First of all, he was absolutely, positively not going to play, no matter how well his rehab went. He was encouraged to go on several road trips—a few back-to-backs so he could learn how that makes the body feel and an 11-day January excursion so he could familiarize himself with arenas in the East. He was expected to show up for games at the Rose Garden, on time and in NBA-mandated business casual. Though limited by injury, Oden fulfilled some rookie tasks, such as helping to unload the equipment truck on the road. Only rarely did McMillan direct questions to him in team meetings; the Blazers wanted him to feel a part of the team but not as if he was on trial.
Nor did Oden thrust himself into the spotlight. He was never caught even hinting at a weakness of, say, Przybilla, or suggesting how much better Portland would be were he in the lineup. "First off, I'm a rookie, so I don't know anything about the NBA anyway," says Oden. "Why should you talk if you can't contribute?"
The fact that everything worked out didn't mean it was easy, though. "After my knee started coming around, I wanted to play really bad," says Oden, who was admonished but not fined when he was caught playing pickup ball at a Portland gym last March. "I didn't care if it was for two minutes. I did not want to be considered a rookie this season. A player wants to be with his draft class. What if I make the rookie-sophomore All-Star game this season? [A take-it-to-the-bank bet if he's healthy.] I'll be playing against the guys I was drafted with."
The party line is that Oden learned by watching, but the center says that the game unfolds so fast that picking up individual opponent weaknesses was nearly impossible. "What helped me the most—and I know this sounds strange—is watching guys miss," he says. "I remember during one of the San Antonio games Tim [Duncan] missed an easy shot, and it almost startled me. Man, when you're watching a game on TV, you think that he never misses that shot. So it boosts your confidence. I didn't pick up any strategic stuff, but I did come away feeling, O.K., I miss shots, they miss shots. I can play with these guys."
McMillan felt that Oden hit the typical midseason rookie wall (the rehab routine being as numbingly difficult as actually playing). But Oden says the toughest part for him came much earlier, in December, when the Blazers went on a 13-game winning streak. "I think when it got to 10 games—maybe it's something about double figures—it drove me crazy not to be playing," he says. "There was so much hype around here, and, man, I wasn't contributing to any of it. I wanted to be out there celebrating with the guys after every game. But I couldn't."
EXACTLY HOW much the Trail Blazers will be celebrating this season depends on several factors: The continued improvement of Roy and Aldridge. The quality of point guard play from Steve Blake (pass-first incumbent), Jerryd Bayless (shoot-first rookie) and Sergio Rodríguez (third-year question mark). The maturation of Spanish rookie guard Rudy Fernández, who has All-Star--caliber skills but may need some time to adjust to the physical NBA game. The willingness of forwards such as Martell Webster (who is out until December with a stress fracture in his left foot), Travis Outlaw and Channing Frye to contribute as their minutes invariably go down with Oden and Fernández on the floor. And don't forget that the Blazers, for all of their overachievement last season, were still only the 10th-best team in the conference; to ascend in the West, they will need slippage from the aging but still formidable triumvirate of San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix.
But it's undeniable that the focus is on Oden. He doesn't have to be Bill Russell from the outset, but he sure as hell can't be Kwame Brown. After all, it's a three-story-high Oden jersey that hangs from the side of the Rose Garden, and it will be the chant of O-DIN! O-DIN! (conveniently, the chief Norse god) that will reverberate most raucously through the arena when the Blazers are rolling. The long wait has only increased the anticipation to see whether pleasure delayed is pleasure doubled or pleasure denied.
That's a lot of pressure ... for a rookie.
"They'll probably make me do some rookie stuff again," says Oden. "That's O.K. I'm so eager to play, I'll carry balls, luggage, whatever." Fortunately, he's not being asked to carry a team. Not yet, anyway.
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