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MIAMI – Greg Oden admits it: He considered retiring before he turned 25. He, too, wondered if his ongoing knee problems would allow him to play basketball again.
But there was Oden on Thursday night, back on the floor, playing for the Miami Heat in a victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, his fourth game this season after a four-year layoff.
"It was a long four years," Oden said. "But now I'm back, I'm healthy and I'm just happy to be doing it."
Thursday night was a long way from that June 2007 night when the Portland Trail Blazers took Oden as the No. 1 pick, ahead of Kevin Durant. Durant has become an MVP candidate and a five-time All-Star now while Oden had played just 82 games – the length of a single season – in the 6½ years after that draft before he officially made his debut for the Heat on Jan. 15.
Oden's knee problems began before he even played his first minutes in the NBA. He missed his initial rookie season after undergoing microfracture surgery on his right knee. He missed 15 games during the following season with a bone chip in his left knee. He missed the final 61 games of the 2009-10 season to repair a fracture in his left patella. Two microfracture surgeries on his left knee followed, sidelining him indefinitely. Before joining the Heat, he last suited up on Dec. 5, 2009.
"It was very tough," Oden said. "Last year at this time I was sitting at home."
After rarely being heard from or seen, Oden's return to the NBA began when he signed a one-year contract paying him $884,293 with the two-time NBA champion Heat. That's little compared to the $6.7 million he made during the 2010-11 season in which he didn't play a single game.
The money didn't matter as much to Oden. He drew plenty of interest from teams, but needed the right fit, which he found with LeBron James and the Heat.
"I've said a thousand times that I'm grateful that the Miami Heat gave me this shot," Oden said. "I'm just happy to be playing again."
Oden showed promise while playing in the preseason, but stayed on the inactive list when the season began. Miami was committed to not only getting him in better shape, but also bringing him along slowly without pressure. While Oden was frustrated in mid-December because he wasn't playing, but maintained his trust in the process.
The Heat finally allowed Oden to make his long-awaited return on Jan. 15 on the road against the Washington Wizards. He dunked in his first shot attempt, finished with six points on 2-of-3 shooting from the field and two rebounds in eight minutes.
"It takes a strong person to be able to stay positive throughout what he has been through and get back into an NBA uniform," James said.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has grown more confident in Oden while admitting he has been more concerned with Oden's conditioning than his game. Heat assistant coach Juwan Howard has worked with Oden, a former Blazers teammate, on his post moves and shot blocking.
"With what I've been through I have nothing but patience now," Oden said. "It's been a tough long road. After four years, what's a couple of games?"
Spoelstra gave Oden a season-high 10 minutes against the Lakers. Oden didn't disappoint, scoring five points, grabbing five rebounds and blocking a shot. His highlight was a left-handed hook shot. His lowlight was a missed a dunk.
"I still got a ways to go," Oden said. "I'm still not as quick as I want to be out there. There are still things I can get better at."
Spoelstra was encouraged by Oden's play against the Lakers.
"After the game I told him, 'We'll see you tomorrow and see how you feel,' " Spoelstra said. "He has been making great progress and he had a great conditioning day yesterday. Only time will tell, but we're not going to fast-track it and we're not going to even plan for the future."
The Indiana Pacers, owners of the Eastern Conference's top record, are expected to be the biggest obstacle between the Heat and a fourth-straight NBA Finals appearance. The Pacers' strength is their size, notably 7-foot-2, 285-pound center Roy Hibbert. Hibbert has said the Heat signed Oden to counter him.
Oden is looking forward to the possible challenge of facing Hibbert. Considering everything Oden has overcome, why should he be intimidated?
"Every minute, every possession, it's going to help his confidence," James said. "It's great seeing him out there."