Just this week on the telephone, there was an Eastern Conference executive studying Greg Oden’s pre-draft physical in his office. Even now, this report still didn’t look like the body of a 19-year old prospect, but that of an older, worn veteran.
“From our (trainers and doctors), there were red flags everywhere,” he said.
The executive started listing the troubled spots – the bulging disc in the back, wrists, the ankles, the hands, a right leg that was an inch longer than the left, and yes, the knees. He wasn’t alone. Several pulled files this week with news of impending knee surgery, and kept wondering if maybe the breakdown of his body was just a matter of time.
Despite it all, this executive believed the Blazers had done the right thing drafting the 7-footer over Kevin Durant. Then again, he never had a practical need for his medical staff to pour over Oden like Portland did. No one else but Seattle did.
“It wouldn’t have stopped us from drafting him but it would’ve probably made us pause about making a deal to move up and get him,” the Eastern Conference executive said.
An unscientific poll of executives, talking prior to Yahoo! Sports' revelation on Thursday that the No. 1 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft isn’t playing basketball this season for the Blazers, agreed with him. As it turned out, the right knee that had a red dot on the Orlando draft camp physicals turned into microfracture surgery for Oden.
Suddenly, he’s no longer the promise of the next Bill Russell.
Suddenly, he’s the fear of Sam Bowie.
Until there’s proof that his body isn’t breaking down, there’s a natural and legitimate worry that the Blazers could’ve passed on a Jordan-esque talent – Kevin Durant – to take a center who will turn out to be more defective than dominant.
Who wants to believe this will be the case? Who would want it to happen? The NBA needs Oden to be a superstar. He’s too talented of a player, too wonderful and grounded of a person, to consider the possibility that he could be a washout.
Several NBA executives conceded that the revelation that an MRI showed a need for exploratory surgery on Thursday didn’t completely surprise them. Some medical staffs who studied Oden’s pre-draft physicals expressed differing levels of concern, on different parts of his body.
“Our trainers did say they thought he had somewhat of an issue (with the right knee), but they weren't sure to what extent,” one Western Conference executive said. “I guess we're starting to see now that it’s more serious than some people thought.”
As one high-ranking basketball official with access to several trainers at the Orlando pre-draft camps remembered being told, “There were some things about (Oden’s knee) that were interesting and that if they had a chance (to draft) him, they would have to look a lot closer.”
All in all, one Eastern Conference personnel man said, “It was not a good physical.”
Nobody studied Oden closer than the Blazers and Sonics, and sources say that both teams would’ve still drafted him with the No. 1 pick. Only Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard knows how much of a risk he believed drafting Oden would be for his franchise. Oden had missed part of his freshman season at Ohio State with wrist surgery, and several teams wondered whether he had regained the complete range of motion in that shooting wrist.
Still, they believed it would return with time, but cartilage damage that causes microfracture surgery? Amare Stoudemire and Jason Kidd made it back the same, but Allan Houston and Penny Hardaway never did. For Oden, you have to wonder: Is this the end of his body breaking down, or just the beginning of it?
For now, Oden, a charismatic and lovable kid, will spend a long, rainy winter in Portland rehabilitating that right knee. Under Pritchard, everything had gone right for the Blazers in the past two seasons – the draft day deals for Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, the winning of the Draft Lottery, the unloading of headcases with bad contracts. All of that contributed to exorcising that lingering Jail Blazers image.
Now, everyone will be thinking about 1984 again, when with the second pick in the draft, the Blazers chose Kentucky’s Sam Bowie over North Carolina’s Michael Jordan. Bowie had a history of leg problems in college, and those never left him in a journeymen’s pro career. No one wants to believe that this is how it will go, how it will all turn out.
Durant thrilled Sonics officials with his scrimmage and practice performances against the Olympic team this summer in Las Vegas. They truly believe they’ve found a generational superstar with him.
Of course, that doesn’t make anyone feel better in Portland, where the most promising future in the sport suddenly looks too much like the darkest days of its past.
One day Russell, the next Bowie.
Nobody else in the NBA dares say, “I told you so,” but deep down they sure did fear it.