One of the more interesting stories during the NBA offseason this year – managing to get basketball fans going “wait, what?” even in a summer where Dwight Howard finally committed to a team1 and where major free agents went all over the place, sometimes in unexpected ways2 and where Toronto finally traded Andrea Bargnani and got a better return than a pile of ’57 Chevy parts in a box labeled “Betty” – was that a minor bidding war erupted for the services of Greg Oden.
Greg Oden, for those of you who are not basketball fans,3 is the rare person who can say despite having received millions of dollars to play sports that he still got a raw deal. See, Greg Oden was Portland’s #1 pick in the NBA Draft back in 20074 after being a ridiculously dominant center at Ohio State, the sort of epic-level big man who is increasingly rare in the NBA these days (because, well, it’s better to have a truly great 6’8″ player than an okayish 7’2″ one) and then promptly blew out his knee with microfracture surgery. He didn’t play until the 2008-09 season and spent the season plagued by injuries to his knees, which just kept getting worse and worse – but despite that you could see the flashes were still there. Multiple 20+point games. Twenty rebounds in a single game. “If Greg Oden were healthy” was everybody’s favorite what-if game.
And then this happened:
That’s Greg Oden’s knee blowing out on what was really fairly routine mid-air contact. That ended his 2009 season. He barely played the next year.
And of course eventually it looked like Oden was done – people basically gave up on him after the third set of microfracture surgeries on his knees – and people mostly forgot about him except as a what-coulda-been story, a modern-day Len Bias but slightly less tragic because Greg Oden at least didn’t die, and that’s something, right? He said in 2012 he was “going to sit out” the season to focus on rehabbing himself, which everybody mostly thought was just a graceful way to prepare for an exit from pro basketball because you can’t play the game without knees.
But he really did work on it. Knee microfractures are extremely difficult to rehab for an athlete but it’s not impossible. And this past summer, he let teams come see him work out (because nobody was gonna buy on Greg Oden without seeing him work out). And almost instantly he had teams expressing interest, and not bottom-feeders either: contenders like the Spurs and the Heat, up-and-comers like New Orleans and Cleveland. Mostly they wanted him as a backup centre, someone who could give five or ten minutes tops when needed.
Eventually Oden signed with Miami, because Oden’s not stupid: you can’t have less pressure on you than playing on a team with LeBron James on it because everybody’s looking at LeBron, not you. This of course left basketball fans perturbed, because everybody wants Oden to come back and have a good career, but on the other hand, fuck the Miami Heat, they’re the worst, they’re nearly as bad as the Lakers (by the way: fuck the fucking Lakers) and Miami Heat fans are some of the most appalling people in sports ever.
Anyway. I mention all of this because last night, in a pre-season game against the Pelicans, Greg Oden played proper basketball for the first time since 2009. He only played four minutes (two rebounds and a dunk), but the basketball internet all lit up because HOLY SHIT EVERYBODY GREG ODEN IS PLAYING ACTUAL BASKETBALL:
It’s visually incongruous seeing that seven-foot giant looking absolutely terrified to go onto the court, but he most certainly is that. You know he’s thinking about things most players don’t have to consider (or at least can easily suppress), including that the last time he was on a basketball court his knee exploded for reasons that seem impossible. But he goes out anyway, because that is what is great about goddamn sports: the desire to never stop competing, never stop trying to be the best you can be, and yes, never stop playing games and having fun, even if you are getting paid money to do so. It’s silly and illogical in all sorts of ways, but that’s mostly what makes us all human anyway, even when you’re seven feet tall. And that’s pretty good to be. Human, I mean, not seven feet tall. Seven feet tall would be kind of inconvenient, really.