Time has been neither sweet nor sensitive to Greg Oden. It seems fairly apathetic towards Brandon Roy. That excitement in the city of Portland, that Team Of The Future, Team Of The 2010s – that seems to be just another narrative gone wrong. We’ve held onto it, as we usually do, but as microfractures pile over patellas which pile over meniscuses, even the strongest of grasps let go.
Look, injuries are part of the game. We know they are. Sometimes they take greatness and confine it to a short period of time, as with Bill Walton or Elgin Baylor. Sometimes they just deprive us of greatness entirely, as with Shaun Livingston. We hate it, but again, we can do nothing, so we live with it. Barely.
-Noam Schiller, Both Teams Played Hard, November 18, 2010
Forget about the Blazers for a second and just think of Greg Oden, the player and the person. He was once the next Bill Russell, the number one overall pick that 32 G.M.s allegedly said they would have taken over Kevin Durant. Now, if he’s lucky, he’ll have the opportunity to play basketball again. As Schiller mentions, the highlight of his career might be that amazing, 25 point, 12 rebound, four block NCAA Championship game against Al Horford and Joakim Noah and Florida, the two of whom currently reaping the fruits of their NBA success with large contract extensions. The Blazers are all but certain to decide against extending Oden his $8,788,681 qualifying offer, and come this summer, there is a distinct possibility that he will become a free agent – but not the fun kind of free agency that most players look forward to. Rather than entertaining offers from his choice of teams, he will hope for enough health to get another contract, that some team will give him a chance to show he can still play.
If he can jog, he will probably have no problem signing on with a team at some rate, but it’s really sad, the painful reality of what injuries can do to even the brightest of young players. People tend to have a difficult time remembering that professional athletes are people too, even those with all the money and physical gifts in the world. But in the case of guys like Oden, with both the money and the ability to perform on the highest level in doubt, it becomes a matter of humanity and mentality. And that’s where Shaun Livingston comes in. Thanks to a phenomenal attitude and a desire to achieve to the best of his abilities, Shaun has fought back, against all odds. While he is unlikely to ever approach his enormous potential, it’s truly inspiring to see his perseverance and perspective, and it’s that spirit that could be the biggest challenge for Oden.
Five years ago, at just 21 years old, Livingston suffered a gruesome injury that has still not even begun to stop haunting most Clipper fans, even today. He was the fourth pick in the 2004 draft, a 6’7” point guard with feel for the game that stood up to nearly every comparison thrown his way. And when you are a 6’7” point guard as smooth as he was, there is really only one comparison: Magic Johnson. A victim of circumstance, and, of course, injuries, he never even got the chance to do what Magic did, but when healthy, he looked like a natural running the show (albeit an incredibly frail looking natural). He was an integral part of the 2005-06 Clipper team that came within a win of the Western Conference Finals, and he appeared poised to assume the starting point guard role whenever Sam Cassell would eventually move on. Like Oden, he had his flaws (shooting, mostly), but few players showed such promise at such a young age.
Though one is a point guard and the other a center, the similarities between the two are striking, really. (Before their injuries) Both possessed prototypical (ideal, really) physical attributes for their positions, dynamic blends of defense and specialized offensive skills (Oden’s rebounding and Livingston’s playmaking) that lacked only some refinement and NBA durability on the way to stardom. Heading into the draft, Oden had been touted as a freakish athlete, the greatest rebounding and shotblocking prospect in quite a while. (You may notice Chad Ford even called him “the safest pick in the draft,” over Durant). Livingston, at his size and the wingspan of someone 6’11”, had a mismatch against any point guard in the league, with the potential to lead the league in assists and become a disruptive force on the defensive end. Shaun came out of high school and Oden almost certainly would have had the NBA not banned it the year before he would become eligible. And then there were the injuries. Some were fluky, others may have indicated trouble to come, but for both, being hurt has been the defining characteristic of their young careers.
Oden has played the equivalent of one full season in what will have been four years in the league, this summer. In exactly 82 games, he has gone from aspirations of greatness to coping with the prospect of never playing again. When he played, he was as good as Portland hoped, with nine points and seven boards a game on 58% shooting, but in all likelihood the team will resist guaranteeing him so much of their cap room. Livingston was in an almost identical situation, three years with the Clippers out the window because of the harsh reality of the rookie pay scale. When he was healthy over that time, he left his mark as a passer (five assists) and as many as nine points per game in ’06, playing mostly behind Cassell up until he got hurt.
His road to recovery was especially challenging, having to go about some of his business without the assistance of an NBA training staff, and no guarantee of another NBA contract. But he managed to adjust to adversity and tackle each challenge he faced. First, he signed on with the Heat after the Clippers cut him loose. He played only 12 games in 2008-09 between Miami and Oklahoma City, and another 11 with the Tulsa 66ers of the D-League, but it was a significant step to be playing again. Last year, he tripled that number between OKC and Washington, playing 36 games, including a nine-game stretch to end the season in which he notched seven or eight assists in seven of them and scored in double figures in eight. He was back, not to our initial standards, but by his ever-evolving new standards that could not be hampered by setbacks of any size.
His play – and fantastic disposition, I’m sure – helped him land a three-year, guaranteed contract starting this season with the Bobcats. When you consider the fact that many people figured he would never play again, the thought of an NBA team guaranteeing him three years (and more than $10 million, no less), shows just how special a player and person he really is. He is now Charlotte’s backup point guard, and wouldn’t you believe he has played in all 52 of his team’s games. His minutes are limited – only about 16 minutes a game – and his recovery endures, but he has shown glimpses of what might have been, like his season-high 18 points on Monday against the Celtics. Every minute he plays really is a minor miracle, and it makes any actual on-court success even more impressive.
For Oden, there is no better example to emulate, although it’s important to remember just how difficult it must be for players to overcome such physical adversity coupled with the mental challenges that inevitably follow. As Henry Abbott wrote, Oden’s story isn’t about basketball, for now, at least. This is a time that presents challenges to a human being that go beyond the everyday issues of playing professional sports. But if all goes well, and he is able to find his was through the psychological challenges that he will encounter and his body abides, he will have an opportunity to get back on the court for some team, at some point to do what he loves to do, at the highest level in the world. Just like Shaun.
Charlie Widdoes contributes to ClipperBlog as well as Stacheketball. Follow him on twitter: @charliewiddoes.