Commentary

After a long wait, Oden's debut comes to a hobbling halt

Originally Published: October 29, 2008
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- At this point you have to wonder what Greg Oden did to deserve this, whether he racked up bad karma points like frequent-flier miles in a previous life, or if he shattered a mirror by throwing a black cat into it on Friday the 13th.

Only 2½ minutes into his NBA debut -- which was delayed for a year by knee surgery in 2007 -- the Portland Trail Blazers' center suffered what the team called a sprain in his right foot. He played on it for the rest of the first half in the season opener against the Los Angeles Lakers, but when the third quarter began Oden was back in the trainer's room, preparing for an X-ray.

Sixteen months of waiting … for less than 13 minutes of play.

The X-ray was inconclusive; Oden will have an MRI exam back in Portland on Wednesday.

Trail Blazers fans already have their own diagnosis: worst-case scenario. They drafted a They-Don't-Make-'Em-Like-That-Anymore big man, only to find out he can't play.

To paraphrase Indiana Jones: A foot … why did it have to be a foot? So here we go, Bill Walton all over again. Only without the part about winning a championship first. You can't assume he'll play more when he can't play much in the first place.

Oden, sitting glumly on the trainer's table, his right foot strapped into a walking boot, doesn't believe he's any more vulnerable to injury than anyone else.

"It happens," Oden said. "You're out there, you're playing, you're battling. It happens."

But get injured often enough, and you're not playing or battling too much anymore. And that's been the story with Oden so far. A one-year college career restricted to 32 games by a wrist injury. A rookie campaign wiped out by microfracture surgery on his right knee. And now a professional stat line that reads like this: 12:51 of playing time, five rebounds, two fouls, one blocked shot, 0-for-4 from the field, 0-for-2 from the line.

That's right, one year and four months from the day he was drafted, he has yet to score his first NBA point.

Oden said he landed on Derek Fisher's foot while going after a rebound. If only it were that simple. Players land on other players' feet all the time and usually it's nothing worse than a sprained ankle.

[+] EnlargeGreg Oden
AP Photo/Kevork DjansezianOden came down on his foot awkwardly, leading to his early departure.

The problem is, Fisher didn't recall it that way.

"I don't remember a 7-footer on my foot," Fisher said.

If a 7-footer landed on him, even if he felt only the weight of half of his 285 pounds, that would be something Fisher would remember. For a long time.

Replays indicate that Oden landed with the weight on the front of his foot, then perhaps his heel hit the top of Fisher's foot, then Oden's foot twisted to the right, after Fisher had moved away.

That makes it a little more ominous. So is the fact that initial X-rays were inconclusive.

Fisher has had foot problems of his own, including a stress fracture in 2001 and micro-tears in the peroneal tendon last season. X-rays did not always reveal the injury. He said it took a CT scan to find the stress fracture injury.

"Any lower extremity injury, they impact your game a great deal," Fisher said.

And this was for a guy who weighs about 200 pounds.

"The toughest thing is a guy [Oden's] size," Fisher said. "It's tough to have a lower extremity injury. There's so much impact."

That's not the impact we imagined when Oden joined a talented Portland squad that won 41 games last season.

Oden's arrival was just one anticipated part of the new season. The bigger story was a return to prominence of the Blazers, who haven't made the playoffs since 2003 and haven't made it past the first round since 2000. Before the game, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said the Blazers were a "feisty team" and said they could be this year's version of the New Orleans Hornets, who jumped to the upper reaches of the Western Conference in 2007-08.

Portland coach Nate McMillan said Blazers-Lakers "could be a matchup that goes on for a long period of time, for years. I think the league is going to look at marketing this, with [Andrew] Bynum against Greg, and LaMarcus [Aldridge] matched up against [Pau] Gasol, Kobe [Bryant] and Brandon Roy, the Lakers and the Blazers. We've talked about it…

"Finally, the moment is here. There's been so much talk over the summer, about us, the Blazers, expectations. Finally we can get to playing basketball. It's not about talking any more. We have to go out and show who we are and what we're about. It starts for us tonight."

And it ended after three minutes. By then Oden was hobbling, and the Lakers were up 9-4, on their way to an early 11-point lead that never fell below double digits again in a game L.A. won comfortably 96-76.

Oden tried to tape up the ankle and run in the hallway, but couldn't do so comfortably. He said afterward the ankle felt "tender."

"He's worked so hard to get himself back," McMillan said. "And you know, we've tried to do all we could to get him into the season, and here we are, the first game, and you know, it's a tweaked ankle. So hopefully it's not anything serious and a couple days he can be back."

The one caveat the Blazers have maintained throughout an autumn of high expectations was that this could be a good season if the team avoided injuries. Not only was there Oden's delicate situation, but Roy was coming off surgery for a torn meniscus in his knee, in addition to the normal assortment of training camp sprains, tweaks and bruises. McMillan even implied that some extra caretaking led to this opening night blowout.

"All preseason long what we tried to do was get our guys into camp healthy, and I think part of that, our guys not responding to that aggressive play, was due to that, and the level of play went up tonight, and we weren't ready for that."

On the first night of the NBA's soft rollout, when Lakers-Blazers was the last of only three games, with a national TV platform all to themselves, Portland didn't look ready for this stage.

LaMarcus Aldridge said Oden looked "unsure … scared … I don't think he was really scared, but everyone was passive. I can say for myself I think my whole mentality was to play off Greg, which is a different mentality I possessed from last year, so I felt like I was playing passive, as well."

Brandon Roy had similar thoughts, that Oden's presence caused everyone to relax and let the big fella handle it, only to find that the Lakers were handling them. It was a strong defensive effort by the Lakers, who packed the lane with help defenders, forcing two Portland shot-clock violations.

"They disrupted our offense and threw a wrench in our whole system," Blazers forward Channing Frye said.

Now they await the fate of their big cog in the middle. The Blazers seemed more annoyed at their play than distraught over Oden's injury. It helps that Joel Przybilla was such a rugged defender as the starting center last season.

"If [Oden's] hurt, that's part of basketball," Frye said. "We just moved on. Joel's not chopped liver."

It doesn't get any easier in the paint, with Tim Duncan and the Spurs heading to Portland Friday, followed by a game against Shaquille O'Neal and Amare Stoudemire in Phoenix on Saturday.

And if they have to play without Oden? Well, it's not like these Blazers haven't done it before.

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.

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