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Friday, November 19, 2010
Greg Oden's story isn't about basketball, for now

By Henry Abbott

Greg Oden
Photo courtesy of Tom LipmanIt's missing the point, now, to worry about contracts or statistics.

Greg Oden.

The world got to know him as a basketball player: The magnificent Ohio State big man, the top overall draft pick, the next Bill Russell.

We judge players by things like uniform, draft position, contract size and rebound rate. That has been the basis of the relationship between Oden and fans.

But the basketball story seems pretty small and stupid now. That's not a conversation for this year. Sure, there are things to resolve -- he'll be a free agent or not, he'll rehab well or not -- but all that, to me, comes after his having to climb one hell of a mountain.

We sports fans may have had a rejiggering of our entertainment habits with the news of his latest microfracture knee surgery. We're facing disappointment in our amusement.

That's a laughable little concern compared to Oden himself. He's facing a huge mental health hurdle, a total redefinition of who he is and how he sees himself, and a real need to find things outside of basketball that mean a lot to him.


I called in sick yesterday. I have not been keeping stats, but I'm pretty sure it's the first time I have done that in the last decade.

It wasn't close. I could barely even watch TV, let alone work. The culprit: "a puke-up bug."

That's the cute name, the way my wife and I describe a certain kind of stomach virus to our young children. But in truth, when you encounter that much nausea, dehydration and (stop reading now if you're squeamish) that nasty green bile that comes up after hours of every other thing ... the feeling is of a 24-hour boxing match with Manny Pacquiao. Or death.

Terrible though the moment of puking may be -- the repeated pilgrimages from bed to toilet, the violence of every little abdominal muscle flailing away on your own innards -- the vomiting is not, in fact, the toughest thing about tangoing with the puke-up bug. The puking takes but a minute. The real hassle is the rest of the day.

At any normal time in life we are free to tell ourselves happy stories. Ooh, you might think, we're going to have a fun weekend. Or wow, can't wait to play basketball on Wednesday. Won't it be fun to have everyone over for Thanksgiving. Didn't that run feel good. All that kind of stuff.

A puke-up bug is more than enough to shatter that whole cycle. Weekends, sports, holidays ... who can worry about any of that when just rolling onto your side is enough to summon demons from the core of your being? Maybe that's some great person calling on my cellphone I can hear ringing downstairs -- but it's way too far away to go and get.

Lying there in a cold sweat, wondering if it's safe to sip some water now, or if this is the moment to head back to the bathroom ... this is when staying upbeat is laughable. It's a world without enthusiasm.

Of course, things get hard, and you ignore your little inner complaints. Tough people just roll right through. You go to work regardless. Usually.

But some things are just too big to ignore.

Lance Armstrong knows this. For a while there, he was facing death, thanks to his metastatic testicular cancer. When he was diagnosed, of course he continued to be discussed as an athlete. How would his illness affect his team? His endorsements? The sport? But what mattered in his life, then, was not much more than seeking out elite oncologists, settling on the right chemo regimen and focusing on his family. The sports stuff, the work stuff, for a while there, seemed less than trivial, and rightly so.

Of course, thankfully, Oden does not have cancer. He has bad knees. But his medical issues are bad enough that sports are no longer the story.


He's making millions of dollars. He's famous. He's young. He has the free time to watch "Gossip Girl" in the afternoons. So what if his NBA career is on the rocks?

Who among us wouldn't trade places with Oden?

Not me. Not in a million years.

It may be tempting to assume that trading your problems (the mortgage, your boss, the grind) for his (surgery, rehab) would be a great trade.

But I have literally sat across the table from him, and it's obvious he's in physical and emotional pain, and fairly isolated, at an age most of us are carefree. You wouldn't make that trade in person, I don't think, and for good reason.

Research shows that lottery winners, a year after the windfall, tend to be about as happy as they were before the big bucks. And money, other research shows, tends to make people happier only up to about $75,000 a year. Below that, it pays for meaningful things like housing, the occasional vacation and health insurance. Beyond that, it pays for lots of stuff that does not tend to actually make life more enjoyable.

Happiness, it seems, does not come from the end of work or hassles. Happiness has a lot to do with how things go, for you, compared to how they normally go for you.

That's where Oden is about as unlucky as they come. The drop-off from where he has recently been -- about to take over the NBA -- to where he is (Will be able to walk when he's 50? Are you certain? What will he do in the next year that will be fun? Does he have friends around?) is just so incredibly steep.


Nate McMillan, Brandon Roy, Hersey Hawkins ... get any of them talking about Oden before the news of his latest microfracture and they'd say positive things. But they'll also make clear that he's a guy they keep an eye on. As people close to him, they see it as part of their job to keep his head up, to keep him motivated.

And rightly so. Oden is happy to explain that he has sought professional help for his emotional swings, and it's not hard to understand why. When you define yourself as a warrior, but you never get to enter, or win, battles, it can get tough to stay upbeat.

This is a world without enthusiasm. I had it for a day, thanks to a tenacious little virus. Oden has had it, more or less, since entering the NBA, thanks to a body that seems wholly unable to withstand the rigors of the NBA.

A lot of stuff in the life of a professional athlete is hard. Playing through pain. Missing your kid's first Christmas to play in L.A. Rolling out of bed, day after day, to head off to the gym.

But most challenges come with some kind of payoff. You play injured for the big game, you might make a great play -- or at least earn the respect of co-workers. You get in great shape, and maybe you'll find 18,000 people standing and cheering for you.

But let's recap the proposition for the rehabilitation from major surgery. Instead of doing something tough for an hour, or a day, and then enjoying some high-fives, this is a story of doing something hard for a year or more, and the payoff is pitiful. With a few tiny exceptions, the best case scenario is to end up somewhere slightly behind where you were before the surgery. There are no bonuses, no pats on the back, no meaningful successes to be had for Oden over the year to come. The gratification is not just unimaginably delayed, but also powerfully diminished.

For a day, I tried life without positive thinking, and found it brutal. Oden's embarking on yet another year like that. Tough.

Physically, it's just work. Psychologically, though, that much work with that little payoff ... it's a bear. I suspect Oden is up to it -- what choice does he have? But as long as he's facing all that, let's press pause on that outdated talk of Kevin Durant, Sam Bowie and the like. None of that matters today.