Things fall apart.
That was the first thought that came to my mind upon hearing about Greg Oden’s latest and quite possibly final setback. The chronically injured Portland Trailblazers center required yet another microfracture surgery, bringing the tally of such surgeries to three, two on his left knee and one on his right. His body has fallen apart. His career has fallen apart. The hopes and dreams of a proud franchise have fallen apart right along with them.
Things Fall Apart.
That’s the name of The Roots’ album that came out 13 years ago on February 23, 1999. It’s also the name of the 1958 novel by Chinua Achebe, but my mind went back to that classic Roots joint that stayed on heavy rotation back when I was a teenager, and still does to this day. When it was originally released, there were five different album covers, each one symbolizing the title in visual form. I could almost imagine a sixth, with a picture of Oden looking on from the bench, in street clothes, helpless.
While the thought of an oft-injured NBA player gracing the cover of a deep and revered rap album certainly sounds silly, if you delve deeper it’s almost eerie how not just the album title could aptly describe Oden’s career, but also some of the track titles as well.
For much of his high school career, Oden was far and away the consensus number one player in the class of 2006. A seven-foot phenom, Oden joined forces with Mike Conley at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis, Indiana to win three consecutive state titles. His dominant play led him to win the Gatorade National Player of the Year award as a junior, the first time since LeBron James a junior had accomplished that.
Oden was talked about as a once in a generation type of player in high school. At a time when most seven footers such as Dirk Nowitzki or Kevin Garnett preferred to play more of a perimeter-oriented game, Oden was a throwback to the days of Hakeem Olajuwan, David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal, big men who relished banging in the paint and protecting the rim. Oden graced the cover of many national magazines in high school, including SLAM 99 which featured the tag line “The Next Big Thing.”
After a dominant high school career capped off by an appearance in the McDonald’s All-American game, Oden headed off to Columbus, Ohio accompanied by Conley, to play for the Ohio State Buckeyes.
“The Next Movement”
Initially sidelined after having wrist surgery, Oden made his college debut, to much fanfare, on December 2nd, 2006 against Valparaiso. Despite coming off the bench, he finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks. More monster games followed, including a 29 point and 10 rebound performance against Iowa, where he shot 12 of 13 from the field, good for a ridiculous 92%, and Ohio State won by 20.
Perhaps his best moment, however, came in the most important game of the season. Despite leaning heavily on underclassmen, Ohio State found itself in the championship game of the NCAA Tournament going up against defending national champions Florida. Standout junior big men and future lottery picks Al Horford and Joakim Noah had the last laugh as they won the game 84-75 and repeated as champs, but not before Oden made them look silly in the process. Facing constant double and even occasional triple teams all game long, Oden nonetheless was able to put up 25, 12 and 4 blocks while shooting 66% in a losing effort.
On the season, he averaged 15.7 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.3 blocks and 61.6% shooting from the field. Despite Texas’ Kevin Durant becoming the first freshman ever to win the National Player of the Year award, Oden’s enormous upside made him the favorite to be drafted first overall in the 2007 NBA draft. At 19 years old, he was being hailed as the next David Robinson or even the next Bill Russell, the man that would bring back the dominance of the NBA big man.
The Portland Trailblazers selected Greg Oden first overall, however in September he was forced to have his first microfracture surgery, and he would miss his entire rookie season. Things began to crumble thereafter.
“Ain’t Saying Nothing New”
Fast forward a few seasons. November 2010, the Blazers announced Oden would once again have microfracture surgery, his second, effectively ending his season before it even began. At that point, Oden had played a total of 82 games in three seasons. By then the headlines, the questions and the discussions had pretty much been the same since what should have been his rookie year. Is he the next Sam Bowie? Did the Blazers make a mistake in not drafting Durant? Will he ever make an impact in the NBA? Are the Blazers cursed? Is he really only 22? All old, nothing new.
What should have been the start of a dynasty was instead relegated to a tragic comedy. As Durant, who fairly or unfairly might always be the Michael Jordan to Oden’s Sam Bowie, was piling up scoring titles, all-star berths and MVP consideration, Oden had no choice but to watch from the sidelines in public, and undergo painful rehabilitation, both physical and mental, in private.
Perhaps literally adding insult to injury, Oden also had to watch as former teammate Mike Conley, long thought to be but a mere sidekick to superhero Oden in their high school and college days, signed a five-year $40 million extension with the Memphis Grizzlies. Meanwhile, despite being a former number one overall pick, Oden faced the real threat of not even having his option picked up.
“Act Fore: The End?”
Dating back to high school, Oden was always clowned for looking much older than he really was. Today he is still only 24 but looks closer to 40. These days, however, his old man looks might more aptly describe how he feels inside. Heartbreak after heartbreak, year after year. For those of us on the outside looking in, it must be nearly impossible to imagine the toll this has taken on his psyche. Once blessed with an outgoing personality, he has now retreated to the shadows, declining to comment all season long.
One can only hope in the wake of this latest setback, his spirit has not yet been broken. After all, despite his geriatric countenance he is, once again, still only 24.
Sometimes the beautiful in things falling apart is that they can be rebuilt and stand stronger than ever. In The Roots’ album, “The End?” was a hidden track, and perhaps there is still the slightest glimmer of hope hidden within the cruelness and unfairness that has been Oden’s career thus far.