Whenever Greg Oden walks the streets of Portland, he braces himself for the commentary of passers-by.
"I hear a lot of different stuff," the Trail Blazers' injured center said. "I hear everything from 'Stop getting hurt!' to 'Get well, we're here for you,' to 'You can't be here! You should be rehabbing.' And I hear it at all hours of the day.
"I just smile and keep on walking," continued Oden, who speaks in gentle tones and tends to smile regardless of the topic of conversation. "You've got to. Portland is small like that. You don't want to do something wrong here, because if you do one bad thing with Portland, you get a bad little reputation. You know people start to watch you, with all the bad stuff that went on before [during the 'Jail Blazers' era]. You can't do nothing, you really can't say nothing. You've just got to deal with people saying those things and just keep moving."
The 7-foot Oden has totaled 82 games in the four seasons since he was the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft. Microfracture surgery on his right knee ended his rookie season before it began. He has not played since last December, when he fractured his left knee. He is 22 and weighs 285 pounds, and it's only natural -- given the excruciating pain and public scrutiny that accompanies each injury -- that he would be wary of returning to the court.
"We're sure he's [worried about it]," Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. "There's no question we're working with the mental aspect of this whole thing. Part of that is just trying to get him as healthy as possible and being patient and not forcing him to go out there. It's bad enough when you have an injury and you're playing against the best in the world and you're not 100 percent, and you've been out for, really, two years. Mentally, it does have an effect on you because you know you've got to perform against the best in the world, and they may be at 95 percent -- because nobody's 100 percent -- and you may be 60 percent. And there are the expectations and you want to perform, so, yeah, it's a mental thing that you have to get over."
When I met with Oden last week in Portland, he made it clear he is not going to hurry back until his body feels ready. The Blazers -- who did extend Oden's rookie contract by the Nov. 1 deadline, making him a restricted free agent next summer -- are on board with his approach.
"They tell me you're probably not going to be 100 percent," Oden said. "But I'm like, Why not? What's wrong with trying to get out there and get back to 100 percent where my whole body is feeling good? I don't see any harm in that. Even though this is a contract year, I'm trying to look out for a long career; I'm not trying to look out for the short term. I want my body to feel good, I want to go out there and feel like I can perform with the best."
Oden told me his right leg is shorter than the left by "a couple of centimeters," to the point that I noticed him limping as he walked down the hall to a pregame chapel meeting at the Rose Garden last week.
"I wear orthotics in everything except in my dress shoes -- they're so tight in dress shoes," he said. "But I wear orthotics in everything else, because if I don't, it's so significant that you notice it. People will come up to me and ask, 'Why are you limping?' It's just how I walk."
He traces the issues back to an older injury.
"I spoke to some experts and they say it's in my hip," Oden said, pointing to his right side. "I had a hip fracture when I was in sixth grade, and I saw one guy who said that could have something to do with your pain over here [as he pointed to his left knee], that it's just throwing you off a little bit. It doesn't happen right away, but sometime down the line it's going to happen."
He insists he doesn't view himself as the second coming of Sam Bowie -- that he isn't destined to suffer one injury after another. That's why he is adamant about returning to full health before he plays again. It's also why he is able to handle negative comparisons with the No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft, Thunder forward Kevin Durant, the league's leading scorer who drove Oklahoma City to an overtime win last week at Portland.
"One thing that was funny to me, at halftime of the game I'm sitting in the back room and I'm watching TNT and they start showing my highlights and they start showing Durant's highlights," Oden said. "They had the TV turned down but I know every time they do that none of it's positive for me. They show me getting hurt, then they show Durant, you know -- All-Star, youngest scoring leader, they're saying all that and I know they're not saying anything positive. I know all they're saying is, 'Portland probably should have done this, Greg's a bust.' I've heard it before, so when I see it I don't even have to listen to know exactly what they're saying."
The Blazers went into Friday's visit to Oklahoma City with a 6-3 record despite knee injuries to Oden, center Joel Przybilla -- who is pushing to return before his target date of Nov. 26 -- and star guard Brandon Roy, who is awaiting his own diagnosis of a persistently swollen left knee (not the same knee he had surgically repaired last April) in recent days. Roy has noticed that Oden is more proactive and confident in this rehab than he was during his rookie year.
"He wasn't always in good spirits," Roy said. "There were times when he was down. I think dealing with it the first year helped him more with this situation. I always tell him you can't really focus on what people say; you've got to focus on rehabbing and getting back ready.
"You can't come around the team moping and you can't hide away from guys. You have to continue to be a part of this team, and I think he's done a much better job of that this time around. He's gone on all the road trips, all of the practices, and the last time he didn't even come around much. I figure it's much better this time around because we're used to seeing him and talking to him."
Oden spent the summer in Indiana -- he grew up in Terre Haute, Ind. -- where he bought a house and underwent a new exercise regimen based on stretching and strengthening his core muscles. He hired a chef to improve his diet, and for the first time he began to view the national news on TV, whether it was
"I started watching the news, because I don't go out a lot," he said. "That actually was really depressing."
He recalled two events in particular: The stories of an allegedly drunk police officer who struck and killed a motorcyclist in Indiana, and the Connecticut home invasion that resulted in the deaths of a mother and her two daughters.
"It was a lot of weird, depressing stuff that went on," Oden said. "When it came down to it and I'm looking at my knee, I'm like, This is definitely not a big deal, because I'm definitely a lot more fortunate than other people."
Weren't you asking the same thing last week? It seems the questions have more urgency now.
When I watched Boston clobber the Heat for the second time in three weeks -- this time in Miami, where the home team has now lost two in a row -- I realized there could be no better result for the NBA. Those three Miami stars had made foolish caricatures of themselves when they danced on the smokey stage last July to celebrate their unification and brag of an impending dynasty that was as yet beyond their understanding. Come on, what could LeBron James know about winning "one, two, three, four, five, six, seven" championships, as he promised last summer?
What makes this struggling experiment so interesting now is that it's turning the Miami stars into real people. They aren't giggling cartoon characters any longer. They are real people.
The role players are playing their roles -- they're spreading the floor and making their shots when left wide open. The problem is the stars don't know how to be stars in a selfless way. They aren't playing as a team, and they're just now beginning to realize that they'll have to work harder than ever to play as one. This isn't about improving their skills; it's about deepening their wisdom. When Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen united in Boston, they understood intuitively the demands of coach Doc Rivers to alter their games in order to fit together, because each of them had gone year after year after year of losing in the playoffs. They were all in their 30s and they were ready to change.
But these players in Miami haven't been humbled enough in their previous careers -- if they had been forced to accept that humility, they never would have gone upon that stage and behaved so naively last July. (What is truly surprising to me is that Pat Riley enabled them to do so. Didn't he, of all people, realize the celebration shouldn't be consummated until they'd earned something of real value to celebrate?) But now James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have no choice but to deal with facts. To their credit, they committed themselves to winning championships and nothing else, but now that they're starting to see what they've gotten themselves into, there is no other option except to play humbly as a team.
The dose of humility they received Thursday (and Tuesday) was exactly what they needed. And if they remain too stubborn to listen, there will be more humbling losses to come. Michael Jordan was humbled until he learned how to listen. Kobe Bryant learned to listen, and so did Garnett, Pierce and Allen. (Tim Duncan didn't need to learn; he knew already how to listen, because he is Tim Duncan.)
What makes this so interesting is that they're real people now. They've gone from being despicably full of themselves to now becoming understandable and potentially redeemable. This NBA championship, it's not so easy to win, is it?
Kevin Garnett has always been a trash-talker, but for the last two years in particular he has been in Me vs. Everyone mode while fighting hard -- harder surely than any of his Miami opponents fought Thursday -- to regain his talents following 2009 knee surgery.
I'm not excusing what Garnett might have said to Charlie Villanueva, nor am I endorsing Villanueva's decision to tweet his accusation that Garnett referred to him as a "cancer patient."
What I do recognize is that Garnett is making -- at age 34, despite 45,761 regular- and postseason minutes -- an inspired comeback. Last year, Garnett averaged 7.3 rebounds in 29.9 minutes, and that rebounding number dwindled to 5.6 during the Finals. In Game 7, the Lakers exploited the absence of Kendrick Perkins for 23 offensive rebounds (leading to a dozen more field-goal attempts than the Celtics) while Garnett managed only three rebounds in 38 minutes. So it's fair to say that had KG been able to cover the glass at a normal rate, the Celtics might have won that game.
It is clear now that two years of manic work and focused play have helped restore Garnett's legs. Garnett is producing 10.5 rebounds -- a four-year high -- in 34.6 minutes in nine games this season. He had a game-leading 13 in the win at Miami, and he is responsible for converting the Celtics from one of the league's worst rebounding teams last year to No. 11 in rebounding differential so far this season.
Garnett has been making a lot of enemies since he came to Boston, but he has also transformed his career. If he can keep rebounding in double digits this season, the Celtics will view his trash-talking as a small price to pay in exchange for the production.
Suns coach Alvin Gentry recently blasted rumors of a trade for Nash, the 36-year-old point guard whom Gentry is relying on in the absence of Amar'e Stoudemire.
Nash never said he was looking to leave -- there have been rumors of his frustrations in Phoenix -- but his burden has never been greater. The Suns' frontcourt is so skimpy that he has to make plays like a scrambling quarterback behind a porous line. Will the Suns steadily rebuild the frontcourt -- and the team itself -- around Nash and his unique style, or will they begin to transition for the coming days when Nash is gone?
A key indicator will be Jason Richardson, who is in his final year at a salary of $14.4 million. If the Suns are a middling .500 team at the February trade deadline, will they move Richardson in order to avoid re-signing him for big money? No doubt all of these issues will be influenced by the team's play over the months ahead.
I predict hard times ahead. I'm not sure how Burak Biyiktay, the coach of Allen Iverson's new team in Turkey, Besiktas Colaturka, handles things. But many teams in Europe practice twice a day, and they tend to manage their players as if they were collegians: They stay in a hotel the night before any game -- home or away -- they eat all of their meals together and they even regulate nap times.
All of these things will create difficulties for their new American import, given what we know about Iverson. Either Iverson will adapt in order to create a new life for himself in Europe, or he will decide that he is more willing than he thought to come off an NBA bench as a sixth man -- whatever it takes to return to the lifestyle he knows too well.
This comes from Larry Riley, a lifelong basketball man who, at 64, was named Warriors GM in May 2009. He spent the following season overseeing the 26-56 Warriors alongside his coach and friend, Don Nelson. And then everything changed last summer:
"I did want to change the culture, I really did, but I didn't know if I could get it done," Riley said. "It wasn't that we were just littered with bad guys. But I wanted to improve our salary-cap situation and upgrade the talent on our team. Fortunately for us, it looks like we did those things.
"The ways in which we needed to upgrade our talent had to do mainly with rebounding. There are people who say we were the worst rebounding team in the history of the NBA last year. We also gave up a lot of second-chance points because of our lack of rebounding, and that makes your defense worse.
"I'd watched David Lee for quite some time, and I needed somebody who would be aggressive -- to go rebound the ball. And then the package that came with him is what put him over the top. He's one of the better passing big men in the league. He's also the kind of a guy we wanted to run the floor. I didn't expect his scoring average to stay where it was a year ago, because I didn't see him getting the same volume of shots with our team. But I knew he was going to be a threat to score.
"I thought the change of system might be helpful to Dorell Wright. I did see flashes of things that did fit into what we do. As we looked to free agents and what was available, we needed a 3 and he was a guy who fit the best and he was a guy we could acquire.
"The change in ownership was a bit of a challenge. Frankly, I arrived at the conclusion there wasn't anything else to do other than go about business as usual with the hope we could get some things done to improve our basketball team. When Mr. [Peter] Guber and Mr. [Joe] Lacob became known as the people who would eventually become the owners, at that point, it was important for me to start working with both of them as well, as with [now-former owner] Chris Cohan. It was a matter of informing them, and sometimes things slowed down a little bit, but luckily for me, both ownership groups were very cooperative during the summer.
"Anytime you change coaches, you get a fresh face and voice. Keith Smart spent a lot of time preparing himself to be a head coach, and to Don Nelson's credit he did lot of work to help Keith get there. Keith believes in a lot of organization and communication with the players. Nellie's way was to communicate, but there was not much of it if there was any at all. Keith's way is if there is a problem, he's going to talk about it right away.
"We'll have to wait through this season and another to see if the moves we made are good moves. We're in the infancy of the season and we haven't had a three-game or a five-game losing streak yet. Only then will we really begin to know if we've done the job of changing the culture."
• As a 20-year-old Oklahoma City rookie, Serge Ibaka had everything going for him last season. He was 6-foot-10 and 235 pounds with an exquisite NBA body and the athletic skills to dominate at both ends of the floor. The only problem was his understanding of the language. As a native of the Republic of the Congo who had played professional ball in Spain, he didn't know English.
"Last year it was, 'Serge, run fast!' 'Serge, jump high!' 'Serge, block!' It was all visual," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "I wasn't sure he wasn't understanding anything I said last year. I repeated two, three and four times in timeouts and making sure that he understood, and a lot of times he gave me the nod -- but a lot times it wasn't what I was talking about."
Ibaka didn't begin to play until he was 16, yet this season, he is averaging 10.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in 29 minutes -- all major gains over his rookie season. Yet, his biggest improvements have been in communication. Two or three times per week last season, a teacher -- a fellow Congolese -- would meet him at the Thunder practice facility to instruct him for an hour in English.
"It's not easy in this life," he said. "You need to work hard. I know I'm tired after practice, but I need to learn English because it's good for me, for my future, to understand more basketball."
There are more than 80 international players in the NBA this season, and think about all of the adaptations they are expected to make in terms of where and how they live, what they eat, how they relate to their American teammates and coaches -- and all of these changes will be further complicated if the player cannot communicate.
"I was very patient with him because he's a great kid who wants to work hard, he wants to do well, he wants to please," Brooks said. "Now I can talk to him and we have good dialogue and he understands. I know I couldn't do it -- I couldn't go to another country and pick it up as quickly as he did."
Ibaka improved his English by joking with teammates whenever possible and by going to the theatre.
"My favorite movie for every time is
Brooks likes the player Ibaka is becoming.
"He's very prideful, and it's a matter of principle with him,'' Brooks said. "He will stop practice and say, 'We are supposed to guard it this way, right, coach? Because this guy did not come do that.' So he's talking to make sure, because it's a black-and-white thing that this is what we are supposed to do. It's so much pride and determination to always do it right, and he's hard on himself too.''
When I asked Brooks for a prediction of Ibaka's future, the coach was the one at a loss for words.
"I don't really know, because the way he works and with his age, I don't know how good he's going to be," Brooks said. "I just know he's going to be good. The way he's improved this last year and a half is all because of [assistant] coach [Mark] Bryant and him -- they've got a great relationship and they work every day. Regardless of how many minutes he played the night before, regardless of whether it's an off day, they're in there, and a lot of times they come back in at night. So I don't know how good he'll be. I just know he's going to keep getting better."
"So I think that's the part where you've got to get thicker skin. You've got to harden up to it because it's not fair.
"But all I say then is, Is it fair that we're able to play this game and make a great living? Maybe that's not fair. Or is it fair to make billions of dollars like our owner? I don't know. We don't know. But all we can control is our effort and our attitude, and I think [Oden] has done a good job of that. If he continues to understand that all I can control today is my effort and my attitude, he'll be fine."
Most Improved Player is the award that is impossible to forecast before the season. But now the early results are in, and here are my leading candidates. I've included as many of the top leapers as I could find, including veterans (in italics) who are probably too old to win an award that is aimed at younger, developing players.
1. Paul Millsap, Jazz