Greg Oden, in 2009 (Getty Images)
In a "shocking" interview, former No. 1 pick and ex-Portland Trail Blazers center Greg Oden said that bad influences in his life caused him to drink too much a couple of years ago, that he remains befuddled people are so infatuated with him because he played only 82 NBA games in five potential seasons, and that he may have rushed back too early from his various knee ailments after listening to a Portland medical staff that has been discredited in some outlets.
This is a candid, evocative interview from former AAU teammate and professional [storm]-stirrer Mark Titus, but I hardly think any of the revelations could be termed as surprising. A must-read, to be sure, but who is actually taken aback in discovering that Oden is frustrated, bemused and, in some points, regretful of the series of unfortunate events that have befallen him since the Trail Blazers selected him first overall out of Ohio State in 2007? Here's one particularly noteworthy passage:
It's almost like a cloud has been following Greg since high school. He even had bad luck with the 2007 draft, landing in the same class as Kevin Durant. Experts spent two months comparing them and picking apart Greg's résumé, which didn't stop Portland from selecting him with the first overall pick. That summer, his right knee started bothering him and doctors determined that he needed microfracture surgery. Greg's rookie season was over before it even began. Portland fans, who endured the injury-ravaged careers of Bill Walton and Sam Bowie, freaked out. What those fans didn't know was that Greg's heart was still aching because of [best friend from high school, Travis Smith]'s death; he was already headed down a destructive path of drinking and "doing things I shouldn't have been doing" (his words at dinner). The knee surgery only made things worse.
"For starters, Portland isn't a great city to live in if you're a young, African American male with a lot of money," Greg explained with an embarrassed grin. "But that's especially true if you don't have anybody to guide you. Since I was hurt the entire season, I was on my own a bunch and didn't have veteran teammates around to help me adapt to the NBA lifestyle."
Titus goes on to quote Oden on record (following the interview, Greg apparently was given the chance to veto parts of Titus' piece, but instead signed off on its publication) as pointing out that a cousin of his inspired a pretty heavy bout of drinking in his second year, with Oden admitting "that second year in Portland I pretty much became an alcoholic."
It gets sadder on a personal level -- and more frustrating on a professional level -- from there. Leaked nude pictures of the center, taken with his cell phone, hit the Internet. A strong third season was stopped in a second by a bad fall in a game against Houston. An uneasy relationship with a sports psychologist was initiated, though Oden never trusted that psychologist's discussions with the Trail Blazers. Meanwhile, Durant (taken second in the 2007 draft behind Greg) began to pile up scoring titles and playoff appearances.
"I'd be lying," Oden told Titus, "if I said that it didn't suck to see Durant doing so well." And anyone who is going to pretend to not feel professional jealousy at a level like Oden's can just stop now before they begin to lie through their teeth.
Other darker elements hit, as well.
Though his cousin, an Air Force veteran, may not have been the best influence on Oden's habits, his losing battle with cancer rocked Greg's world. In a first-time revelation, it appears as if Oden adopted a blind dog right after he was drafted by the Blazers. Last year, the dog worked his way onto a hotel balcony, walked through the railing and fell eight stories to his death. Now officially released from his relationship with the Trail Blazers, Oden is free to attempt his rehabilitation from an unprecedented third microfracture surgery on his terms, and he's smartly called off the entire 2012-13 season.
Greg Oden will turn 26 years old during the 2013-14 season. He is still 7-1, and appears to have a love of the game that other big men (like the previous Grantland feature subject, Eddy Curry) don't often share. It's true that no player has made it back to the NBA after three microfracture surgeries, but 34-year-old Kenyon Martin has endured two of them along with a broken leg in 2000 and broken fibula in 2001, and he still looks like he can slap the top of the box on the backboard. Yao Ming may not have been able to endure repeated foot ailments, but Zydrunas Ilgauskas looked the same as Yao at one point and went on to have a successful All-Star career for a decade after his feet looked like they had been worked to powder.
Things can still go right. Oden, somehow, can still make this work.
And while this is a must-read piece from Titus -- a fine piece of work -- in the end it just sounds about right. You'd probably react like Greg Oden, too.
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