Dave and Ben are at the Blazer's Edge Corporate Retreat at a villa in Bermuda*, and have left me the keys to the kingdom in their absence. That was their first mistake. -- Tim
You know, in the end I blame the Blazers themselves.
It's Marketing 101 for any sports team: Make sure the fans get to know the players. Give them reasons to care about them. Turn them into extended family! Another Pacific Northwest team, the Seattle Mariners, are notorious about using commercials to make their players seem more down to earth.
But of course, they're not family. It's all just a business, and the players are businessmen. They make decisions that are in their own best interests. And when you're regularly told (explicitly and implicitly) to see them as family, that leaves a mark.
Some fans will be upset. Some will lash out. Some will be fine with it, or happy for him. Some get snarky about the whole thing. And others will simply shrug and say "that's life", or "I've already moved on".
Huh, maybe it really is like family.
So, with little fanfare, Greg Oden moved on to his new home: Miami. Fittingly, the NBA team with the largest possible geographical distance from his previous team. A location where he never stood in the middle of town, bowing to a thousand cheering fans. A team that already won two Larry O'Brien Trophies without him. Just call him Icing, because he's on the cake.
I can't help but think about the parallels to a much more fondly-remembered Blazer Center: Bill Walton. He dodged injuries just long enough to bring Portland their only title, and a tantalizing glimpse of complete NBA dominance. And before long, the injuries returned. Animosity with the Blazer doctors followed, and after much ugliness, he left Portland. But he couldn't leave the injuries behind. Finally, after years of recovery and a loss of dominance, he found a team that needed some icing on their cake: The Boston Celtics. Walton had one last throwback year, winning the NBA's Sixth Man award in 1986 while helping the Celtics win the NBA championship.
Most Blazer fans were willing to let go of Bill's transgressions. That's what happens when you define a city, as he did for Portland in the late 70's. He was a beloved figure when he stepped on the court, and backed it up with the ultimate prize. No matter the animosity, nobody will forget a shirtless Walton celebrating Portland's only championship.
Unfortunately, Oden defined the late 2000's Blazers instead. All the promise in the world. Raising hopes to levels not seen since 1992. And for Greg, much like his team, it all fell apart. Not in one moment, but worse, in a protracted series of soul-crushing moments. Leaving us seemingly stuck in an area described by Blazer's Edge readers as "no man's land" and "purgatory", the area in the middle, between teams with hopes of a title, or hopes of grabbing the next Chosen One in the draft.
For some, there was still that little bit of hope before Friday. Perhaps Greg, who can still recover and dominate, would return to Portland. Perhaps rewarding the fans and team who invested their time, money and fandom in him. Or perhaps he really was finished. In that case, you don't have to worry about seeing him dominate, and you can accept losing him. But instead, now there's a fresh thought: His injuries could still heal, and he could dominate for another team. And worse, a team (and city) that has been handed so many riches, they look like Scrooge McDuck in the vault of gold coins.
There's no denying it: It's painful. It should never hurt to watch this footage or read the comments in this post. Or to watch the player chosen after him, somehow a well-marketed national star despite being in a small market, helping his team contend for a title. Or to read a recap of Greg's feelings, which left a fan base as divided as can be.
But in the end, Greg had to do the right thing for him. He hasn't played a single game since 2009. He didn't sign with a team that expects him to be a #1 pick. He's not signed to be part of a Big Three, with fan hopes wider than Greg's arm span. He signed with a team that will let him recover at his own pace, and will have minutes ready and waiting for him. And he has a player option, so if he finds himself healthy and successful, he can hit the market again next summer. And in the process, he has a shot at a ring. That's a pretty good move.
Meanwhile, in Portland, life moves on. We discuss what Robin Lopez will bring to the team, while remembering glimpses of Greg's utter interior defensive dominance. And we look to the future, wondering how we can get to the promised land from the perch where we currently stand. That's still a steep climb. With all that has happened, it's tough not to look at Greg, the family member who left us, along with his opportunity cost, and still dwell on "what if?".
Alas, you don't get to choose your family. In fact, Kevin Pritchard chose it for us. He had a win-win decision in 2007, and we all lost. That will forever be too painful for words. But in time, the pain fades. We couldn't control Greg's injuries. And we can't force him to stay in a city with so many (literally) painful memories. He may finally stay healthy, and find his promise. He may not. But in the end, we'll soon just see this as one of many chapters in Blazer history. Like 1988, when the Blazers were falling apart and top pick Sam Bowie couldn't stay on the court. That one worked out pretty well.
We didn't get the Greg (nor the team) we hoped for, wanted, and expected. And while it still hurts, it's not a fatal wound. In time, the wound will mostly heal, with a few scars to add to our collection. We lived through a stark reminder that things don't always work out as we hope. But in the end, we have many more chapters to read, we just won't fold the corner down on this one.
* Come on, you didn't take this seriously, right?