Oden's body fragile, but spirit strong

Harvey Araton / New York Times News Service
Published Nov 4, 2013 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

MIAMI — Never a man of many words, Greg Oden still has a few quick moves. On the eve of another season for which he was not physically ready, he posted up his slender 7-foot frame for an interview in a corner of the Miami Heat's practice gym, took a few questions and spun his way through the door leading into the locker room.

Now you see him, then you don't. To this point, that is the sad summary of Oden's professional career.

Talk is cheap when you have played in 82 games — or the coincidental equivalent of one NBA regular season — since being chosen as the first overall pick by Portland in the 2007 draft. From humbling years in Portland to a hopeful beginning in Miami, Oden wisely signed as a free agent for what feels like a last-chance comeback with a team on which he might be a contributing center, but surely no center of attention.

“I got a lot going on with my body,” he said last week, “and just to be able to come to a place where they're going to let that take care of itself, that's something I definitely needed.”

After Oden provided the briefest of updates on a knee that was “a little sore” after a four-minute debut in Miami's next-to-last preseason game at New Orleans, all eyes turned to a 3-point-shooting drill featuring the shirtless LeBron James, Ray Allen and Dwyane Wade. Discussion shifted to championships won the past two seasons and the possibility of another, whether or not Oden ever plays for the Heat.

“I just want him to enjoy being around this team, getting acclimated to our culture,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said, passing on presenting an Oden timeline for suiting up anytime soon. “That's the only expectation we have right now.”

Oden, 25, last played in a regular-season game Dec. 5, 2009, in Portland against the Houston Rockets.

He started for the Trail Blazers, and averaged 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots in only 23.9 minutes a game. After an injury-racked start to his career, Oden was easing — not erasing — the franchise's regret for drafting him over the ascendant superstar Kevin Durant.

About four minutes into his last game, Rockets guard Aaron Brooks drove the left side and was angling for a layup. Oden stepped across the lane and rose to attempt a block. He landed awkwardly, crumpled to the floor and left on a stretcher. His left kneecap was broken.

He never played another minute for Portland, completing a cruel trilogy of tall Trail Blazer tales.

Portland took three centers with the first or second picks of the draft: Bill Walton (1974), Sam Bowie (1984, ahead of Michael Jordan) and Oden. All three had their time with the Trail Blazers sabotaged by injury, leaving behind a shattered era.

It was during Oden's presumed recovery in 2010 after microfracture surgery on his left knee (a similar procedure on his right knee had cost him his rookie season) that past mingled with present, in the interests of sending a contextual message.

Walton at the time was making regular visits to the Portland home of Maurice Lucas, the great power forward of the Blazers' 1977 championship team and Walton's close friend. Lucas, who had resigned as a Portland assistant, was struggling with the bladder cancer that claimed his life in October 2010 at age 58.

Lucas knew that Oden had taken his second major injury hard, drinking too much to mask the burden of failure. A month after the injury, nude photographs of Oden that he had texted to a woman circulated on the Internet. Humiliated and depressed, he became a quasi recluse.

“Maurice was fond of Greg,” Walton, 60, said in a telephone interview. “And I also knew what Greg was going through, how lonely it is when you don't feel like you are part of anything. We invited Greg to come over a few times.

“Maurice was in the situation he was in, and Greg was in the situation he was in. You know, there's basketball and there's life.”

After 37 orthopedic operations and years of suffering with spinal problems that left him despairing, even suicidal, Walton was making the point that Oden, in his early 20s, needed to recognize the difference. In a rare interview last year with Mark Titus, a former Ohio State teammate, for the website Grantland, Oden indicated that he did.

“There's more to life than basketball, and at some point, it's going to end, anyway,” Oden said, referring to the game.

Just not yet. Not after a third microfracture operation and another year off to heal and after Oden auditioned in July for a pack of intrigued team officials and coaches — including Spoelstra and Pat Riley, the Heat's president — in Indianapolis.

Although Walton was a far more accomplished college and pro player when foot injuries derailed him in Portland, Oden's signing with Miami mimicked Walton's moving “heaven and Earth to get to the Celtics” in a trade from the Los Angeles Clippers in 1985. Walton said he had ignored warnings from his doctors that continuing to play could affect his health later.

They were right, but so was he, he argued, finding basketball paradise as a backup for Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, a teammate of Larry Bird's and a member of a Celtics team that won 67 games and Walton a career-bookend championship ring.

“I got another chance, and hopefully Greg can have that chance playing with LeBron James,” Walton said. “I can tell you that when you have early success, lose it all and get it back, it's, oh, my God.”

It would take a medical miracle for Oden to become what he was supposed to be. If he approaches that level, he may even be the glue to attach James to Wade when their contract opt-outs come up next summer.

For now, progress will be measured by the tiniest drop steps.

Oden's four-minute preseason appearance produced two rebounds, two fouls, two turnovers and one dunk off a deep entry pass into the lane. The Heat bench erupted as if he had dropped 30 on Dwight Howard.

Wade said, “That was great, that was cool, for us the best thing that happened in the preseason.” Shane Battier called the moment of Oden's dunk “the most emotion I've ever felt in a preseason game in 13 years, seeing that goofy smile on his face.”

Even as a college teenager, Oden had an older man's face, a solemn demeanor, as if he foresaw pain. But he smiled before making his locker room retreat and said, “I'm just happy to be a part.”

Then he was gone. As the veteran forward Udonis Haslem said, “You don't have to be a Heat fan to hope he comes back.”

New Orleans point guard Jrue Holiday (11) drives to the basket as Miami center Greg Oden defends during a preseason game in October.
Oden