November 18th, 2010 5:33 pm | by CASEY JARMAN News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, Sports, Sports

God and Greg Oden: An Almost Live Special Report

gregBecause Hank Stern already covered tonight's bummer Greg Oden news in a previous post, and because this writer—who has covered the Blazers for WW since the Sebastian Telfair era—has been through a few Greg Oden Injury press conferences, what follows is a free-form, 3,500-word meditation on this evening's happenings. It will not yield Rotoworld-friendly injury details and the vomit-inducing first sentence is far from the only indulgence indulgence taken by the author. WW regrets the errors.

It was a dark and stormy night.

The Bulls were beating the Spurs on ESPN. I'm not attached to either team (I preferred the Tyrus and Kirk Bulls, thanks—I like my basketball teams like I like my women: With issues), but my head was in the game, largely because Derrick Rose is a funny kind of point guard. I like him because he plays an emotional game but he's not a particularly emotional guy; It's as if his sole means of self-expression comes from dribbling, passing and cutting to the hoop. The game went to commercial, and I was talking to my girlfriend about a tense interaction between our cat, Phineas Maple Jarman, and the kitten we naively adopted from the Humane Society to be his new best friend, whom we have tentatively named “Sir Arthur Duckworth.” In mid-stupid-sentence, I saw Oden's face on a SportsCenter update. It took a second to register, but the words “miss the season” and “microfracture surgery” registered somehow. Why are they reporting that again? Did the tapes get mixed up? I went to my email inbox and there it was. “TRAIL BLAZERS CENTER GREG ODEN TO UNDERGO MICROFRACTURE SURGERY FRIDAY.” My first thought was “that poor bastard.” My second thought was “it's really over, isn't it?” My third thought was “Oh, fuck, I really don't want to walk or ride my bike to this press conference in the rain.”

I don't drive. And if you're in Portland, you know that today was the worst for being out in. People say “coming down in buckets” (not to be confused with the basketball cliché “raining buckets,” which, now that I think about it, seems more appropriate for weather), but today you looked at the corner of any given building, it actually looked like there must be a dude shoveling buckets of water down the side. It was ugly. So I borrowed the girlfriend's car, put the wipers on high and drove silently, carefully down to the Rose Garden—parking a couple blocks away because I don't know where I'm supposed to park for these things.

Life tends to start when you get out of the car, so the story will now move from past to present tense.

I walk down the hill and around a quarter of the arena's massive exterior, watching the aforementioned buckets fall off its big cement lid while getting wet around the shoulders where my jacket isn't stitched right. 30 years in Oregon, 30 years without an umbrella—I wear the wetness proudly. There are about two dry feet between the Rose Garden and the dark halo where the rain hits the concrete, provided said rain's coming straight down. On wet game days, that dry corridor forces fans to slide along the edge of the building like cats against a screen door or kids dragging their fingers along a chain link fence—you find out who's a gentleman and who's from California and who's texting-while-walking. So I took that route, alone tonight, and walked down, the way I always do, the back steps and through the parking garage—which was empty except for big satellite trucks and a couple disembodied faces aglow in monitor light in the command center. I always expect these people to stop me, and every once in awhile they do. I've probably attended 120 games or so as a WW operative by now, plus a handful of press conferences, but I get the stink eye from the guy with the thinning white hair and the crooked teeth almost every time. Sometimes he even says “who are you with?” and I chuckle and remind him again, which does not make him chuckle. But usually when I just keep walking all businesslike and give a quick world-weary nod, no one says a thing. The front-desk girl who gives me my press pass always remembers who I am, and I always feel bad for not knowing her name like she knows mine. “It's my job,” she said once when I told her this. Tonight there's no crooked-teeth-guy and no bag check, no front desk girl or meal ticket: Just a big ugly awfulness that Blazer beat writers are now accustomed to. So I keep on walking and don't have to nod or anything.

In the Harry Glickman Media Room, a small cafeteria without half the character of its rosy-nosed namesake, I find the usual cast of characters and a few that only show up when there's some blood in the tank (I fit that description by now, having long tired of the whole idea of press conferences unless there's the chance of someone breaking character). Even the regulars look irregular tonight, though. The news guys are in tweed jackets and ball caps—unshaven and half-asleep like the whole city gets with these early rains. Most of them have blank looks on their faces, like they'd rather be wherever they just were than here—but a couple of them look like think they'd better look sad, and a couple still look like they're at a funeral. Legendary Blazers' announcer Bill Schonley is here, in a flat cap and a classy brown jacket. It's 9 pm on a Wednesday night when most guys his age are fast asleep, and I'm beginning to wonder whether he himself sleeps under the bleachers or on a cot at center court. He's with Mike and Mike, the TV broadcast team. Some people hate those guys; I find them amazing as a comedy team and meh as analysts—but their commitment level is not to be questioned. Tonight the Mikes have brave faces on, talking about Brandon Roy's family and the latest road trip. It's not that they don't care about the former number one draft pick going down in a blaze of agony, perhaps never to return as a Blazer, but they've been through this a few times. The Shonz cracks little smiles to let the Mikes know he's listening, but his eyes are cast downward and he shakes his head gently from time to time. If Andre Miller cuts himself shaving, I'm pretty sure the Shonz can feel it. He doesn't partake in these press conferences, but he lingers and listens and he's always everywhere.

A lot of the guys in this room eat, sleep and breathe Blazer basketball. Some of them don't particularly like the team or the coach or the organization, but they live it, and therefore they rejoice a little when the team rejoices and despair a little when the team despairs. They can fight against those urges, but it's like trying to root against Rudy whilst watching the movie Rudy—if you had also been an extra in Rudy. There's an affinity for the team within them somewhere. They're not like me, maybe—they might not harbor a closet full of Blazer gear that they feel weird about leaving the house in—but they feel it. Any time you read the words “for Blazer fans,” in a beat reporter's story, it's a thinly veiled stand-in character for the part of that writer who wants badly to be a fan him or herself; to feel what a fan feels or, more importantly, to gain license to say all the gut-level things a fan might say.

The Gang's All Horrified!

Tonight those inner fans seem closer to the surface somehow. But when coach Nate McMillan, trainer Jay Jensen and General Manager Rich Cho walk in the room, the chatter dies down (Mike Rice, with his flair for free-association, notes that “If there's an upside to all this it's that Marcus Camby had 17 rebounds last night” as the rest of the crowd goes quiet) and it feels, much more than usual, like we're settling in to watch a movie. Not Rudy, though. A sad movie.

What happens instead is more like watching a basketball team come out of a late-game timeout when things are all tied up. Blazers President Larry Miller, speaking via phone from New York City, begins. “Today is a very challenging day for our franchise,” he says, half-audible as an audio tech moves the microphone closer to the speaker-phone. He goes over the details of the injury again. The surgery is Friday. Oden will miss the remainder of the season. “First of all, on behalf of Mr. Allen, our entire organization and me personally, our thoughts and prayers are with Greg Oden,” he says. “As he faces yet another challenge.” The “yet another” is stressed, as if Miller were passive aggressively blaming some unseen forces for the injury. It's a theme that will be repeated.

Then Miller, as if playing point guard for his undermanned team, goes on the offensive, praising the franchise. It's clear where he's going. “Particularly our medical staff,” he stresses. “From the first day I came to this organization, I've seen firsthand the tireless dedication these people have. Their sole focus is on the health and success of our athletes.”

He continues along these lines, and it's clear what this press conference is meant to be: A statement of solidarity in the face of growing fan discontent and suspicion. An appeal to the fans' sense of loyalty.

See, Blazer fans—if internet message boards and the comment sections of Oregonlive, Blazers' Edge and our own site are to be considered the “voice of the fans”—think that the Blazers medical staff is bogus. Many fans were calling for firings and investigations—even posing conspiracy theories about how head trainer Jay Jensen and his staff were plants from a rival team (probably those fucking Lakers)—long before this latest Greg Oden injury. The litany of injuries to Blazer players these past few years, to them, seems like more than bad luck. I'll admit, I've found myself pushing a similar line in casual conversation (this is where, if I were a real journalist, I'd use the phrase “for Blazer fans”), generally speaking at WW Assistant Music Editor Michael Mannheimer while he's doing some important work that I shouldn't interrupt.

Rant One:
“Obviously there's a lack of communication somewhere. Why is Brandon Roy going to Jason Quick with his problems? Shouldn't he be going to the coaching staff? Or maybe the coaching staff is ignoring him when he says he's in pain and can't play these kind of minutes, so he's going to the media as a last resort? Is the training staff not telling the coaching staff what's going on with these guys? Or do they just not care?”

Rant Two:
“How many jobs in America—okay, aside from Music Editor at Willamette Week—can you have where things under your direct supervision go horribly wrong for years on end and you don't lose your job? If I was head of security for a bank, right, and it got robbed a half dozen times in a year despite my best efforts to foil the robbers, I'd still get sacked, right? So even if this all really is bad luck, at some point, it sucks, but at some point you've got to clean house!”

It's easier to say these things in the company of friends. It's easier to shoot out ideas in the comments section of a Blazer blog. But when you're sitting a few feet from Jay Jensen, who's red-faced from stress and nerves and visibly shaken, it's harder. He takes several deep breaths and avoids eye contact with the press corps as the microphone is passed to Nate McMillan, who gives a characteristically composed—or robotic, if you prefer—speech. “I've got no doubt at all that our team will respond to this challenge, the way we have in the past,” he says. Then he gives his own preemptive defense of the training staff, which comes out surprisingly spiritual: “We've all been looking for a reason,” he says. “Some things you can't explain.” Whatever the explanation, it's not an irresponsible medical team—because that team is like family to the players. “I don't know anybody that the team spends more time with than this guy right beside me,” he says. “Sometimes things just happen.”

Jay Jensen
photo (1)

When the microphone is passed to Jensen, he exhales again. He's shaken by Oden's situation, but he's also—no doubt—shaken because he's prepared for this press conference to turn into a trial. As he talks, his face—Jensen has the balding crew cut of a Les Schwab manager and the expressive face of a youth pastor—goes from saddened to indignant and back again. He sounds angry, at times, but not with the fans who've crucified him or with a job that puts so much pressure on him. He sounds pissed off at God. “To have to sit here and talk about someone like Greg, who doesn't deserve what's going on with him—he's worked his tail off,” Jensen says, stopping occasionally so as to not break down. “It's not easy to sit here and talk about someone I care deeply about.”

Then he goes into a detailed account of the incident—or lack of an incident, as neither the team or the player has pinpointed when this latest injury occurred (you'd think one would feel it when a chunk of bone broke “as if it had been hit by a 9 iron,” but no). The first time Oden complained of pain, Jensen says, is at Maurice Lucas' funeral. It's another reminder of a grim few years in a time that should have been filled with promise for Blazer fans. Jensen keeps referring to Oden's injury as a “defect.”

That's how a lot of Blazer fans feel about the guy at this point. Like he was a defective player and it's high time someone—David Stern, Kevin Pritchard, God—let the Blazers return him for a new number one draft pick, or maybe Kevin Durant. These fans know that there's a human being behind the injuries, but he's a relatively rich human being—which, you know, keeps him from feeling pain—and anyway fuck him: He took the money and then he broke. Three times. What's wrong with him?

Later a reporter asks that very question: What's wrong with Greg? It's a waste of a question. Everyone knows it. But sometimes a dumb question gets a good answer, and Jensen takes this one to heart. He doesn't see Oden like the fed-up fans do. He sees him as a perfectly healthy 22-year-old with the worst luck ever. He describes a litany of tests the team ran on Oden to find out why he has been injury prone. They found nothing. “His bone density was off the charts. His patella was rock solid…he's had vitamin D studies done—he's got one of the highest values on the team. We've done other tests on him,” he continues, racking his brain.

You can see wheels spinning in the mud when you hear Jensen talk about reasons. This guy everyone is ready to run out of town seems like his whole world is shattered. In fact it has been falling apart for years. And there are, (cough) many Blazer fans would note, also things he doesn't say. Oden may be healthy, but his right leg is a good deal longer than his left—that can't be good. He looks like he's 50—that can't be good. He was injured throughout college, albeit in a totally unrelated part of his body—that can't be good. There were rumblings well before the draft that this man may well be injury prone—that couldn't have been good. Fans bring these things up all the time. Writers bring these things up, though few of them, save Ben Golliver at Blazersedge—who, to his credit, rarely plays this card—have much room to speak on the subject. I was at the Rose Garden when the pick was made. 90 percent of the fans gathered to watch the draft on the big screen went apeshit. The other 10, well, some of them probably aren't Blazer fans anymore. But it's a different time, and Oden has been severely devalued, even by the organization itself, which chose not to resign the big guy earlier this season (he'll be a restricted free agent, which means the Blazers can match any offer he gets from another team). He is defective. It's God's fault.

But Jensen sees a kid who doesn't deserve the hand he's been dealt, and it's hard to argue with that. Even most naysayers wouldn't have predicted the hard road Oden has traveled. But for Jensen, he's watched a friend who trusts him (the players are like your children, he explains earnestly) knocked down again and again. He describes seeing the MRI results with Oden and another doctor, and it's tough just to hear it. When the doctors looked at the MRI results with Oden, they knew what it meant and Oden, initially, didn't. So they had to tell him. “It was like we got kicked in the stomach,” he says. “We all felt like someone close to us had died—it felt that way. We were shocked.”

Jensen is asked later if he thinks Oden can return from three microfracture surgeries (two of them in the same leg). “I believe in Greg Oden,” he says. What else is he going to say? And I have to add that I'm with him. Not because I think Oden will end up some feel-good story, but because too many people are going to be too curious about his potential in the next 15 years to ever let him not play basketball. He looked, for a time, like an absolute game-changer. He looked like the kind of defensive player the entire league would have to make adjustments for. And maybe he'll never be that, but he'll be something. I hope it's something good, and I hope he can find peace in whatever turns his life takes. I got love for the underdog, and when the whole world is laughing at your fragility (see the Onion article), you're a bona fide underdog.

The mic goes to Rich Cho last, and his comments are brief but supportive. He's “100%” behind Jensen and the staff, he says. I can almost hear the trolls banging on their keyboards, calling for his resignation, too.

After the press conference I wait in line a bit to talk to Cho. I hear him evading and smiling his way through some pretty basic questions by the Oregonian's Mike Tokito, and my expectation level drops. He either can't, or doesn't want to, comment on anything. But it's my first time meeting the guy, so I introduce myself and tell him congrats on the job. Then I ask him the question that has been on my mind lately.

“After awhile, if the public perception is that your training staff doesn't know what they are doing, does the team have to make a decision based on fan perception at some point and change personnel?”

Cho—who is in his mid-40s but looks like a teenager, dressed in a full-on Jordan brand tracksuit with his braces flashing as he smiles—does something I'm wholly unaccustomed to. He asks if he can answer off-the-record, to gather his thoughts a bit. I say sure. And then he does answer, directly and openly, blowing off a little steam at moments and thinking his case through while he talks. And we have a back and forth that feels like two sports fans shooting the shit. Which would have never happened, not to me anyway, on Kevin Pritchard's watch. I'm so impressed by this—charmed, really—that I never re-ask the question with the tape recorder on. Because, besides, the answer would never be as good or as layered if he'd given it to a flashing red light at the end of a metal stick. And to tell you the truth, I don't write about the Blazers for your benefit (obviously!). I write about the Blazers (on nights and weekends, mostly) because I like basketball. I hate writing about it, but I love basketball.

See, you find yourself, when you write about professional sports (even in my very limited capacity), accepting a certain set of givens. No one is going to tell you how they really feel, and you'll never be able to give readers what they want (they want to have the experience of actually being on a team or behind closed doors when the GM is making deals), because you'll never get to those places. So the slightest glimmers of behind-the-scenes reality—Jensen talking about taking walks and bike rides with Greg Oden in the hills beside his house; Cho telling me stuff I can't tell you because I'm an idiot; hearing Channing Frye talk shit about Kevin Garnett over pints of Guinness—can seem like complete revelations. Like the readers, I'm in it for that stuff. It was good to get a reminder tonight—even if it was one wrapped in the worst news, "for Blazer fans," in a long time.
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