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All You Can Do Is Laugh: On Losing Greg Oden, and The Folly of Expectation

PORTLAND, OR - OCTOBER 27:  Greg Oden #52 of the Portland Trail Blazers watches a free throw attempt by the Houston Rockets during the season opener on October 27, 2009 at the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Casey MichelCorrespondent INovember 20, 2010

Last week, I got a text. And I laughed.

At some point, you’ve just got to laugh. Not with your gut—a quick exhale will do—and certainly not at the misfortune. You know this luck should befall none but the worst of us, none but the ultimate villains.

You offer a short shake of your head and a brief downward gaze, and then a resumption of your life. You close the cell phone, and you close the book.

Oden’s done. And you laugh.

You laugh at the memories of yourself, 19 again, hair at your shoulders, clasped in the arms of your friends jumping through their basement as David Stern pulls out the white placard with the Blazers’ logo.

Number one. We’ve got it. It’s ours.

You laugh as you leap around the basement, spinning into the new era as an entire city screams in delight.

You laugh at all of the drives down Burnside, past potholes and Powell’s, coming across the billboard on 10th. Emblazoned in red, white, and black, the instructions are easy: Honk once for Oden, honk twice for Durant. You lay it on.

The passersby jolt upright, then relax with the realization that there’s yet another fan in this basketball-mad town. They wait for the second honk, but none comes. They wait, like there’s a choice. But it’s going to be Oden. It’s got to be Oden.

And why wouldn’t it be? The big man is the key. The big man is the root of the pick-and-rolls, of the hip-checks and the offensive boards, of the rings and the parades and the keys to the indebted city. Plus, it’s not like you’ll overlook Jordan again.

In the 50-plus year history of the NBA, there was only one Jordan; the sniper has felled the trees but once. Jordan was God. Jordan was a fluke.

Russell. Chamberlain. Kareem. Shaq. Duncan. These are the ones you want. Every dynasty needed that centerpiece. The Bulls got lucky, because there’s no one like Jordan. Right?

You laugh at that summer afternoon, the July perfection Portland always offers, as you crush into Pioneer Square to welcome Oden to his new home. Nate MC’s, not quite barking, not quite beaming, a temperament that would soon become all-too necessary.

Kevin Pritchard saddles next to him, all aviators and salt-and-pepper, the Boy Genius who will bring our team back to the promised land. The same man who will be out of a job three years later.

You bob up and down as the light-rail pulls into the north side of the square, opens its doors, and unleashes the man-bear-beast into the sunshine.

Stepping onto the stage, Oden, feasting on the crowd’s fervor, gleams, dances, and promises the championship for which we’ve thirsted for 30 years. You shout your agreement. And you wonder, now, if those dance moves played some role in his injuries. Nah.

(Maybe.)

You laugh because of the history. The Seventies had the Championship, yes, the Miracle at Memorial—but they also wrought Walton’s knees, and the subsequent collapse of a nascent dynasty. (For an excellent capture of just how close we were, read David Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game.)

The Eighties brought us Bowie, a man who’s story needs no telling. The Nineties blocked Sabonis when we needed him, needed his size, his force, his grace.

And now the Aughts have taken Oden’s career and cast it on layaway. Just when things were looking up—truly, after the success of the past two seasons, we were finally, finally, primed—Oden’s career burrowed itself underneath scalpels and stationary bikes, under petulance and depression, sabotaging itself before anyone knew how the narrative would begin.

So you laugh, because history has repeated itself. Again. To us. To the only team we know. To the only sons we love.

You don’t cry for the lost opportunity. You don’t cry when you remember that we’ve already lost Maurice Lucas—the strongest link to that ‘77 banner, the Greatest Blazer of All-Time—earlier this year. 

You don’t cry when you hear the news that Roy is missing meniscus in both knees, and has endured bone-on-bone for god-knows-how-long, and that, shit, if that’s the case, and the doctors can’t perform surgery, and there’s no sign the knees will stop their grinding till they’re dull, dust, done—if there’s nothing we can do but wait, then his career may be …. No—you won’t say it. Because that might just make you finally cry.

But that day’s not here. So you laugh. You go on, watching the development of Armon and Dante, waiting for LaMarcus to fill the leadership void, wondering if Rudy will ever realize that he’s stuck in town and finally play as such.

You don’t bemoan Durant, or besmirch his ever-expanding talents. You sure as hell don’t yet consider him Air Apparent…but you admit the possibility that, perhaps, Jordan’s talents have been reborn in another. And that, as a basketball fan, is what you want. You rationalize, and force a smile.

You hope that the Blazers fans, and the Portland community at large, rally to Oden’s massive side and pull this 22-year-old to his feet.

He doesn’t need our pity any more than he needs our condemnation. He needs us, more than ever, to Rise With Him. You hope that one day he can laugh with us, knowing full well that day will never come. 

Oden’s season, and probably his career, is done. You read the text, and even though there’s no wind left in your gut, you laugh. Just a small one. And then you lean your head, close your eyes, and want it all back.

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