Dear Greg Oden,
I have an apology to make.
In 2007, after your Ohio State basketball team lost the national title to Florida, I saw you walking around campus on a particularly crappy April afternoon. It was raining, and you had your hoodie up, but since you're also seven feet tall and look roughly like Tolkien's description of an Ent, I'm reasonably sure that it was you.
Anyway, you looked sad. Real sad. Which makes sense, because you had just lost a national championship game. I was sad, and all I did was yell at people in Eddie George's restaurant. You on the other hand had 25 points, 12 rebounds, and four blocks in maybe the best performance of your college career, and looked on as your teammates bricked on 19 of their 23 threeball attempts. No amount of David Blaine DVDs can snap a guy out of that kind of funk.
So I probably should've told you something supportive when I saw you, and when I saw that douche make fun of you behind your back as you walked away I definitely should've punched him in the balls.
Still, my fist was swayed from any groinal attacks because I reminded myself that soon you were going to be a big NBA star, with millions of dollars, legions of fans, and the opportunity to hire body guards to do your own ball-punching for you.
There's an assumption that we make as college sports fans, and that's that the players we root for will inevitably go on to be incredibly successful in the NBA or NFL or MLB or the Olympics or whatever. Because of our overall allegiance to our team, it's hard for us to be objective about the Antonio Pittmans, Anthony Gonzalezes, or David Lightys or the world. We watched and celebrated these guys at their best, and if they end up failing at the next level, it comes as a shock to us.
You weren't that guy. I watched your brief collegiate career with anticipation, because for once I saw a player who I knew beyond any doubt had the skills and ability to be an instant NBA star. Your game was (and is) an increasing rarity in modern basketball, but you didn't play like a curious anachronism, you played like a force of nature that could bend the nature of the game you play to your will.
And then you got hurt.
In fact, your knee had microfracture surgery before you even played one minute in the NBA, causing you to miss the entirety of your rookie NBA season. And it somehow got worse from there. In 2008-09, you missed weeks and weeks of playing time because of various injuries. You came back the following season, played well... and then in December suffered yet another season ending injury.
Cue the jokes.
See, here's the thing I've always wondered, Greg. Overall you seem like a really solid dude. I've never heard a single negative story or anecdote about anyone's personal interactions with you, and given that you could've picked up the aforementioned random doucher by the skull and shaken him around like a bottle of orange juice and yet didn't says a lot about your character overall. And look, if taking naked selfies is a crime you might as well lock up half of the United States under the age of 30.
The ire directed your way has always kind of mystified me. I'm a big fan of The Onion, but I'm not sure that five or so potshots directed at a guy in obvious and continuous pain was really warranted. I'm less of a fan of Twitter, and the incessant need to rip on a guy who spends his offseason going back to class at his former college seems to justify my general feelings.
And even me: though I'm happy about your NBA return, sometimes I still catch myself worrying about whether the next play you make will be your last, if the next time you land awkwardly in the paint is the last time that you land awkwardly in the paint. Which is dumb.
See, here's my point: a few weeks ago, you played in your first NBA game since 2009. And you dunked on your first possession. It was awesome; you reminded me and everyone else you even casually watched you in college that guess what, you're only 26 and still capable of feats of athleticism that we can only really dream about. Since then you've appeared in only a handful of games, but to be honest, I still thrill at every block and steal and dunk on Tim Duncan's goofy face that you make. Because at this point, you really don't have to prove anything: you're playing basketball. And you like basketball.
"No way man, if that's the card I signed my name on in your wallet I'm getting the %#&! out of here!" Greg Oden, Center, Portland Trailblazers
Note: Mr. Oden ran out of the room shortly after the above statement was made.
Er wait, wrong quote.
"After three years of being out, I’m just going to go out and do what I can," Oden said, according to the Associated Press. "If somehow (my body) says no, then it says no. But for me, I’m not even worried about that. Just go play and not even think about that. I’ve signed on the dotted line, put it like that. I’ve got a contract. As y’all can see this smile, I’ve got a contract. I’m excited."
That's zen as hell, dude. The rest of us can squabble and snark and play around in the garbage of negative sports fandom all we want, but you're getting paid to play professional basketball and enjoying it. For anyone that's great. For you, who's been through physical and mental hell and back, that's awesome.