The other day, the Portland Trailblazers finally cut their center Greg Oden.
The 2007 No. 1 overall draft pick played 88 games in his career thus far, a phrase likely two words too long.
In four seasons, he only played part of two games while his legs and feet suffered seemingly every possible injury as soon as he stepped on the court.
Oden’s name will forever be a byword for bad decisions and failure in professional drafts, next to Ryan Leaf and Sam Bowie. “Busts.” Stupid picks that spectacularly didn’t work out for their teams.
Of course, in both of those examples, it’s not just who was selected but who wasn’t.
For Greg Oden, he was taken ahead of Kevin Durant, who went to what’s now the Oklahoma City Thunder. Durant has played 44 games this season. Durant has played in 23 postseason games. Durant has averaged 26 points in 358 regular season games.
The Thunder lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals last year but have a young core of players poised to compete for multiple championships.
The Trailblazers, by comparison, just busied themselves at the trade deadline and fired their coach.
You really couldn’t blame Oden if some small part of him, or even a large part, harbored spite in the direction of Durant, wished he’d never win a championship, that he slip into alcoholism or drug abuse, that he blow out an elbow or knee, have just one major injury. Oden would never say he wanted this, and may never have even felt this way, but you really couldn’t blame him, if he did.
Greg Oden was better at basketball than most people will be at anything in their lives.
That’s no hyperbole. Pick any skillset you have at all, and it’s still unlikely at any point in your life, you’ve been as elite at it as Oden was as a basketball center.
Now imagine that by age 20, you’re already a joke, and by age 22, people have stopped laughing because the injuries that continue to hit you have just become sad. Imagine at age 24, you’re almost certainly never going to fulfill your potential and unlikely to ever get to perform the activity you’ve loved since childhood. Imagine at 24, you’re unemployable.
The great tragedies of sports are never really tragedies. Someone being abused throughout their childhood, someone’s life being cut short in a car accident or shooting, a stillbirth — these are tragedies and they’re common enough. Nothing about basketball has ever been tragic.
But sports, especially professional sports, are a contracted metaphor for life because everything plays out so quickly.
A professional career tends to follow an arc that a life does, but because sport is so intensely athletic and marginal degradation of physical ability so exaggerated among people with similar ability, a 35-year-old is a doddering old person.
Greg Oden’s face already looked like he was 50 three years before he could legally buy alcohol. Six years later, he moves like he’s 80. He’s knees don’t work right, and that big frame that blessed him for the sake of basketball is now just a weapon of gravity on his already broken joints.
We can’t feel too sorry for him. He got paid millions of dollars to do something silly and trivial. Lots of people are injured or lose an opportunity for reasons beyond their control and aren’t compensated near so well.
But for few people does it happen so publicly. And the fact that it’s common doesn’t make it less sad.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misspelled Greg Oden’s name throughout. The Odessa American regrets the error.