Greg Oden: Basketball Tragedy

Tragedies happen in basketball that transcend the sport.

I’m not talking about the passing of Maurice Lucas or Hank Gathers collapsing on the court or Len Bias overdosing on cocaine.

Those aren’t basketball tragedies. They’re real life tragedies that happen to be related to basketball in some way. While it was cruel for Reggie Lewis to be taken away from us at an early age or for Bobby Phills to have died while racing his car or for Malik Sealy to have been killed by a drunk driver, they have very little to do with tragedies in basketball and everything to do with life just not going the way you thought it should.

However, horrific and career-altering injuries are true basketball tragedies. When Shaun Livingston’s knee has an out of body experience or Danny Manning just can’t seem to All The King’s Men his health back together again in order to be the league-changing talent he’s supposed to be, those are real basketball tragedies. And the rancor of basketball tragedies has once again befallen its favorite victim – Greg Oden.

Microfracture surgery again for Greg Oden.

Those words mean so much pain and suffering in the relative basketball sense. Yes, there has been pain and suffering in basketball past. The Kings getting bested by the Los Angeles Lakers was extremely frustrating for Kings fans. John Stockton and Karl Malone getting out-legacy’d by Michael Jordan in back-to-back NBA Finals was its own form of suffering. Kevin Garnett not being able to take overmatched team after overmatched team out of the first round was a crappy basketball experience for eight years.

But there is a huge difference in what happened in those situations and what is happening with Greg Oden and Portland Trailblazers fans. Those chances for greatness or legend or some type of validation were thwarted time after time over the past decade and a half. Hopes rose up into the air and then got smashed back down by the hammer of shoulda-woulda-coulda. Greg Oden, on the other hand, never got a chance to get off the ground.

He’s been a punch line for years now. It’s been customary and downright cliché to make fun of his age by throwing out the name Benjamin Button, or make a veiled/blatant comparison to the ghost of Sam Bowie’s past, or talk about the time it appeared he was doing telemarketing through text message while trying to push this product (NSFW). After this latest blow to the start of his career, I find it hard to believe any decent person could find any humor or lighthearted nature to his latest setback.

Greg Oden is going to miss this entire season. It will be his second entire season in four years that he misses. And just to be realistic, let’s assume he’s not going to be around for the 2011-2012 NBA season because he’ll be rehabbing and taking another cautious approach to coming back at full strength. That just sucks.

When I was gathering my thoughts for trying to bring myself to write this piece, I just kept getting more and more depressed about what is supposed to be of his career. John Krolik and I briefly GChatted about this Wednesday night and remembered that Dwight Howard was supposed to bridge the gap from the last great center, Shaquille O’Neal, until Greg Oden was ready to take over. THAT’S supposed to be Greg’s legacy. He was the next big thing.

So many of us were so sure about it too. Greg had all of the makings of the stuff legends were sculpted from. He had an impossibly big frame that moved amongst the trees like the Predator big game hunting California’s future gubernatorial punch line. He was the protective device behind the emergency glass you were supposed to break on defense if someone dared to approach the basket. Now, he’s getting unfunny Mr. Glass references thrown his way. Nobody should ever be subjected to M. Night Shyamalan movie references.

This hits a sore spot with me because I’ve been waiting with bated breath for the birth of the next great big man. That big man was supposed to be Greg Oden. Like many Blazers fans, I’ve been sitting here in the refuse of injury after injury with him, just anticipating the day when he was going to prove us all right and take his place amongst the dominating forces in the NBA. I attempted to wax poetically about him a long time ago and try to make the case (poorly I might add) that either I was a freaking genius about what he would become or just plain insane. Turns out I was naïve and insane.

What’s that old joke? How do you keep an idiot in suspense? The punch line used to be that you just waited in silence after stating the question and the person waiting for the answer that was strategically not going to come was the idiot. Now the answer is to get that person to believe Greg Oden can still be something someday and watch as I take spoonful after spoonful of this pipe dream.

You can make the case that if you give up on Greg Oden then you might as well give up on Andrew Bynum because he too is injured and unaware of when a comeback might happen. He too is sitting on a volcano of untapped potential and leaving us all wondering when it’s finally going to erupt. So if you’re going to write off one 22-year old wannabe phenom in Oden, shouldn’t you write off the other 22-year old phenom center who is battling knee ailment after knee ailment?

But Bynum isn’t exactly there with Oden right now. He’s not out for another two seasons. He’s in knee injury purgatory while Greg has been shipped right back down to patella hell.

When I was gathering my thoughts for this piece earlier like I mentioned above, I decided to go for a run and throw on the music in my iPhone. I didn’t care that it was nearly midnight. I strapped on my knee band, put a brace over my ankle, threw on a hoodie and took off for a little 40-block excursion. I decided to push myself a bit, despite not stretching at all, because I wanted to feel like I was working. Maybe in a way I was trying to empathize with what Greg was going to go through AGAIN. There’s no doubt in my mind Greg Oden will have the surgery, get back in the rehab process and try again. He’ll work his tail off one more time, and try to get back to a position in which he can be a functioning member of the NBA society.

Where will that leave him? What’s the best-case scenario for Greg, his psyche and his potential for making something out of his career? He works his ass off, gets the benefit of a lockout shortening next season so it doesn’t seem like he missed so much time? The NBA resorts to another 50-game season and by the time the next full regular season is upon us in the fall of 2012, he is back with a tryout as a free agent somewhere? Doesn’t that just suck?

When I was running through darkness and the light fog tonight, attempting to make sense of such a cruel joke being played on one of the kinder, gentler giants of my generation, I threw on some Biggie Smalls to try to get my head in the right frame of mind. Somehow, I accidentally hit the “Genius” button on my phone and it created a playlist of allegedly related songs. Randomly, “Many Men” by 50 Cent came on as I hit my full stride. This part of the first verse stuck out for me:

“Now these p**** n***** putting money on my head
Go on and get your refund motherf*****, I ain’t dead
I’m the diamond in the dirt, that ain’t been found
I’m the underground king and I ain’t been crowned”

Doesn’t that kind of sum up Greg Oden completely right now? It feels like the basketball Grim Reaper has put a contract out on him. But he’s still not dead. At least, I’m hoping he’s not. In my mind, he’s always been this diamond in the dirt since the knee injuries started to pile up and I claimed I had found him last year. Except he still hasn’t been found. In my mind, he was always the underground king, waiting to sit atop his big man throne, but he hasn’t been capable of taking his crown yet.

Greg Oden has become the answer to a trivia question, instead of the answer to Portland’s prayers. It turns out I was dead wrong about him. Maybe he is good when he’s healthy, but that idea/argument has been vaporized. It doesn’t matter what he’s done when he was healthy because health isn’t a luxury you get when describing the situation of Greg Oden. I’ll still hold out hope that he can come back and matter in the NBA because I’m just stubborn like that.

It’s not about not wanting to be wrong. I am/was wrong about Greg Oden. A lot of us were.

It’s about holding out hope that at some point this guy can catch a freaking break. That Blazers fans can finally enjoy watching this guy game after game. That the NBA die-hards can rejoice in watching him master the art of protection.

Some guys never get that break though.

Some guys are just destined to be basketball tragedies.

Get well, Greg.

Seth Carstens