| GOODBYE, GREG: Not only is Oden gone for the season, Rudy Fernandez is out four to six weeks after back surgery. |
IMAGE: Tom Oliver
Greg Oden is not getting up.
I was there Saturday night at the Rose Garden as the 21-year-old Trail Blazers center’s kneecap cracked in two and he crumpled to the ground, thrashing in agony. I heard the sound of 20,000 fans forced to watch their worst fear fulfilled: first a collective gasp, then silence, with little murmurs of “Oh, no.” And as the gentle 7-footer had a towel mercifully draped over his face, I joined that crowd trying to will Greg’s knee back together with a chant of “O-Den, O-Den, O-Den!” A friend later told me it sounded like the moment in every Peter Pan production when the audience tries to bring Tinker Bell back to life by shouting that they believe in fairies.
In a mournful post-game press conference, that faith remained in evidence. GM Kevin Pritchard, though near tears, pledged that Oden would recover. “He’s gonna bounce back from this,” Pritchard said. “He’s gonna be fine.”
Maybe. Doctors deemed Oden’s surgery successful—and maybe he’ll find the strength for another grueling rehab and return from a second devastating knee injury in three years. And maybe he will recover the offensive skills and defensive sensibility he was just starting to grasp. And maybe he’ll be able to play without worrying that another part of his frame will spontaneously shatter. And maybe, just maybe, another body part won’t break.
But in the wake of what might have been the most swift and brutal devastation in Rip City history (rivaled only by the fourth-quarter implosion against the Lakers in the 2000 Western Conference Finals), it’s time for all of us to admit something: The best thing we can do for Oden is to stop believing in him.
It’s time to stop the ridiculous pretense that drafting Oden first over Kevin Durant was anything but a mistake. Oden has one leg longer than the other. His kneecap splinters without touching anything. When this season ends, he will have spent nearly twice as much of his NBA career in rehab as on the court. Quite simply, he is probably not built to play basketball.
What makes this hard to admit (it’s as much a factor as the ghost of Sam Bowie, really) is that Oden is such a nice person. “Sometimes life’s not fair,” Pritchard kept repeating on Saturday. “I’ve seen this kid work his tail off.” None of this is his fault. If you want to whine that Oden gets $21 million while you don’t have a job (as many online haters eagerly do), that’s because you’ve never been really good at anything.
But the kindest thing we can do for Oden is also the best thing the Blazers brass can do: Release our grip on the illusion Oden is a cornerstone. This season has become an opportunity to examine how the other pieces—Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and, yes, maybe even Jerryd Bayless—can form a nucleus for a title run. But that won’t happen unless fans and the front office realize Oden is, at best, an occasional minor asset—not the team’s core.
The most helpful metaphor here is also the most obvious. Most of us have been in a failing love affair. It wasn’t the other person’s fault—he or she was perfectly sweet, and trying damn hard—but the pressure to Make it Work choked off all other possibilities, and made you both miserable. That’s what we have here. Portland is a city that keeps trying on glass slippers, refusing to accept that the prince has glass knees.
Don’t kid yourself: Saturday’s silence was the sound of heartbreak. It’ll heal faster if we start looking for rebound relationships.
FACT: The Blazers say get-well cards may be mailed to Greg Oden care of One Center Court, Suite 200, Portland, OR 97227.