Talking About Talking About Greg Oden

In 2012, Greg Oden’s very existence is a myth. It’s damn near impossible to speak about him in tangible, quantifiable basketball terms, because his time as a real-world professional basketball player was so fleeting that it feels like a dream. There was a seven-foot force of nature who played parts of two seasons for the Portland Trail Blazers in 2008 and 2009, but those 82 scattered games don’t seem real. Oden has been a hypothetical for so long that it’s hard to analyze or break down his on-court résumé in any meaningful way. And as of today, when his third microfracture surgery in five seasons was announced unexpectedly, it looks like it will stay that way. It’s hard to be surprised by the news, because it was something of a given that Oden wasn’t playing this season. But there’s a clear finality about this announcement, an unspoken acknowledgment by the Portland brass that this was how it would end. Bringing him back for this season was itself understood to be a trial run, especially after he willingly let his qualifying offer be negotiated down to $1.5 million from the original $8.9. Now it’s almost impossible to foresee him staying a Blazer, no matter how well his next round of rehab goes.

When I heard the news, I hammered out a post that was more or less what you’d expect. I hit on all the usual talking points: how much it sucks that this keeps happening; how hard Oden has worked to get back on the floor, only to be told “no” by the basketball gods time and time again; how the vast majority of teams in the NBA would have taken him over Kevin Durant with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft. I put together an extremely impassioned defense of a player who has played one season’s worth of games in five years and was drafted directly ahead of a consensus top-five all-NBA player. Teams make draft picks all the time that don’t pan out, and it’s usually easy to look back and admit. So why do I and so many other Blazers faithful make it our life’s mission to defend Oden? That’s what Matt asked me when he read what I had, and it may be the most valuable thing still to explore within the Oden experience.

There’s no karma involved here—Oden’s hard work and genuine desire to silence skeptics are rewarded time and time again with a kick in the teeth, or more accurately, the knees. He’s had enough bad luck in a pair of limbs to sustain another team’s decades-long curse. Nothing he does is good enough for the basketball gods, who have banished him to the worst kind of hell an NBA player can experience. He’s 24 years old, and his career has already been reduced to the giant what-if that is the Roy-Aldridge-Oden dynasty that never was.

This is the part where I remind you that the repeated injuries are mostly out of his control, in order to distinguish him from the type of draft bust who doesn’t want it enough. You have to remember that the Blazers spent the better part of the 2000s making a mockery of the city’s basketball history, on the court and especially off it. Things looked up starting in 2006, between Brandon Roy’s and LaMarcus Aldridge’s promising rookie campaigns; the improbable draft-lottery win in a draft class that featured two prospective once-in-a-generation talents; and, more importantly, the changing of the culture around the former Jail Blazers. The Roy-Aldridge-Oden nucleus was supposed to be a title contender for a decade or more, but they’re a few knee surgeries and forced medical retirements beyond the point of that being a possibility. Still, there’s a part of every Blazers fan that doesn’t want to admit the dream is over, and that voice wants to make sure nobody views Oden in the same light as, like, Qyntel Woods. We at least want people to give us that.

Oden’s story isn’t about Sam Bowie or Kevin Durant. The former is entirely unrelated, and their connection is played up only by the kind of people who genuinely believe the Cubs haven’t won a World Series in 104 years because of a goat.

I hate curses and have no patience for them or those who propagate them. It’s basically my #1 pet peeve as a sports fan. So the Blazers missed out on the greatest player of all time 23 years before the Oden/Durant draft. That was a thing that happened, and everyone agrees at this point that it was one of, if not the worst draft pick of all time. But it happened when the team’s logo, uniforms, arena, owner, and front office were completely different. The only thing the Blazers of 1984 and the Blazers of 2007 have in common are a city and a name. That they passed on a future superstar in favor of an injury-ravaged big man both of those years is pure coincidence. I shouldn’t have to explain this. If you’re reading this site, you’re not stupid. But I want to slam my head against the wall every time I see an analyst or Twitter user try to connect the dots on some kind of Walton-Bowie-Oden lineage. Viewing Oden in this context forces us to think about a) the way the Walton era ended, and b) the fact that the team passed on Michael freaking Jordan. That’s why we want to distance him from the team’s past.

Durant’s superstardom can be grating during nationally televised Blazers-Thunder games, where the announcers insist on beating that tired narrative into the ground. Other than those two or three games a year, holding Oden’s plight against him does nobody any good. People love to play the what-if game. I can honestly say that I’ve never once tried to picture an alternate universe in which the Blazers had drafted Durant. That may be hard to believe, but it’s true. Oden was such the consensus pick at the time that the thought has never crossed my mind. I’ve never been as emotionally attached to an athlete as I am to Oden. I take this stuff personally, even though I know I shouldn’t.

This part is simple: I love Durant as a player, and I want to be able to enjoy what is potentially an all-time great without having my nose rubbed in my hometown team’s recent misfortunes. 98 percent of the time, I’m nodding along with the announcers who fawn over Durant, because how can you not? It’s just a little hard to stomach five minutes of talk about how poised he is because he didn’t pick up a technical on the rare occasion that he gets called for a foul when it directly follows an Oden/Durant head-to-head career comparison infographic. That’s always going to hurt. Therefore, I am left with no choice but to remind people at every opportunity how widespread the belief was that Oden was the pick. It’s totally irrational. I get that. But it is what it is.

In the end, this all comes back to Oden, and the only thing to do is feel awful for him. At this point, basketball is secondary. All that matters is Oden’s physical and mental well-being. You need knees for things besides basketball. Like walking. If he comes out of this able to do that, he’s golden. He’s made enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life (something, by the way, nobody should resent him for). The hard part will be dealing with the public derision and the being reduced to a trivia question, like Bowie or Darko. You have to hope he has the right people around him who can keep him grounded and not let the negativity get to him. If he gets a second chance in the NBA, so much the better. But I just want him to get a second chance as a healthy human.

Obviously.

Sean Highkin

Sean Highkin is a staff writer at Hardwood Paroxysm and a writer for the ESPN TrueHoop blogs Portland Roundball Society and Magic Basketball. He has also written for The Classical, among other sites. You can follow him on Twitter at @shighkinNBA. He can be reached by email at highkin (dot) sean (at) gmail.