MEANTIME, ODEN waits. It can't be fun being 19 years old, marooned in a new city 2,000 miles from your base in Indianapolis, suddenly made to confront your athletic mortality amid the shroud of gray and relentless rain that defines winter in the Pacific Northwest. Not to mention that only months before, you had agonized about leaving your charmed life in college to become a pro. But Oden is doing ... well, let's let him characterize it. "I'm O.K. I really am," he says. "It's mostly good days. It's my redshirt season, and I'm trying to make the best of it."
Giving new dimension to the phrase suiting up for the Blazers, Oden spends most nights seated behind the team bench dressed like a banker. During games he'll often fix his gaze on the opposing big men and take a mental inventory of their moves and tendencies. "It's actually helping my confidence," he says. "You know how you watch games at home and think, I could do that! That's how I am. I could get out there and average 10 points!"
Just 10? "Maybe 12."
Whatever Oden lacks in ego, he lacks in id as well. Ordinarily, teenager + $8 million contract + oceans of time at his disposal is a scary equation. Oden, though, lives the existence of a monk, albeit a very tall one. Too young to drink, too big to go unnoticed, he mostly stays at his modest suburban house, near the team's practice facility. He has challenged the structural integrity of his DVD player—"I'm an Entourage guy; CSI too"—watching old shows and movies. He plays with the Boston terrier--beagle he's named Charles Barkley McLovin. Complying with an unwritten Oregon state ordinance, he blogs (yardbarker.com/users/gregoden). Last week he attended the NBA league marketing meetings in Miami and sat alongside Russell, Julius Erving, Bob Lanier, Alonzo Mourning and Bill Walton on a panel to discuss leadership.
He spends the balance of his time at the team's practice facility rehabbing his knee. While microfracture surgery has been successful for numerous players, most notably Suns center Amaré Stoudemire, the recovery time is agonizingly long. Four months after the procedure Oden just started working out on a basketball court last week. While he's gained 20 or so pounds of upper-body mass and now weighs 280, he still hasn't been cleared to run. Blazers officials insist that there's no chance he'll return before next season. "It's been tough mentally," Oden says, fiddling a small wallet he wears on a lanyard around his neck, "but I keep my spirits up knowing I'm getting myself ready for when I do come back."
WHILE THE BLAZERS' current road trip, which includes visits to Boston, Orlando and New Orleans, will reveal plenty about how good the team really is, the city of Portland has, after years of disillusionment, reembraced the franchise. Happy as fans are about the present, inevitably thoughts race to the future—and not just because the Blazers will have the rights to guard Rudy Fernández, who's currently torching the Spanish league. If they can contend for a division title now, what can they do when Oden is wearing his number 52 jersey and not a suit? "Man, they're doing real good this year," says Oden. "When I get back, they gotta be a whole, whole, whole lot better. That's pressure!"
In part to assuage the kid's boredom and loneliness, but also to ensure that the winning chemistry carries over to next season, management has gone to great lengths to weave Oden into the club's fabric. So it was that he joined his teammates at a bowling alley last Friday. The occasion was Portland's annual Season Ticket Holder Appreciation Party, held at Big Al's, a massive "family entertainment center" across the Columbia River in Vancouver, Wash. When the team walked into the building, thronged by fans, Oden drew the loudest cheers.
While other Blazers bowled, danced and played air hockey with some of the folks who had helped to sell out the last seven games at the Rose Garden, Oden stayed off his feet, repairing to a back room to play Guitar Hero. Surrounded by a hundred or so fans, Oden strummed a plastic guitar that in his massive hands looked like Tiny Tim's ukulele. He started off with Welcome to the Jungle (symbolism, anyone?) and struggled. Midway through, the monitor inexplicably flickered off. As debuts go, it wasn't much.
But moments later Oden was at it again. This time the song was School's Out (more symbolism, anyone?), and Oden hit a groove. Nodding to the beat, he played all the right notes. As the crowd went nuts, he finished with a score of 101,600. He'd made the most of his second chance. "Yeah," he said, smiling. "That's more like it."