Early to Rise

The NBA's youngest team has been on a tear for more than a month. And here's the strange part: The Blazers are ripping off wins without the No. 1 pick, Greg Oden
January 21, 2008

GREG ODEN needed a dry cleaner. Last Thursday afternoon the Portland Trail Blazers' rookie center was two days away from accompanying the team on a sadistic seven-game, 12-day road trip when he suddenly realized that, from his inventory of 20 suits, only three were clean. "Think I can find a place with a 24-hour turnaround?" he wondered aloud. But before he got his answer, a wide, gap-toothed smile illuminated his face like a flare. "I can mix and match," he said. "You're only in each city once, right? No one will know." ¶ By now, Oden has grown accustomed to applying an optimistic gloss to any situation. You know the story: After a sensational freshman season at Ohio State, Oden was the top pick in the 2007 draft, a 7-foot sentinel who recalled Bill Russell with his defense-first sensibilities. As a bonus Oden was a kid with bottomless charm whose (warning: NBA-speak) "character issues" didn't extend beyond an inexcusable fondness for wearing a fanny pack.

Oden's selection by the Blazers awoke a dormant franchise and triggered a run on season tickets. Then, while playing summer league ball, he felt a searing pain in his right knee and experienced swelling so severe he couldn't step into his jeans. Doctors discovered articular cartilage damage, which required arthroscopic microfracture surgery in September. Faster than the Portland faithful could say Sam Bowie, Oden's first season was over before it started. "Man," says Oden, "it was like, Welcome to the NBA! Now sit down, son!"

At least he has found comfort in the play of his teammates. With Oden out, the conventional wisdom held that the Blazers were in for another annus horribilis after their league-worst 21--61 finish in 2005--06. Even the players steeled themselves for a tough season. "It's not that we wrote [the year] off, not by any means," says swingman Martell Webster. "But when we heard about Greg, that was devastating to us."

Yet the Odenless squad has become the feel-good story of the NBA this season. Through Sunday the Blazers were 22--14, having won 17 of their last 19, and were a half-game back in the Northwest Division. Despite the third-youngest roster in league history—average opening-night age: 24.1 years—Portland has relied less on its spry legs than on old-fashioned virtues: perimeter shooting, ball movement, defense, grit. Only two of those 17 wins could be characterized as blowouts; the outcome of the others hung in the balance in the fourth quarter, and the Blazers simply met the moment. Not for nothing is the team's cornball slogan H2O (Humble, Hungry, Overachieve). "We're playing the right way," says coach Nate McMillan, thus far on the short list for Coach of the Year. "But that's the character of the players we've brought in. They're professionals, and ... that wasn't always the case here."

IN A CLASSIC case of addition by subtraction, last summer Portland all but gave the New York Knicks its leading scorer from '06--07, talented-but-toxic forward Zach Randolph, perhaps the last remnant of the notorious Jail Blazers era, during which countless team members ran afoul of the law. Randolph's off-court transgressions included a visit to a strip club while on "bereavement leave." (Last Friday he got into a shouting match with Knicks coach Isiah Thomas after being pulled from a game and spent the second half on the bench.)

In Randolph's absence 6'6" Brandon Roy has emerged as the team's unmistakable star. The reigning Rookie of the Year, Roy does a convincing impersonation of Dwyane Wade circa 2006, slashing through defenses, offering imaginative playmaking and swinging seamlessly between point guard and shooting guard. (He was averaging 19.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists at week's end.) Support has come from a variety of precincts, not the least power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (17.9 points and 7.5 boards), who, like Roy, is a future All-Star. Reserve forward Travis Outlaw won the first game of the streak at the buzzer and had scored 20 or more points in six of the victories. Still, it's largely an anonymous bunch. After the 21-year-old Webster torched the Jazz for 24 third-quarter points on Jan. 5, Utah reserve Matt Harpring observed, "It was tough when what's-his-face got hot."

Swingman James Jones, who at week's end led the NBA in three-point shooting (53.2%), was with Indiana when the Pacers won 61 games and with Phoenix when the Suns won 115 games over two seasons. He claims that Portland has "by far" the deepest unit. "I've played on teams with really great players, established players who have done remarkable things in this league," he says. "I've never played on a complete team like ours, where you have 12 guys and someone new stepping up every night."

In most cases successful teams coalesce gradually, their chemistry improving as they go. The Blazers, however, can point to a single moment of reckoning. On Dec. 1 Portland was 5--11, winless on the road and prepping for a game against the defending-champion Spurs in San Antonio. McMillan held a shootaround that was a WWE audition masquerading as a basketball practice. As he told The Oregonian, the session "was basically set up for a fight to happen."

Frustrated and edgy, the players obliged, colliding with each other like bumper cars at the county fair. At one point, center Joel Przybilla leveled Webster with an aggressive screen. When Webster complained, Przybilla asked why he whined so much. Webster responded, "Why don't you make a dunk for once?" Moments later Webster drove the lane and was met in midair by Przybilla, who body-slammed him. The two had to be separated.

Meanwhile, Aldridge and forward Channing Frye were engaging in trash-talking soliloquies, and Roy was testily slapping away the hands of his defenders. Then guard Steve Blake angrily kicked a chair. For the first time all practice McMillan became irate, noting that the Blazers were guests at the facility. He ordered Blake to pick up the chair. Blake did, then smashed it into timber. Afterward, McMillan gathered the players and encouraged them to channel this passion and aggression into games. Portland lost to the Spurs but beat the Memphis Grizzlies the next night at the buzzer—and off the team went on a 13-game winning streak, the longest in the league this season.

MEANTIME, ODEN waits. It can't be fun being 19 years old, marooned in a new city 2,000 miles from your base in Indianapolis, suddenly made to confront your athletic mortality amid the shroud of gray and relentless rain that defines winter in the Pacific Northwest. Not to mention that only months before, you had agonized about leaving your charmed life in college to become a pro. But Oden is doing ... well, let's let him characterize it. "I'm O.K. I really am," he says. "It's mostly good days. It's my redshirt season, and I'm trying to make the best of it."

Giving new dimension to the phrase suiting up for the Blazers, Oden spends most nights seated behind the team bench dressed like a banker. During games he'll often fix his gaze on the opposing big men and take a mental inventory of their moves and tendencies. "It's actually helping my confidence," he says. "You know how you watch games at home and think, I could do that! That's how I am. I could get out there and average 10 points!"

Just 10? "Maybe 12."

Whatever Oden lacks in ego, he lacks in id as well. Ordinarily, teenager + $8 million contract + oceans of time at his disposal is a scary equation. Oden, though, lives the existence of a monk, albeit a very tall one. Too young to drink, too big to go unnoticed, he mostly stays at his modest suburban house, near the team's practice facility. He has challenged the structural integrity of his DVD player—"I'm an Entourage guy; CSI too"—watching old shows and movies. He plays with the Boston terrier--beagle he's named Charles Barkley McLovin. Complying with an unwritten Oregon state ordinance, he blogs (yardbarker.com/users/gregoden). Last week he attended the NBA league marketing meetings in Miami and sat alongside Russell, Julius Erving, Bob Lanier, Alonzo Mourning and Bill Walton on a panel to discuss leadership.

He spends the balance of his time at the team's practice facility rehabbing his knee. While microfracture surgery has been successful for numerous players, most notably Suns center Amaré Stoudemire, the recovery time is agonizingly long. Four months after the procedure Oden just started working out on a basketball court last week. While he's gained 20 or so pounds of upper-body mass and now weighs 280, he still hasn't been cleared to run. Blazers officials insist that there's no chance he'll return before next season. "It's been tough mentally," Oden says, fiddling a small wallet he wears on a lanyard around his neck, "but I keep my spirits up knowing I'm getting myself ready for when I do come back."

WHILE THE BLAZERS' current road trip, which includes visits to Boston, Orlando and New Orleans, will reveal plenty about how good the team really is, the city of Portland has, after years of disillusionment, reembraced the franchise. Happy as fans are about the present, inevitably thoughts race to the future—and not just because the Blazers will have the rights to guard Rudy Fernàndez, who's currently torching the Spanish league. If they can contend for a division title now, what can they do when Oden is wearing his number 52 jersey and not a suit? "Man, they're doing real good this year," says Oden. "When I get back, they gotta be a whole, whole, whole lot better. That's pressure!"

In part to assuage the kid's boredom and loneliness, but also to ensure that the winning chemistry carries over to next season, management has gone to great lengths to weave Oden into the club's fabric. So it was that he joined his teammates at a bowling alley last Friday. The occasion was Portland's annual Season Ticket Holder Appreciation Party, held at Big Al's, a massive "family entertainment center" across the Columbia River in Vancouver, Wash. When the team walked into the building, thronged by fans, Oden drew the loudest cheers.

While other Blazers bowled, danced and played air hockey with some of the folks who had helped to sell out the last seven games at the Rose Garden, Oden stayed off his feet, repairing to a back room to play Guitar Hero. Surrounded by a hundred or so fans, Oden strummed a plastic guitar that in his massive hands looked like Tiny Tim's ukulele. He started off with Welcome to the Jungle (symbolism, anyone?) and struggled. Midway through, the monitor inexplicably flickered off. As debuts go, it wasn't much.

But moments later Oden was at it again. This time the song was School's Out (more symbolism, anyone?), and Oden hit a groove. Nodding to the beat, he played all the right notes. As the crowd went nuts, he finished with a score of 101,600. He'd made the most of his second chance. "Yeah," he said, smiling. "That's more like it."

The Blazers rely ON OLD-FASHIONED BASKETBALL VIRTUES: perimeter shooting, ball movement, defense, grit.


Posting Up

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PHOTOPhotograph by Greg NelsonIN GOOD HANDS The versatile Roy has become Portland's leader, while Oden (top, behind bench) can only sit, watch and wait. PHOTOPhotograph by Greg Nelson[See caption above] PHOTOPhotograph by Greg NelsonSHADES OF 'SHEED Aldridge's length and inside-outside productivity have led some to compare him with Rasheed Wallace. PHOTOPhotograph by Greg NelsonHIGH JUMPER Five years after leaving high school for the NBA, Outlaw is the Blazers' sixth man and third-best scorer.