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A moment of truth
By John Canzano
Updated: November 20, 2010
PORTLAND — The first time I spoke with Greg Oden he told me he wanted to be a dentist. I remember trying to imagine the 7-footer, then a college kid, leaning over some tiny office dental chair with his giant hands working on someone’s back molars. At the time, I figured professional basketball was a much better choice. Not so sure today. Don’t know if you caught it, but Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan signaled just that point at the hastily called news conference on Wednesday at which the team announced Oden would have his second microfracture surgery in four years this past Friday. In between all the fingerpointing, assessing of blame, and fretting over Oden’s fate and the Blazers’ dreams, said McMillan: “Greg needs to rebuild himself, not just as a basketball player, but as a person.” Well put, Sarge. Oden was blessed with that abnormally giant body and good athleticism. Basketball chose him, not the other way around. But because of his size and the potential that he could become the greatest big man to ever play, he’s been babied and fawned over for most of his life. And he’s never really had to work — until now. And I’m not sure he has it in him. Since he was 12, Oden has had a hall pass to life. He’s been granted societal amnesty. People laughed at his jokes, even when they weren’t that funny. They heralded him as a great academic at Ohio State, even as his college experience was hardly rigorous and lasted barely one year. And when Oden arrived in Portland, he traded on his celebrity by cruising the dormitories at Portland State, knocking on the doors of coeds, eliciting complaints from the resident advisers. The Blazers were complicit here, too. They bubble wrapped Oden from the start. They reduced expectations. They apologized for him. When he planned that unfortunate private bash on his 21st birthday, complete with a car-dealer sponsorship, beer sales and a $10 cover charge at a downtown club, it was the Blazers who scrambled to cancel the thing. They worked behind Oden’s back, conferencing with his agent and marketing folks, trying to convince the Blazers center that this was a really bad idea. In fact, they told him, “Canceling the party is your idea, isn’t it?” This was followed by an announcement that Oden was maturing. And I have to say, I bought the story, full boat, until he showed up a week later with that faux-hawk haircut. Then, the embarrassing nude cell phone pictures. Then, more questions about how hard Oden might be working to get back on the court. When I think about Oden, I don’t imagine the shot he blocked in the Rockets-Blazers playoff series three seasons ago. I don’t think about a landmark dunk. I don’t immediately see basketball at all. Mostly, I think about all the injuries, disappointment and the total lack of initiative and maturity that he’s demonstrated in four hollow seasons. He’s earned roughly $19.3 million for his time here. And on Thursday, the Blazers indicated that if Oden works hard to rehabilitate this injury they’re prepared to make a qualifying offer of $8.8 million and retain his rights for next season. That’s a juicy dangling carrot, and so maybe Oden matures as a person and decides here and now if basketball really is his thing. Or maybe he goes and chases some other dream. Either way, he reinvents himself. I called Sam Bowie a couple of years ago and wrote a column on the guy who has become the punchline to so many Blazer-related jokes. Bowie told me that he’d invested his money, was living off an annuity and that he was successfully running several businesses. Bowie also was driving his children to school every day, and spending time rooting for them at their sports games. He was married. He was happy. And he also had developed a close bond with the family who was living in his childhood home. Bowie told me then: “I didn’t come from much.” The Oden-Bowie comparison shouldn’t end with their basketball careers. And while the Blazers need to move on in exactly the same way they did with Bowie (trading him for Buck Williams), it’s true, too, that Oden needs to think about what his life needs to become. I remember being huddled around him with dozens of other reporters in Ohio State’s locker room at the Georgia Dome the day before the 2007 NCAA championship game against Florida. And hearing his soft voice and laid-back demeanor and wondering if he possessed the fire necessary to win at high-level professional sports. He’s soft spoken. Gentle. Nice enough. But he doesn’t have the fiery, driven X-factor that George Plimpton wrote about when it comes to competition. But Oden’s story doesn’t have to end here. That dental chair suddenly feels just about right.