So there has been an awful lot of talk about Greg Oden's current injury in the media and on the message boards lately. I wanted to talk a little about my opinion that most of the comments about him are too glib, and don't really get to the heart of the matter when answering the questions, "Is Oden really hurt?" and "Does Greg really want to play?". I think the first problem is the questions.
The first question, "Is Oden really hurt?" is in itself of a purely subjective construct. Listening to the Rome show today, one of his guests was former Duke standout, and current Rocket Shane Battier. When asked what he really thought about Tracy Mcgrady's current woes, he referred to his time playing with coach Hubie Brown. His response was that Brown told him "Don't ever think that you can be in anyone elses shoes." I thought this was incredibly analogous to our current situation. He went on to say that what may seem like nothing to one person, (when talking injuries) might be incredibly painful for another.
Now we can all speculate on the severity of Gregs injury, but to do so is both unfair to him and unfair to the team. It is an overblown distraction to an otherwise nice season, the best we've had in years. As of right now he is not going to play. Now this may or may not have any bearing on his future as a player. This injury could be physical. It could be mental. Or it could have varying degrees of both of these. I think to understand a little of Greg Oden you have to look at his history. Greg Oden has been told that he was a superstar since he was a child. He has always been the best member of any team he has played for, and often been the best player at his position in any contest, through his first year in college. In a way it is easy to see how for much of his life because of the support he has had on top of his physical attributes this has been less challenging for him than 98 percent of people out there. In essence he has never had to come into a situation where the moment he stepped on the floor he was not "The Man". So the transition to the NBA has not been kind to him. With all of the hoopla surrounding his entrance to the NBA, media attention and speculation, fan expectations and finally a year long rehabilitation it is easy to see that there has been enormous pressure on him to perform. I think he wants to perform, but is very fragile because he is still young and inexperienced, and compounded with the injury it is very understandable that he is hesitant to play at his full potential right off the bat.
Now anyone who has had a severe injury, or has been sick for a long time can attest to the fact that this kind of thing can easily shake your confidence. Sure there are plenty of people who can have a skydiving accident and go up a year later and jump out of an airplane. But it doesn't mean everyone can. I was hurt while training to be on the ski team in high school and it took me several years to get back to my old form. I opted not to have surgery, and let it heal with physical therapy, but in the end it didn't come down to anyone else expecting me to do it. I had to find the confidence to do it for myself. I couldn't imagine if I had an entire country waiting to see if I would ski again. If that were the case at that age I would have wanted to disappear. I guess my point is he is in a situation that he has no experience with, there are huge expectations for him and enormous pressures at work both internally and externally. So to ask the question "Does he want to play?", is potentially equally simplistic to the first question.
I think the better question is "Is he scared of failing?". If he fails he doesn't just fail. He fails an entire city, he fails his team, he fails his family, and more than these possibly he fails himself. Now the local radio shows will talk about the team treating him with "Kid Gloves" and "Babying him", and while there is some merit to what they are saying, pointing this out does not necessarily lead to his movement towards resolving these issues. The msp will talk about how we need to keep the pressure on him to "Man up", and several masogonistic references about his character, but this is potentially exactly the wrong thing to do. How many times have you heard about Nene, or Andrew Bynum, or Al Jefferson in the last week. Zero I bet which is understandable as we do not live in their markets, however these are guys who are going through an equally rough time in their careers, and I have not heard about any of them on any local or national media since they went down. These guys could easily be called frail, or injury prone, but they are not recieving the same kind of skewering that Oden recieves, both nationally and locally. My biggest problem with people talking about his spate of injuries is that I think he listens to what people say and think about him, and while we can all speculate about how he needs to get over it, that is something that people develop over time and experience. Also it is unfair to ask him to "Man up" because everybody deals with lifes challenges in different ways, and taking a long view on him historically it is completely understandable that he has not had to deal with a challenge as great as what confronts him now. He was thrust into a leadership role and told he was part of the big three. In hindsight this might have been a bit premature. It is hard to ask somebody who is not confident on their own to inspire confidence and show leadership. In fact it is one of the surest ways to set somebody up to fail. A friend told me long ago that people will always rise up to the level of their own incompetence. Now I'm not saying he is incompetent as a player or as a person, but I think in his mind right now his ceiling is lower than it's ever been in his life. So I think everyone needs to relax about him a little right now, and stop expecting him to be that final missing piece this year. The road to greatness is long and arduous, and it doesn't help if the people supporting you are the same ones knocking you to the ground.
Which leads me to the other part of the story. Why we shouldn't worry and be happy about our team. Everyone knows how tight things are in the west right now, and we all know how important it is to get every win we can going down the stretch. However, I think it is important to have a little perspective. How do we see this season ending? Is it realistic to expect a championship this year? The way I see it when I'm being honest with myself is this is not the year to win it all, at least when it comes to the trophy. I see that as a team the Blazers are still growing, and learning what it takes to be a championship contender. And one of the most compelling arguments for why we can say we are elevating to that status is what happened last week on the dreaded "Texas Swing"
Nobody will say that the Blazers played well against Houston, or San Antonio. It would have been great to get a win down there. Especially frustrating was the loss to Houston which could have easily decided home court advantage in the WCP's. However what it did, and what has needed to happen for awhile notwithstanding that these types of things all too often have to happen naturally, is the further emurgence of Brandon Roy as the true leader of this team. After losing to the Spurs, he finally anounced that he had "Had enough", and that the team was being put on notice. This is a revolutionary development as far as I am concerned. It is one thing to lead by example, but another thing entirely to gather the troops and inspire them to give their best. This is the mark of a true leader. It is one thing to walk the walk, it's one thing to talk the talk, but it is another thing to have other people respect you and believe in you for it. This was evidenced to me by our throttling of the Spurs on sunday. Enough was enough, and this team might have finally got it through their heads that they are as good as any other team. It's not talent alone that wins in sports, more often it comes down to who wants it more, and which team is willing to put it all on the line because hesitation does not earn any points.
We can look at a lot of things this season. We can talk about records, and we can talk about blowouts and teams that we beat that have dogged us in recent years. But I think the greatest victory of the season will never show up in the statbook. The biggest victory of the year is the fact that this team has won its identity, this team can stand alone against anybody on any night, and be the team that inspires awe and fear in their opponents. This team can be a team of champions and this team can do it with or without Greg Oden. Now I'm not saying him coming out and being a dominant beast isn't going to add to what is rounding into a perennial contending team, and I'm not saying that we need to baby him. What I am saying is we are where we are, we are who we are, we're winning the way we are and from where I'm sitting for this year, things look pretty good to me. So lets be happy that we have a team to be proud of, a team that is exceeding expectations, and this team is once again finding respect from other teams and fans all over the country. It's taken a long time to get here from where we were just five years ago. It has been a painful journey, but it is starting to pay off. And I for one would rather be a part of "Make it better." than sitting around talking about how this guy sucks, or this guy is a bust or saying we've made a huge mistake. No we haven't. We are witnessing things being better, and if we can just enjoy what we already have, which right now is pretty good, than when things get even better, we can stand up and be proud and tell everyone "This is how it's done."