Greg Oden deserved better than this. If you haven’t heard yet, during surgery to clear debris in Oden’s already-microfracture-repaired left knee, it was determined that Oden would have to have microfracture surgery again on that knee, ending his season and putting him on a rehabilitation track again for the next year. You can find the specifics about it here, on CBS Sports.
You can also find a comment by someone wondering who’s a worse draft pick, Ryan Leaf or Greg Oden. The comment itself is nonsensical: Leaf played and acted mostly terribly while Oden’s never really gotten a chance to play at all (in the five years since he’s been drafted, he’s only played 82 games). But this commenter is not alone in questioning why the Blazers picked him and why they chose to extend his contract once they already knew he was injury prone. I’m not looking to answer those questions. I just want a moment to mourn the loss of what could have been for Oden the man. Before he’s a draft pick, or a stat line, he’s a human being who wanted to play pro basketball at a high level more than anything else and this latest surgery (the fifth in five years) is another nail in the coffin of that dream.
So is it weird that I’m mostly going to talk about him as a videogame character? As I’ve written before, people might think making basketball into a videogame is just a matter of making it as realistic as possible. But instead, a basketball videogame toes the line between fantasy and reality, perhaps in no realm as much as with injured players. Between 2000 and 2004, for example, following his trade from Detroit to Orlando, Grant Hill played in only 47 games—four his first year, fourteen his second, 29 his third and ZERO in his fourth. This was the player who was supposed to be Michael Jordan’s heir apparent. Year in and year out, though, the NBA 2K series rated him highly, in spite of the injuries. While the Magic struggled through carrying his contract in the real world, anyone picking to play as the Magic would get a healthy Hill kicking ass and taking names.
A similar alternative reality followed Oden, who entered the league in 2007. He appeared in NBA 2K8 rated an 80, dead even with the number two pick from the same draft, Kevin Durant. But in the real world, he underwent his first microfracture surgery in September of that year and missed his entire rookie season. When he finally saw the court in the 2008-09 season, he started living up to what we’d already seen from his videogame counterpart. On January 19, 2009, he pulled down 15 rebounds and scored a career-high 24 points—the kind of numbers his digital doppelganger had been putting up for a year and a half already. That season, he was rated an 83.
In these first couple years, Oden anchored the teams I built. A monster rebounder, a great scorer down low—the kind you just can’t find nowadays, even compared to Dwight Howard. But then, in NBA 2K10, Oden was rated a 74. In 2K11, 75. And now, in 2K12: 70. Is it right to punish digital Oden for something so far beyond the control of even the real Oden? What is the digital version of a player if not a best-case agglomeration of stats, measurements, and ability?
When it comes to players like Michael Beasley, J.R. Smith, or others with scads of potential but no clear idea what to do with it, a game can show us what they could be with clear eyes and full hearts. Within the confines of the TV screen, without everything else that makes up a life, these often-problematic players can become true stars.
But it was never Greg Oden’s basketball IQ or desire or heart that betrayed him. It was his body, the knees forced to carry a titan of a player through the real world, not the digital world. It’s entirely possible after this surgery that Oden never returns to pro basketball; he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season with no way to play his way back onto a team for at least another year. Greg Oden deserved better than this. He deserved the kind of career we’ve been making for him on Xbox360s and PlayStation3s for years now, free from the restrictions placed on him by his own body and free to live up to that potential we all saw in him.