It took all of 17 seconds for Greg Oden to announce his return to the NBA.
The 26-year-old center’s comeback was completed when he dunked in Miami’s game against Washington on Jan. 15, his first regular-season action since December 2009 — a span of more than 1,500 days. During that time, the former No. 1 overall draft pick fought depression, alcoholism and his body. And every time he has hit the court in uniform since then, he has been showing his natural abilities, which were in the shadows for so long.
“I said, ‘How is this possible that every time you continue to sit out for long periods of time, when you decide to come back you keep getting a dunk on your first attempt?’ ” Heat forward LeBron James said after the Wizards game. “It happened in New Orleans in the preseason and it happened tonight, too, and that’s pretty cool. I’m happy for him.”
James is not the only person who is enjoying Oden’s comeback.
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Nate McMillan, Oden’s coach while with Portland and a current member of the Pacers’ staff, told the Indianapolis Star after Oden’s first appearance: “I was excited when I heard that they had determined that he would play in the [Jan. 15 game]. I wanted to see that, I just wanted to see him on the floor.”
Kevin Durant, who was picked after Oden in the 2007 NBA Draft, said: “As a friend, I’m excited he’s back in the league. He came back and he’s out there playing extremely well. It’s fun to see him back as a good friend, someone I’ve known since high school. I’m excited for him.”
There are clearly many people in his corner, but whether he will admit to it or not, Oden is the centerpiece of a grand experiment for the Heat, which is looking for some size to combat the big bodies Indiana and some of the teams in the Western Conference possess.
Whether this experiment succeeds or fails depends on how Oden plays during crucial moments in May and June. Yet, there are signs the 7-footer will be able to provide the defensive protection inside the Heat is searching for to help it win its third NBA championship in a row.
He is averaging more than two rebounds per game in 16 appearances entering Friday’s 91-86 win over the Memphis Grizzlies, and on six occasions he has grabbed at least three rebounds. Even if he isn’t scoring much, he was brought in to play defense.
LONG FOUR YEARS
It was a typical night Dec. 5, 2009, when the Portland Trail Blazers were playing the Houston Rockets. Oden attempted to block a shot with 7:46 left in the first quarter, but it went in, and he went down. Oden was on the floor in immense pain, holding his left knee.
That was the last time Oden played in the NBA before he signed a one-year deal with Miami over the summer. Many were skeptical that he ever would return to the form that helped him become the top pick in the 2007 NBA Draft.
For Oden’s agent, Mike Conley Sr., there were no doubts he would return to the NBA at some point.
“He never left,” Conley Sr. told the Miami Herald in January. “There was never a time since the first injury that he wanted to give up.”
The fractured left patella Oden sustained against the Rockets was the first of a series of medical issues he had to deal with. He was set to return for training camp before the 2010-11 season, but ended up sitting out for the early part of the season before undergoing microfracture surgery on his left knee. The rehab sidelined Oden until the 2011-12 season, but he still publicly proclaimed he would return to be a difference maker.
However, Oden required a second microfracture surgery on his left knee and on March 15, 2012, Portland waived its first-round selection, ending Oden’s tenure there. But that was not the end of Oden or his NBA career — at least not until facing personal demons in addition to the physical and mental challenges of his injuries and rehab.
While his career was on hiatus, Oden sunk into a deep depression and struggled with alcoholism. In an article for Grantland, Mark Titus, a childhood friend of Oden’s, said he spoke with Oden extensively about his issues and how dark the times were for him. Oden said in the article that he drank a lot of alcohol while rooming with his cousin, who was a U.S. Air Force veteran. Today, Oden does not like to talk about his past and he dodges questions about it, choosing instead to focus on the present and immediate future.
Titus said he didn’t hear from Oden for almost a year and a half during this period, and he heard rumors about just how sad of a state his friend was in because he wasn’t around his teammates on a daily basis.
“I did an interview with him and he talked about being an alcoholic, and being around him at that time when things were going south in Portland, it was really sad to see,” Titus told the Miami Herald in January. “When it immediately didn’t work out that way and it was the exact opposite of what he thought, he just got into a crazy place.
“But just being around a team again has done wonders for him and his mental health, just to be traveling with the team and going to practice every day and all that sort of stuff.”
He moved back to Columbus and began rehab at Ohio State, preparing for the 2013-14 NBA season when he could show the world he still could play at a high level.
In Columbus was Buckeyes coach Thad Matta, who also coached Oden in college.
“Greg has always been a driven individual in terms of what he wants,” Matta said. “Basketball has always been very important to him. He’s always been a winner so I think the situation he’s in now is ideal for him.”
WELCOME TO MIAMI
Oden signed a contract with the Heat in late August, and with that signature, his journey toward NBA relevance began again in earnest.
He had become accustomed to the spotlight for his basketball skills. But now, instead of showcasing his talent, he is trying to prove he still has it. Fans heaped enormous amounts of pressure on Oden to be Miami’s savior in the post, but Titus said the big man is just trying not to get too far ahead of himself.
“He’s trying to temper expectations, but at the same time he knows he’s got a great opportunity and he’s really excited just to be healthy and finally be on a team again,” Titus said.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra can see the childlike enthusiasm in Oden, remarking before a game in January, “I love seeing that smile on his face, just being out there.” The big man certainly seems happier and is grateful for the chance to be in the type of team atmosphere again in which he has thrived since his youth.
Oden was a heralded recruit coming out of high school and he led Ohio State to the NCAA Tournament championship game in his lone season in Columbus, helping add to his draft value. But now, Miami’s high-profile roster allows him to blend in, making it an ideal spot for his comeback.
“The team didn’t have to put pressure on him to win regular-season games,” Conley said about what made the Heat an attractive option for Oden.
Spoelstra has said not much is expected of Oden this season. And Oden, in his rare interviews, has sent a similar message of patience, saying he doesn’t want to rush the process or put too much pressure on himself.
Oden’s teammates understand he might not be able to help them as much as they might need it now, but Heat center Chris Bosh was a little more assertive.
“One thing about trying to make a championship run is everyone’s going to play a huge part whether they know it or not,” Bosh said. “We understand that eventually we’re going to call on him, he’s going to need to play big, consistent minutes for us, no matter how many they are, and he’s going to contribute, and he’s going to do a great job.
“We’re counting on him, but he just has to continue to do what he’s doing and everything’s going to be fine.”
WORKING HIS WAY BACK
The process of rehabilitating from microfracture surgery is long and arduous.
According to the Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colo., where Oden had his first microfracture surgery on his left knee, the rehab begins immediately after surgery with a continuous passive motion that helps increase the range of motion. Slowly, the patient is able to build up strength in the knees and can begin participating in sports such as basketball that require pivoting, cutting and jumping four to six months after the procedure.
However, the success rate for professional athletes coming back from microfracture surgery is promising.
In January, Dr. Harlan Selesnick, the Heat’s team doctor, wrote about microfracture surgery in his weekly column published by the Miami Herald. He mentioned a study of professional athletes that showed that “40 percent of the athletes who received microfracture surgery return to play at their previous level, 40 percent return to play in a diminished capacity and 20 percent were unable to return to professional sports.”
Oden’s patience has been tested many times in the past four years as he has inched closer to joining the 80 percent who come back and play. He said he can’t rush himself and risk injuring his knee again, so perseverance is the only option.
“With everything I’ve been through, I’ve got to be patient,” Oden said. “I understand my knee is a work in progress, so I’m going to make sure I’m not going to injure it again. The only thing I can do is be patient.”
Whenever fans see Oden hit the deck, they are going to hold their breath. Heck, even his teammates and coaches are likely to do the same. But Spoelstra said he won’t let that be a distraction.
“You have to get past it,” he said. “We’re not even thinking about that. Once he’s out there, he’s playing without any restrictions. You can’t hesitate, you can’t over think your reactions. And that’s part of the process.”
FUTURE IS IN HIS HANDS
Titus has known Oden since the two were in the seventh grade in 2001. They played on the same team for much of the time from then until Oden went to Ohio State, where Titus was a walk-on. Oden lives down the street from Titus in Indiana during the offseason, and Titus said they talk about once a month.
Despite the close relationship, Titus said he struggles to understand what Oden’s thought process has been throughout this ordeal other than gleaning some basic principles about Oden’s mind-set.
“He knows now that he’s on borrowed time,” Titus said. “He’s taking nothing for granted in that regard. He’s just focusing day-by-day and just blessed to have an opportunity, and he’s just really humble about it.”
At this point, Oden is making the most of his opportunities with the Heat, whenever they come. He has proved he has not lost his skills and can still glide smoothly up and down the court for six or seven minutes at a time.
Spoelstra said Oden has all the tools necessary to be a consistent player in the NBA, he just won’t rush the development and healing process and risk losing him for a long period of time — another long period of time.
“He’s a great kid,” Spoelstra said. “He’s been extremely diligent with his work. What we’re trying not to do is fast-track. There’s a big-time process that we need to be patient with.”
The Heat will continue to be cautious with Oden and evaluate him on a daily basis. Oden said he hopes the worst is behind him, but there will surely be a rocky road ahead.
However, his future is still murky as the results of the experiment play out. He is hopeful he will showcase his natural abilities to the rest of the league, and if he can continue to prove himself valuable to the Heat this year, the door will be open for him to become a regular player in the NBA once again.
“Greg’s role moving forward is predicated on what Greg does the rest of the season,” Conley said. “His future is on his shoulders, not Miami’s.”