What is a professional basketball player that can’t play professional basketball?
Matter of fact, what are any of us when we are robbed of the very essence of whatever makes us, ‘us’? What’s a doctor that can’t practice medicine, a teacher that isn’t allowed to teach, or a sports-writer with nothing to write about?
Imagine a life where a pastime becomes a hobby, a hobby becomes an addiction, that addiction is mastered and dominated, the mastery becomes a lifestyle, the lifestyle becomes the life’s one true love, and the one true love becomes a career.
And then, just as the ideal fairytale plays out perfectly, it is all snatched away and turns into a recurring nightmare, before the hobby, the lifestyle, the career and the nightmare are all left behind for torturous nothingness.
Welcome to the life of Greg Oden.
It’s easy to forget about 25-year-old from New York. About what he was, and about what he should have been. This is the same man, who only six years ago, was touted to be the saviour of big men in the NBA.
A 7-foot beast of a man-child, who dominated High School basketball with his unstoppable mix of size, strength and fluidity, Oden was referred to as a once-in-a-decade player by Steve Kerr and led the Ohio State Buckeyes all the way to the NCAA Championship game in his only year in college.
Oden was the best young player in the country, who was picked first in the 2007 NBA Draft by the Portland Trailblazers, ahead of a certain University of Texas talent by the name of Kevin Durant. And, based on his size and potential, the majority agreed that it was a fine decision.
And then, just as the young star had achieved his dreams of turning a childhood hobby into a profession, the nightmare began.
Before he could ever play an NBA game, Oden had a micro-fracture surgery on his right knee, which kept him out of action for the whole 2007-08 season. The rookie year was postponed for 2008-09, but it started with a bad omen again.
In his debut game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Oden left with a foot injury just 13 minutes into the game. He returned two weeks later against the Miami Heat and scored his first points in the NBA.
And things got better from there, as Oden began to find some rhythm in the NBA, mostly as a backup, and then eventually earning a starting spot. But before the season ended, there was yet another roadblock, as he hurt his kneecap in February 2009 and missed yet another month of action. He averaged 8.9 points and seven rebounds through 61 games.
Meanwhile in Seattle, and then Oklahoma City, Durant was blossoming into a true NBA star, the type of once-in-a-decade player that Oden was supposed to be. Whispers of the once prodigious giant being a ‘bust’ became louder, and Oden was being compared to the long list of Portland’s draft tragedies.
But Oden refused to cave in, and started the 2009-10 season in dominating fashion. Now a guaranteed starter in a young and rising squad that also featured LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy, Oden began to show flashes of his high school and college potential.
Oden averaged an improved 11.7 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. In a win against the Chicago Bulls, he exploded for a career-high 24 points to go with 12 rebounds in late November. On December 1st, 2009, he scored 13 points and grabbed 20 rebounds against the Heat.
The Heat were the first team that Oden scored points against. They would also be the last.
Oden only managed four scoreless minutes on the floor in his next game against the Houston Rockets, before injuring his left patella and being forced to miss the rest of the season. Again.
And then he didn’t play again. He had a micro-fracture surgery in November 2010 that kept him out of the 2010-11 season before it even began, and suffered another setback in his rehab process the following year. He had surgeries on both his knees in February 2012 and was finally waived by the Trailblazers a month later.
While Durant was winning scoring titles and making Finals appearances, while the league’s only dominant big man, Dwight Howard – the big man whom Oden would’ve challenged in his hypothetical successful career – was winning Defensive Player of the Year Awards and making infamous news around the league, while the rest of the NBA moved on and a whole new generation of new stars emerged, Oden sat on the sidelines, a professional basketball player who couldn’t play professional basketball.
The series of tragic setbacks limited Oden to just 82 NBA games – exactly the amount of one NBA season – through the course of the past six seasons since he was drafted in 2007.
Most professionals – of any profession – would’ve been totally deflated by a career so unfortunate, totally discouraged to try and break the curse that forever seems to haunt them. But Oden didn’t quit. Once his knees felt healthy enough yet, he started working towards an unlikely comeback. Doubters doubted, cynics were cynical, and haters hated, but the comeback seemed to be a real possibility after Oden began to show signs of his old self again.
And after hearing from suitors from around the league, Oden finally announced his decision: he would be taking his talents to join LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the back-to-back NBA champs, the team against whom he scored his first and last NBA points, the Miami Heat.
At this point, without any proof of action against real NBA competition at real NBA pace, we can only make wild guesses of how good Oden could be this upcoming season. For the Heat, the choice to pick him is a win-win: he is signed on to a one-year minimum contract; if he struggles with his health or simply isn’t that good anymore, they lose little except for a roster spot and very little money.
If he can blossom into a fraction of the star he was supposed to be, a shot-stopping centre to man the post and protect the paint, he could instantly make the league’s best team even better. The Heat, who have already mastered the new era of small-ball in the NBA, will have a legitimate option when switching to big-ball, too.
No matter what happens ahead, Oden is already a winner. He’s a winner for making a comeback into the world’s toughest basketball league after being an absolute pariah to the sport for several years, for beating the odds bravely and finding a spot in the world’s best team.
Anything from here on-forth is a bonus. He may participate in the pre-season games, and could potentially play his first competitive game on October 29th against the Bulls. And make no mistake, every true basketball fan – at the arena or at home – will applaud his return to the court.
One time, in a whole different world many years ago, Greg Oden worked hard to climb his way up the charts to become the number one pick and a future NBA superstar. The success-story never came to fruition, but after years of injuries and speed-bumps, we may be able to witness something even more amazing: his return to the league as just a regular, minimum contract, player.
The dream has been slightly amended, but it’s still alive. A basketball player gets to play basketball again.