To a grieving acquaintance

December, 7, 2009
12/07/09
2:07
PM ET
Prior to the season, Henry Abbott and Jason Friedman made a friendly wager. Portland and Houston had three games scheduled over the first six weeks of the season. Whoever's team lost the "three-game series" had to write glowingly about the other's team.

By virtue of Portland's 90-89 win over Houston Saturday night, Jason lost the bet.

Unfortunately, the Trail Blazers lost something more significant in Saturday night's game -- Greg Oden to a season-ending injury.

As a writer who covers the Houston Rockets, Jason Friedman is has a great deal of empathy for Trail Blazers fans, and is well-versed in the coping mechanisms required of those who lose their favorite players to injury:

What do you say to a grieving acquaintance?

The inherent lack of intimacy often makes consolation a pipedream. Their pain is not your own. Any words of support or encouragement are destined to come across as hollow and trite, received as if they were nothing more than mere platitudes borne of obligation. Sometimes it’s better to simply let silence rule the day; to nod your head as a token of respect and understanding while allowing the aggrieved whatever time and space they require.

I know all of this. I get it.

And yet…

To stand off to the side and say nothing in this instance simply isn’t an option. I was at the Rose Garden Saturday night. I bore witness to the black hole which momentarily devoured every hint of color, joy and hope within the arena at the 7:45 mark of the first quarter until all that remained was the sickening sound of 21,000 distressed souls hoping their eyes had somehow deceived them. You know the rest.

In Houston, of course, we are all too familiar with that sound and the empty feeling which ultimately takes its place. We’ve heard the ludicrous chatter of curses and been filled with the fear which accompanies the label “injury prone.” It’s the price we pay for being human, I suppose. Our uncertain futures lead some to fill in the blanks with nightmares and phantoms of the worst kind. Given enough room to operate, those bogeys will happily shatter your confidence and destroy every last vestige of positive thought.

But there is another option. It is the one I come to pass along to my Portland “acquaintances” today. It is, quite simply, hope.

I know, I know. You don’t want to hear it. It’ still too early, the wound too fresh. That’s fine. I’ve been there. So, too, has Yao Ming. I’ve seen him down, despondent and depressed after his body betrayed him once more. But I’ve also witnessed how he responds to that betrayal with a quiet, steely resolve to return better than ever before. He understands that we are all faced with only two options in life: to give up or to press forward with the hope that each day will be better than the last. And he chooses the latter because he knows the first choice isn’t actually an option at all.

I recall seeing Yao right before the season began, as he was going through his workout routine at Toyota Center with personal trainer Anthony Falsone. Yao used crutches to go from station to station, while dragging along a boot that seemingly came from the Darth Vader collection on his surgically repaired left foot. He’d been going through this routine for more than a month by this point, knowing full well that many more months of monotonous rehab remained. And yet, his countenance reflected no sign of exasperation with that fact; he was upbeat, positive and quick to crack jokes. This part of the process was simply what had to be done in order to get back to the game and the team he loves. Therefore, he would do it.

Yao spoke that day of the grief which accompanied his initial realization that he would miss the entire 2009-10 season. He mentioned the mourning process that included a week spent mostly in disturbed silence. But then he told of his resolution and commitment to the rehab process. The moment for looking back was over. It was now time for work, for diligence and for hope. His goal stood far off in the distance but he knew that each day brought him one step closer and, therefore, each day would be better than the last.

I don’t know Greg Oden. But upon recalling that conversation with Yao, I suspect I have at least an inkling of what’s going through his mind right now. I’ve no doubt that he’s currently mourning in his own way. But just as certainly, I absolutely believe he will soon, if he hasn’t already, steel himself for the journey to come while dispatching the past in the process. Like Yao, Oden has, unfortunately, been through this before. And, like Yao, Greg will find solace by steadying his gaze on a future still rife with possibilities and potential. He’s only 21 years old, after all. He’ll be back.

In fact, Oden and Yao now figure to make their return at the exact same time: training camp 2010. It stands as yet another tie which inexorably binds our two great cities, Portland and Houston, together. The link began 26 years ago when the Blazers selected a ridiculously talented human pogo stick of a guard from the University of Houston named Clyde Drexler. One year later Portland and Houston were the principal figures in an even bigger draft coup: a coin flip for the rights to the No. 1 pick and an opportunity to select yet another U. of H. stud, Akeem Olajuwon. Since then, Drexler returned to Houston, the Blazers drafted Brandon Roy and Rudy Fernandez – both of whom were hotly desired by Houston – the Rockets made former Portland coach Rick Adelman their bench boss and the two teams recently met in the first round of last year’s playoffs. So maybe we’re more than mere acquaintances after all.

Point being, we are now bound together by a common hope: that our two talented and beloved big men can come back to fill the void their absence has left behind; that we can watch them go head-to-head once more, unburdened by the pain of the past and instead enjoying the sight of two of the game’s premiere big men battling each other at the height of their powers.

Their cities deserve such a sight. So, too, do their teams. But more than anyone, this Promethean pair deserves it. Thus, it is for them, and for all of us, that I hold out hope. I know they won’t give up. Neither, then, will I.

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