During my time in Portland several weeks ago for a preseason story on Greg Oden, I never saw the big rookie in action. He had "tweaked" his right ankle -- that's how players label a sprain when they don't want to use the word "sprain" -- and the medical staff had kept him out of action.
Because of the injury, I would describe the atmosphere around the Blazers -- a team of generally good vibes and positive karma -- as nervously casual. No one wanted to make a major deal out of Oden's minor injury. No one wanted to think it had anything to do with the microfracture surgery to Oden's right knee last September. No one wanted to suggest that Oden is injury-prone.
Nevertheless, when Jim Taylor, the team's public relations director, received news about Oden via a phone call at a restaurant in downtown Portland, he was palpably relieved.
"Greg practiced tonight," Taylor announced dryly to his boss, Cheri Hanson, after the closed-to-the-media session had concluded, "so the end of the world is not upon us."
It is not upon the Blazers now. But there is some unsettled staring toward the cosmos.
Oden's long-delayed debut couldn't have gone worse for him and his team Tuesday night in Los Angeles. He looked a little slow, then appeared to be limping, then never saw action in the second half as the Lakers coasted to a 96-76 victory. And on Wednesday, it was revealed that Oden had suffered a mid-lateral sprain of his right foot and will miss two-to-four weeks.
Here is what is not fair: Bringing up the specter of Sam Bowie.
Here is what is impossible not to do: Bring up the specter of Sam Bowie.
I do so with little enthusiasm. Bowie, for those of you unfamiliar with one of the unluckiest scenarios in NBA history, was famously drafted by Portland before Michael Jordan in 1984 and never got a chance to show his potential because of various lower-extremity injuries. It goes without saying (so why am I saying it?) that Bill Walton had already established the painful Portland pivotman precedent by going down with a foot injury in 1978, the year after the Blazers won their only championship.
By most accounts, Oden's foot injury occurred early in the L.A. game, perhaps when he landed on the foot of Lakers guard Derek Fisher, perhaps when he went up for a shot. At any rate, the injury is not relevant to the history of Walton or Bowie, or, for that matter, perhaps not even Oden himself. Keep saying that over and over, Blazer Nation. Well, except for this: It is on the same leg as his knee surgery and his ankle "tweak." That definitely can't be ignored.
During my half-hour conversation with Oden before the season, the subject of his surgery rarely came up. What could be said? It was over and done. The one thing that became clear, though, was how badly he felt about it. "Chagrined" and "embarrassed" might be too strong, but Oden definitely felt as though he had let down a franchise that had invested its No. 1 pick in him. He was vaguely aware of the team's injury history, but understand that he was a decade from being born when Walton's first cry of "ouch" resounded through the Northwest. There is no reason for him, or the Blazers, to dwell on ancient history.
However, injuries have ripped holes in franchises, which is what happened in Walton-era Portland. Frustrations build. Fingers point. Recriminations fly. So let's make this clear:
There seems to be no reason in Portland to pull out pro sports' favorite pastime, "The Blame Game." True, there were predraft concerns about Oden's general health. "He just looks so grizzled," one exec had said. But no one went so far as to say that those concerns would've kept his franchise from drafting Oden at No. 1.
The selection of Oden over Kevin Durant was not controversial. (Though I am on record as believing that Durant was the better long-run pick.) The Blazers were appropriately cautious with Oden's rehab last season when he did not play, and did not rush him back this season when he was apparently ready. If this injury bugaboo turns out to be a trend, no one will be at fault. But that won't make it any less unfortunate for a franchise familiar with injury misery.