Your ribcage would have to hold a heart of crumbling coal if you’re not, at this point, rooting for Greg Oden’s success.
Of all the material vices and deficits of discipline that can unwind a phenom’s career into bankruptcy and/or lunacy, Oden is guilty of indulging in none of them. The knees that are responsible for limiting him to just over 2,000 career minutes played—meanwhile the player he will always be unfairly connected to, Kevin Durant, has soared to over 20,000—are, yes, his knees. But Oden is not responsible for his knees. No doubt he has spent many a dark night of the soul cursing his knees for their inability to stand underneath the weight of his dreams, for their tendency to chip and wilt underneath the expectations we all foisted on his shoulders. Many times by now Oden has been sitting at home, in anonymity, when Durant pops up on his television set, smiling with a new endorsed product. If I were Oden in these moments I would be unable to do anything but look at my knees and dissolve into a puddle of tears, wondering what if, what if.
Signing a one-year minimum contract with the Miami Heat was a best possible scenario for both parties. Because with the Heat—unlike with Oden’s other potential suitor the New Orleans Pelicans—waiting until mid-January for him to make his debut was never cause for concern or impatience. Oden was free to rehabilitate without pressures from above, and the Heat were happy to wait and see if they had a new, productive role player to add to their championship-winning machine. And if Oden couldn’t manage a return, well, this is the same team that’s paying a three-point champion $1.5M to never remove his warm-ups. (That would be James Jones.) It’s like no biggie.
I’ve been unable to forget a photo that LeBron James posted to his Instagram last summer, muggin’ with Oden in the weight room. There is something legitimately tender and sweet about this picture, in my opinion. LeBron James is an international celebrity, an autonomous molder and shaper of the entire pop culture. Greg Oden is, at this point, a trivia question. LeBron James does not need to pose for photos with Greg Oden. He probably doesn’t even need to talk to Greg Oden. And LeBron certainly doesn’t need to caption the photo with an extended olive branch of friendship, searching for a point of unity and finding it in the pair’s shared association with the state of Ohio. One can hardly imagine Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant taking the time to pity the fool. But LeBron did this.
Of course LeBron looks entirely at home in the picture, in the prime of his career and his life, while Oden looks, well, uncomfortable. Unsure. Oden is smiling in the picture, yes, and no doubt he was personally thankful and relieved to share a moment like this with the league’s alpha dog. But there is an unmistakable sadness in the eyes.
You can see the same sadness when Oden plays. Oden made 27 field goals this year and, by my count, 21 of them were dunks. These were audacious, backboard-wobbling dunks, end results of perfectly executed cuts following guard penetration. This is, under normal circumstances, a cue for an NBA player to celebrate, to cathartically release the animal emotions that broil within.
Oden never celebrated. The dunks were treated as another possession, and he trudged his way back to defense, sadness never leaving the eyes. No matter how wide a lead the Heat had on the scoreboard, Oden knew he remained way far down on the bigger, larger scoreboard, the one where careers are compared against another.
Greg Oden can be a useful role player as the Heat gun for their third consecutive championship. He’s been committing 8.8 fouls per 36 minutes, which is like really bad in just about every situation. But I view the fouls as a positive: the fouls Oden delivers are hard, discombobulating the opposing center. As Oden slowly catches up to the speed of the NBA game after his three-year absence, this high foul rate should be encouraging to his coaches: with his minutes at an upper-limit cap of 15 per game, Oden will never cripple his team as he inches toward a sixth foul. And, more importantly, he is not shying away from a taste of contact, never hiding his knees from a massive, seven-foot body slamming into his own. For this reason the way that Oden can best contribute to the Heat is probably from the starting lineup: in the low-leverage minutes to start each half, Oden can ensure that the opposing center gets off to a slow start with his constant shoving and bothering.
With the well-publicized dysfunction wafting from the Indiana Pacers’ locker room making the Eastern Conference’s 1-seed more vulnerable than ever, the path is as clear as it will ever be for the Miami Heat to reach the NBA Finals. As for me, I believe they’ll be playing in June once more, and rematched against the San Antonio Spurs.
What would it look like to see Greg Oden playing in the Finals? To see him showered with victor’s confetti? Will we finally see him smile?