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Why Blazers Fans Should be Happy for Greg Oden

It was a big day for Greg Oden when the Miami Heat announced last week he’d be joining their squad to help them chase a third-straight NBA title. But for Blazers fans it was a cauldron of emotions as their former No. 1 overall draft pick and franchise savior was healthy and back in the league, just not playing for them. Here’s why Blazers fans should be happy for their former center, rather than bitter about the past.

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When I arrived in Portland in the summer of 2005, it was the tail end of the Jail Blazers era. Their best players were Ruben Patterson, Zach Randolph and Darius Miles, all of whom had been involved in various disciplinary incidents on — and perhaps more importantly, off — the court. When they finished the season with a humiliating 21-61 record (dead last in the league), the organization had basically hit rock-bottom. The games were sparsely-attended affairs, morale was at an all-time low, owner Paul Allen had put both the team and the Rose Garden arena up for sale and fans had grown increasingly apathetic amidst all the upheaval.

The franchise was at a major crossroads, but over the next two years everything started falling into place. An ineffectual Mo Cheeks was fired from his head coaching position and replaced with the no-nonsense Nate McMillan (aka “Sarge”); the upcoming drafts would yield future Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy as well as future All-Star Lamarcus Aldridge; Allen purchased the Rose Garden himself and took the team off the market, and the organization traded away the remainder of the knuckleheads on the roster. To cap it all off, the Blazers ended up winning the 2007 Draft Lottery, which featured two sure-fire superstars in Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. With that, the rebuilding process had begun in earnest.

Flash-forward six years, and we all know how things have turned out. Aldridge is the only remaining member of that promising young core, although his future here has grown increasingly uncertain, and the team has since embarked on yet another rebuilding process. Hindsight being what it is, fans in Portland love to bemoan the fact that we picked the wrong player in that infamous draft, but a screen grab from a trailblazers.com poll shows that 93 percent of fans at the time were in favor of taking Oden over Durant with the number one pick, so at the very least let’s not try to rewrite history.

So much of our anger and frustration about this turn of events has been misguided and/or misplaced because it speaks primarily to our collective inability to predict the future. The conventional wisdom around the league has been that, given the same set of circumstances, most teams would have chosen Oden over Durant with the knowledge they had available at the time. Even in the absence of a clear frontrunner, teams tend to draft according to need, and the Blazers understandably believed that they had their wingman of the future sewn up in a healthy, young Brandon Roy.

But the problem had much deeper roots. It was shades of Sam Bowie all over again, who the Blazers appallingly chose over Michael Jordan in the 1984 Draft and who is subsequently considered one of the worst draft busts of all time. The similarities between Bowie (whose career was also derailed by knee problems) and Oden were just too eerie to ignore. Like Bowie, Oden has been forced to sit back and witness the meteoric rise of his draft lottery counterpart. For the fans, it felt like a curse. It felt like the team was destined to wallow in obscurity, and Oden became a towering symbol of that sentiment.

Read on to hear how Portland’s patience with Oden ran out.

Even before his arrival, Oden was burdened with all of the expectations that go along with being the No. 1 pick; he was also prematurely crowned as the savior of a franchise that had just scratched and clawed its way back from the brink of annihilation. Oden, somehow, seemed to take it all in stride—at least early on.

But the tricky thing about fandom is the often complicated symbiotic relationship we have with the players we admire, and it’s all more or less predicated on performance. When players play well and represent our team and our city valiantly, we cheer for them, outfit ourselves in their gear, and purchase tickets. And when they don’t, well, we can be pretty fickle sometimes.

Players like Oden can easily become dehumanized. They become little more than a commodity to both the organization and its fans, and when they cease to be of value (or, in Oden’s case, actually become something of a financial drain), we start to lose our patience and eventually turn our backs on them entirely.

It’s one of the great paradoxes of celebrity culture. These are the people we simultaneously worship and deride, and despite the illusion of intimacy that we feel through the phony constructs of television and social media, we are utterly detached from them in the most fundamental of ways.
Blazers fans, however, have a reputation for being some of the most intensely loyal fans in the league. But they’re also notoriously clannish, and once you’ve been banished from the fold or have otherwise fallen out of favor, well, hell hath no fury…

While watching the Grizzlies’ postseason run at a neighborhood bar, several local patrons still held Zach Randolph in palpable contempt because of the reputation he earned during his tenure here. Fans have a similarly complex relationship with ex-Blazer Rasheed Wallace, the legendary hothead who left Portland and promptly went onto win an NBA Championship with the Detroit Pistons.

When it comes to Oden, fans have every reason to be bitter about this saga. He only played in 82 games over the course of four ill-fated seasons. He missed his entire rookie year because of microfracture surgery on his right knee. Then, he sprained his ankle in his very first game back. Two months later, he broke his left kneecap. Since then, he’s had two more microfracture surgeries. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

The problem is that everyone grew resentful toward him for things that were ultimately out of his control. He certainly never asked for his body to break down in such an absurd and inopportune manner, and it certainly isn’t his fault that the organization continued to throw money at him.

All told, Oden earned more than $23 million during his four-plus seasons with the Blazers. Granted, it’s difficult to sympathize with someone who continued to earn beaucoups of cash for essentially no ROI. Nonetheless, there was a certain irrational anger at the notion that Oden was somehow “stealing” from the franchise; that this was all somehow malicious on his part, as if he was deliberately perpetrating some sort of elaborate ruse because of laziness or lack of motivation. (I will personally sleep just fine tonight knowing that Paul Allen’s pocketbook is no worse for the wear.)

Ultimately, it was cosmic forces that conspired against Oden, the cruel hand of fate that reached down from the clouds and tapped him on his knees with an anti-Midas touch.

When things started to go south for Oden, it didn’t help matters much he was such a fiercely private individual. He’s always shied away from the spotlight, but during his darkest days in Portland, he stopped granting interviews entirely, stopped showing up to games, and more or less just receded into the background. Fortunately, Mark Titus, a Grantland staff writer and Oden’s friend and college teammate, has wrangled him into a couple of exclusive interviews within the past year, which have offered readers a rare glimpse into those dark days in Portland that, for Oden, were filled with guilt, depression, loneliness, and alcohol abuse. That’s neglecting to mention a particular scandal involving a certain cell phone picture of the, ahem, oversized center that was leaked online by a scheming groupie, an experience that must have been mortifying for someone as introverted as Oden.

It was all a stark reminder that for all of our solipsism, there was a sensitive, disappointed young man who was subjected to a level of scrutiny that most of us couldn’t even begin to fathom.

Find out why Blazers fans should leave the past in the past and cheer Oden’s comeback attempt.

As fans, we sometimes have such a skewed perspective we forget the athletes and celebrities we follow do not exist purely for the sake of our own amusement. Try to imagine for a moment what it must be like to be one of the best in the world at something, to be on the very cusp of realizing your lifelong dream, and then to have it all ripped away from you through no fault of your own. Then picture all those same people who once supported you slowly and methodically turning against you.

If that’s too much of a leap, simply try to imagine what it’s like to suffer an ongoing health problem that hampers your basic mobility (let alone the ability to play basketball). Now imagine that dragging on for more than four years. Anyone who’s sprained an ankle, torn an ACL, or broken a foot knows just how demoralizing it can be. Surely, most basketball fans can empathize with that.

But basketball is a cutthroat business. Every moment you spend on the bench, someone else is stealing your shine, and in the what have you done for me lately? atmosphere of the NBA, you’re only as good as your most recent performance. Just look at how quickly people turned on former MVP Derrick Rose last season when he didn’t return to action as promptly as some expected.

By contrast, you could argue that Blazers fans exercised Herculean levels of patience when it came to Oden’s plight, but eventually his presence, or rather his shadowy existence, morphed into a dark cloud looming over the city. Then he just sort of faded away. He stopped coming to games. The updates on his condition became less and less frequent. And at some point, we all just gave up hope and moved on. Today, the very mention of his name elicits groans, eye-rolls, and exasperated sighs.

After “The Decision,” the city of Cleveland, tore down the massive “Witness” banner blanketing the side of one of its downtown buildings in dramatic fashion. Here in Portland, we had our own version of that sign that has since been taken down after our hopes and dreams for a championship future had been dashed. It was an enormous “Rise With Us” banner that featured Brandon Roy, Lamarcus Aldridge, and Greg Oden, our own version of the big three that was supposed to alter the NBA landscape for the foreseeable future.

It was painful because Blazers fans care deeply about their team and about the long and storied history of the Trail Blazers franchise. “The Spirit of ’77” is a phrase you’ll see a lot here. It refers to the year the Blazers won their first and only NBA Title, and it calls to memory names like Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, and Jack Ramsey. It’s a phrase that carries meaning for multiple generations of fans, and it’s a reminder of what this team is capable of when it’s at its very best.

If there’s anything Blazers fans have learned over the years, it’s to temper our expectations, but we should also learn to let go of any bitterness or resentment we might still harbor. Barring any further debilitating injuries, Oden will make his return to the Rose Garden as a member of the Miami Heat on December 28. Once present, he’s destined to receive—at best—a mixed reception from the hometown crowd.

It’ll be strange to see him step onto center court, sporting a Miami Heat jersey of all things. The gut reaction will be to hurl jeers at the man who was at the center of so much turmoil over the past six years. The truth is that most of us moved on long ago, well before he was finally released from the team. As fans who once rooted for him, believed in him and invested so much in him, we should be happy for the simple fact that Greg Oden is playing the game he loves again. Which, by all accounts, is all he ever wanted to do while he was here.

Do you think Blazers fans should cheer for Greg Oden next season as he attempts his comeback?

Follow Jamie on Twitter at @WinoCarpenter.

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