on track. The clouds look dark today, but a in a year? When Oden is still just 22? And still a seven footer? And still one of the best offensive rebounders in the league, a shot-blocking force, and an emerging post threat? Maybe we’ll hear a different tune. 2010-2011 seems like a world away for those who look at each game under a microscope, and I’m sure that every second of it will be painful for Oden. But when all is said and done, this is just a row on the back of a basketball card.

This all means a hell of a lot to Oden and a hell of a lot to the Blazers, as it should. But happily-never-after declarations on Oden’s career are as ridiculous and lazy as they sound. We’re not even to the meat of Oden’s narrative, so why would it make sense to write his career synopsis? I’m not saying that Greg Oden will be anyone but Greg Oden, but here’s the thing: even after everything that’s happened, even after this latest injury, that may be enough.

Seth Carstens