You don’t have to study Greg Oden’s gait anymore to know he has knee problems. These days, you just have to look at his face.
It has become a joyless countenance, one weighed down by frustration, criticism, and, in my opinion, fear.
I remember a workout last month in which reporters were lingering in one corner of the Trail Blazers’ practice facility, chatting with coaches and players, when Oden ducked out through the media entrance to avoid them.
I’d never seen anyone without a notebook or camera saunter through there before, but the message was clear: He’d had enough. And who could blame him?
When the Blazers announced that the center was going to have another season-ending surgery last week, fans engaged in some Category 5 Oden bashing. Now they’d had enough. And the chief complaint? That Kevin Durant, the player selected directly after Oden in the 2007 NBA Draft, is poised for his second straight scoring title.
Who could possibly know what that feels like — to not only be a Hall-of-Fame disappointment, but an incessant reminder of what could have been?
One person, actually.
His name is Sam Bowie.
“I got the news last week about the injury. I think I felt it more than anyone besides Greg because I can relate to that scenario,” said Bowie, now 49 and living in Lexington, Ky. “I feel so bad for the kid. I know what he’s going through.”
Twenty six years ago, Portland drafted Bowie with the second overall pick. He averaged 10 points and 8.6 rebounds as a rookie, but played in just 63 games over the next four seasons due to injuries.
In 2005, ESPN named the Bowie selection the worst draft decision in North American sports history. Mainly because the third pick that year was a certain North Carolina guard — you may have heard of him — named Michael Jordan.
“There are always going to be talk shows or Trivia Pursuit questions that talk about me being drafted ahead of Jordan,” said Bowie, admitting he’d catch himself marveling at Jordan’s ability in the middle of games. “Obviously, none of us knew he was going to turn out to be the greatest player to play the game, but being picked behind me made it that much worse.”
Life is timing. Players such as Kwame Brown, Michael Olowokandi and Stromile Swift are all first or second overall picks who had less productive careers than Bowie, but they were spared the burden of sharing a draft with one of the planet’s all-time great athletes.
Some might say that if the situation ever depressed Bowie, he could always wipe his tears with a spare hundred dollar bill. He was, after all, a multi-millionaire paid more than any of his Blazer teammates. But kids playing in their driveways counting “5-4-3-2-1” are imagining buzzer beaters and crowd roars, not contract negotiations and performance incentives.
“The money does matter. If anyone tells you the money doesn’t matter, they’re lying. But there’s also pride and dignity. And once you’re on the court, no one’s running down the floor saying ‘hey, I make more money than you.’ Money is secondary,” Bowie said. “Looking back on my career, one of the things I would do differently is give my body more time to recover. I felt guilty. I felt like I was getting compensated so well, but never able to perform. So I allowed the situation to get me on the court sooner than I should have. That would be my one piece of advice to Greg — as hard as it is, finish your rehab. Give your body extra time.”
Bowie has never met Oden, but has been a fan since Greg’s Ohio State days. He emphasized how Oden was the consensus first choice before Portland obtained the pick, and that the “7-1, 280 pound beast” is only 22 and can still have a highly productive career. But Bowie also asserted that while he and Oden’s basketball paths share many parallels, they’re not quite analogous. Soccer moms and piano teachers don’t all know who Kevin Durant is.
“I don’t think anybody in the past or future drafts will ever be in a situation like me. Kevin Durant has already done some things no one has ever done, but he’s got a ways to go before you classify him as Michael Jordan,” Bowie said. “I don’t want to come across as belittling Kevin. I think he’s the real deal. But let’s be realistic — he’s no Jordan.”
You’d think going down as an all-time bust would send someone into a lifetime funk, but based on Jordan’s scathing Hall of Fame induction speech last year, Bowie seems a heck of a lot happier than the guy picked behind him. He’s married with kids, has made hundreds of thousands of dollars as a racehorse owner, and last fall became the first African American accepted into the exclusive Idle Hour’s Country Club in Lexington.
So while his hopes for Oden are still sky high, Bowie insists that even if it doesn’t work out on the hardwood, the sky is still the limit.
“What I’m trying to say to Greg is that, while it looks like negativity, I promise a lot of good will come out of it,” Bowie said. “God forbid that he doesn’t get back on the court, but if that’s the case, his life is a lot longer than his basketball career. Life is great. Life is really good.”
Matt Calkins is the Trail Blazers beat writer for The Columbian. He can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter attwitter.com/blazerbanter