Oden aiming for 100 percent
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Whenever Greg Oden walks the streets of Portland, he braces himself for the commentary of passers-by.
"I hear a lot of different stuff," the Trail Blazers' injured center said. "I hear everything from 'Stop getting hurt!' to 'Get well, we're here for you,' to 'You can't be here! You should be rehabbing.' And I hear it at all hours of the day.
"I just smile and keep on walking," continued Oden, who speaks in gentle tones and tends to smile regardless of the topic of conversation. "You've got to. Portland is small like that. You don't want to do something wrong here, because if you do one bad thing with Portland, you get a bad little reputation. You know people start to watch you, with all the bad stuff that went on before [during the 'Jail Blazers' era]. You can't do nothing, you really can't say nothing. You've just got to deal with people saying those things and just keep moving."
The 7-foot Oden has totaled 82 games in the four seasons since he was the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft. Microfracture surgery on his right knee ended his rookie season before it began. He has not played since last December, when he fractured his left knee. He is 22 and weighs 285 pounds, and it's only natural -- given the excruciating pain and public scrutiny that accompanies each injury -- that he would be wary of returning to the court.
"We're sure he's [worried about it]," Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. "There's no question we're working with the mental aspect of this whole thing. Part of that is just trying to get him as healthy as possible and being patient and not forcing him to go out there. It's bad enough when you have an injury and you're playing against the best in the world and you're not 100 percent, and you've been out for, really, two years. Mentally, it does have an effect on you because you know you've got to perform against the best in the world, and they may be at 95 percent -- because nobody's 100 percent -- and you may be 60 percent. And there are the expectations and you want to perform, so, yeah, it's a mental thing that you have to get over."
When I met with Oden last week in Portland, he made it clear he is not going to hurry back until his body feels ready. The Blazers -- who did extend Oden's rookie contract by the Nov. 1 deadline, making him a restricted free agent next summer -- are on board with his approach.
"They tell me you're probably not going to be 100 percent," Oden said. "But I'm like, Why not? What's wrong with trying to get out there and get back to 100 percent where my whole body is feeling good? I don't see any harm in that. Even though this is a contract year, I'm trying to look out for a long career; I'm not trying to look out for the short term. I want my body to feel good, I want to go out there and feel like I can perform with the best."
Oden told me his right leg is shorter than the left by "a couple of centimeters," to the point that I noticed him limping as he walked down the hall to a pregame chapel meeting at the Rose Garden last week.
"I wear orthotics in everything except in my dress shoes -- they're so tight in dress shoes," he said. "But I wear orthotics in everything else, because if I don't, it's so significant that you notice it. People will come up to me and ask, 'Why are you limping?' It's just how I walk."
He traces the issues back to an older injury.
"I spoke to some experts and they say it's in my hip," Oden said, pointing to his right side. "I had a hip fracture when I was in sixth grade, and I saw one guy who said that could have something to do with your pain over here [as he pointed to his left knee], that it's just throwing you off a little bit. It doesn't happen right away, but sometime down the line it's going to happen."
He insists he doesn't view himself as the second coming of Sam Bowie -- that he isn't destined to suffer one injury after another. That's why he is adamant about returning to full health before he plays again. It's also why he is able to handle negative comparisons with the No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft, Thunder forward Kevin Durant, the league's leading scorer who drove Oklahoma City to an overtime win last week at Portland.
"One thing that was funny to me, at halftime of the game I'm sitting in the back room and I'm watching TNT and they start showing my highlights and they start showing Durant's highlights," Oden said. "They had the TV turned down but I know every time they do that none of it's positive for me. They show me getting hurt, then they show Durant, you know -- All-Star, youngest scoring leader, they're saying all that and I know they're not saying anything positive. I know all they're saying is, 'Portland probably should have done this, Greg's a bust.' I've heard it before, so when I see it I don't even have to listen to know exactly what they're saying."
The Blazers went into Friday's visit to Oklahoma City with a 6-3 record despite knee injuries to Oden, center Joel Przybilla -- who is pushing to return before his target date of Nov. 26 -- and star guard Brandon Roy, who is awaiting his own diagnosis of a persistently swollen left knee (not the same knee he had surgically repaired last April) in recent days. Roy has noticed that Oden is more proactive and confident in this rehab than he was during his rookie year.
"He wasn't always in good spirits," Roy said. "There were times when he was down. I think dealing with it the first year helped him more with this situation. I always tell him you can't really focus on what people say; you've got to focus on rehabbing and getting back ready.
"You can't come around the team moping and you can't hide away from guys. You have to continue to be a part of this team, and I think he's done a much better job of that this time around. He's gone on all the road trips, all of the practices, and the last time he didn't even come around much. I figure it's much better this time around because we're used to seeing him and talking to him."
Oden spent the summer in Indiana -- he grew up in Terre Haute, Ind. -- where he bought a house and underwent a new exercise regimen based on stretching and strengthening his core muscles. He hired a chef to improve his diet, and for the first time he began to view the national news on TV, whether it was Good Morning America over breakfast or the evening news at dinner.
"I started watching the news, because I don't go out a lot," he said. "That actually was really depressing."
He recalled two events in particular: The stories of an allegedly drunk police officer who struck and killed a motorcyclist in Indiana, and the Connecticut home invasion that resulted in the deaths of a mother and her two daughters.
"It was a lot of weird, depressing stuff that went on," Oden said. "When it came down to it and I'm looking at my knee, I'm like, This is definitely not a big deal, because I'm definitely a lot more fortunate than other people."
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