For a player who is still just 24 years old, Oden has been through a lifetime of pain, injury, surgeries, rehabilitation and judgment. Always a quiet guy, all of this has made him even more reserved and private.
That silence has allowed people on the outside to question Oden and wonder about his attitude, his strength and his character.
It's amazing the things we think we can know about someone when we actually don't know much at all.
Grantland's Mark Titus knows plenty. A teammate of Oden's at Ohio State, Titus knows the guy behind the gruesome knee injuries and leaked camera-phone photos. Because of that relationship and a trust that has been built over the years, Oden agreed to speak with Titus, on the record, about his strange and sad NBA journey thus far.
Check out this quote from Oden on dealing with the mixed emotions that arise when NBA fans approach him during dinner at a restaurant to ask for a photo:
"I'm just a person. I guess I didn't really mind it when I was at Ohio State and even right after I was drafted, but it just seems so fake now. Like, why are you bothering me at dinner for a picture when I'm nothing now?"
This is a must-read for any NBA fan, not only because it's one of those rare moments where an interviewer can pull things from the interviewee that few others can thanks to their relationship beyond the interview that was conducted, but because it peels back the layers to Oden and forces us to remember and recognize that he is a young man who has had his dreams dashed over and over and over again and he still isn't ready to give up on them.
Before talking about how disappointing Oden's career has been, stop and think about the disappointment he has had to deal with over the past five years.
Add in the pressure and pain of dealing with the constantly celebrated success of Kevin Durant, the player selected immediately after Oden, and it's a true testament to his inner strength that he hasn't given up on his dream of being an NBA player and is instead trying to ready himself for another comeback.
Oden is candid with Titus. As candid as we've seen him and it's almost painful to read about the dark days he endured during his time in Portland. It's important to read, though, because instead of judgment and jokes, if any player is deserving of empathy and sincere well wishes, it's Oden.
Read this excerpt of Titus talking about Oden after his first knee injury and then of Oden describing the dark place he was in through his rehab:
It seemed to me while watching Greg on TV that he would be able to recover from his surgery and in a few years' time could be one of the premier big men in the NBA. But after longing for a veteran role model the previous season, Greg got exactly what he wanted in his second year, only the results were disastrous. That's because it wasn't an NBA veteran who took Greg under his wing in his second season — it was his veteran cousin from the Air Force who moved into Greg's house in Portland.
"If you know anything about guys in the Air Force," Greg explained, "it's that they drink a ton. My cousin got wrapped up in the NBA lifestyle and threw parties at my house all the time. So I got wrapped up in it too. When I played well, I'd drink to celebrate. And when I played poorly, I'd drink to forget. That second year in Portland I pretty much became an alcoholic."
In a footnote attached to Oden's quote, Titus explained the situation further saying:
I lost touch with Greg during his second season in Portland, but I talked with a bunch of mutual friends during that time, and when I asked how he was doing, they all said pretty much the same thing: "He honestly might need an intervention because he's a completely different person now that he drinks all the time."
None of that is surprising, but it sure is sad. And yet, Oden isn't ready to give up. He wants to be as much of the player he believed that he would be when he was selected first overall in the 2007 draft. He hasn't given up on the game even after being dealt one of the roughest hands I can recall.
Check out this exchange between Titus and Oden on Oden's hopes for a(nother) comeback:
"I don't care about what all of these injuries mean for any legacy I might have," he said. "I just want to play basketball. I could've signed with a team after Portland cut me and just sat on the bench and collected paychecks, but that's not my style. That just seems really unethical. Besides, money doesn't matter to me. I've got enough money. All I want is to get 100 percent healthy and get back on the court."
"But what if you can't get back on the court?" I asked him. "What if a doctor examines you in the summer of 2013 and says that if you play basketball again, you might not be able to walk when you're 50?"
"I'd just have to accept it," Greg said. "I'm at peace with everything. I want more than anything to be able to play again. But if I can't, I'll still have a decent life. Getting cut (by Portland) kind of put everything into perspective. There's more to life than basketball, and at some point it's going to end anyway. I'm going to do what I can to get back on the court, but if it doesn't work out, I'll find something else to do and have a normal life."
Sheesh. He's got perspective to go along with that heart and inner strength. He will find something else to do and have a "normal" life if he has to, but let's hope he doesn't have to. We all have dreams, hopes and things we want our lives to be. Given the size and skills to make his own dream come true, let's hope that Oden is eventually, ultimately rewarded for having a perseverance that runs deeper than the one most athletes will ever have to discover.
Titus is correct; Oden has found a way to survive this strange journey. I hope his future is filled with finally being able to live out the dream he's been working to salvage.
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