Greg Oden: a big man making small steps

May, 20, 2010
5/20/10
11:52
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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The story of Greg Oden has always been big. The seven-footer arrived in the NBA to an enormous downtown Portland rally, as the jumbo player slated to have a colossal impact.

Since undergoing microfracture surgery on his right knee before his rookie season, he has been seen, essentially, as a monumental disappointment.

The reality of Oden, in 2010, is a tale of much smaller pursuits. The important factors in his NBA life have become pedestrian. He spends his mornings lifting weights at the Blazers' practice facility, and his afternoons watching shows like "Gossip Girl." His daily goals are little things like keeping his emotional swings in check with professional counseling, controlling his weight with good diet -- he's talking up Whole Foods -- and finding the right doctors to keep him healthy.

Similarly, his game is not as bad as advertised. "I felt like I was starting to get the hang of it," he says of the 21 games he managed to play in 2009-2010. Thanks in large part to his elite rebounding skills, Oden finished the season with eighth best PER in the whole NBA, sandwiched between Chris Paul and Dirk Nowitzki.

"And then," Oden continues, "my kneecap broke in half." There wasn't even contact on the Dec. 5, 2009 play against Houston. The power of his own muscles had snapped his left kneecap. It's the kind of thing that doesn't happen to most players, but does happen to Oden (who has long been ribbed for looking like an old man). Thanks to the microfracture, an ankle injury, a foot issue, and now the kneecap, he has spent the majority of his career in street clothes. He even missed all but two games of his first summer league with a tonsillectomy.

In three seasons, he has played in a mere 82 regular season games -- one season's worth -- plus six playoff games against Houston in 2009.

"They ask me a lot: You think your body's just not made for this, or you're unlucky?" he says. "It has to be I'm unlucky."

Oden remembers standing on the court at the 2007 Finals, shortly before he became the draft's top overall pick, and imagining himself dominating in a title game like Tim Duncan -- another former top pick -- did that night. He insists that goal lives.

But first, the task is to make sure this really is a case of being unlucky, and not some undiagnosed medical concern behind his injuries.

A broken kneecap is hardly seen as the worst injury out there, and yet more than five months later Oden is still not cleared to do anything on the court that remotely resembles basketball -- he says he's mostly focused on things like lifting weights, watching his diet and walking up and down stairs. He's timid in making the most basic predictions about his future. Can the Blazers count on him to be ready to play in the fall?

"Nobody knows what's going to happen," he says, "but I feel for sure that I'm going to be ready for training camp next season. ... I'm going to have me a really good summer, go see me a whole bunch of different doctors and try to figure out what's going on with my body that makes me keep getting injured."

Henry Abbott | email

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