First impressions matter more in basketball than in any other sport, and they can be savored only in person. Players can't hide behind pads or helmets, so we can stare at them, evaluate every move they make: running, jumping, walking, even ogling the cheerleaders. We can see every ripple and tattoo. If they're lazy, we can tell. If they have a lousy attitude, we can tell. If their teammates dislike them, we can tell. It's the most naked sport, if that makes sense.
And if we happen to be watching a potential franchise center, we can tell right away. I remember watching young David Robinson stroll out of the tunnel at the Boston Garden as everyone made the same sound: "Whoa." Young Hakeem possessed so much raw athletic ability, he could barely harness it; watching him play hoops was like watching a 15-year-old driving a Formula One race car. Young Dikembe altered every shot within 12 feet, and eight blocks per game seemed realistic. Young Shaq had the highest ceiling of all: I specifically recall leaving the Garden thinking, It's all over; nobody has a chance against that guy.
Yes, you always remember the underwhelming and overwhelming moments of first impressions, especially with franchise bigs. The "merely whelming" moments, though, fade away. I remember seeing the aforementioned four newbies for the first time, but I caught Ewing as a rookie and remember nothing. He whelmed me. Same for Yao, Sampson and Zo. On the other hand, young Shawn Bradley left me more than underwhelmed. Actually, I thought,
Oh no, Philly is screwed!
So I couldn't wait to attend a Clippers-Blazers preseason game a few weeks ago. I needed my first impression of Greg Oden.
I needed to fit him on my Whelm Scale. He ended up landing "under." Oden ran with— there's no other way to say it—a noticeable limp. His body sank within itself, like the token tall guy in college who decides it's better to slump than to listen to tall jokes for the next four years. He jogged every time there was an opportunity to jog. Physically, he didn't seem any more intimidating than his teammate LaMarcus Aldridge. Everything about his body language said, "I'm not healthy or confident in my body yet."
Sure, he could dunk in traffic, challenge a few shots, sink an ugly jump hook or two. But everything came in quick bursts. His game lacked a certain fluidity that great centers usually have. It's the same quality that bothered me about the guy in college: Maybe all the parts were there, but the whole rarely matched them.
Here's where you should (rightly) point out that Oden was returning from microfracture surgery and battling inevitable confidence issues. And here's where I agree. It's too early to say definitively, This is where we stand. I just know what I saw, and here's what I saw: a 20-year-old guy who walked and ran like he was 35. Of course, you could have said the same about him in Columbus, but back then, at least he would randomly unleash an occasional superfreak moment: a hellacious dunk, a Russell-like block, whatever. Not anymore. His current ceiling looks more like Erick Dampier on a really good day.
Six days later, Oden sprained his foot on opening night and spawned another wave of Sam Bowie chatter. I'd just e-mailed my editors the day before to tell them I was writing about Oden. When they asked why, I sent them a rough draft of the previous three paragraphs and added that, if I had one non-Celtics NBA wish for the coming season, it would be for me to be wrong.
And not just because Oden pushes a fun Blazers team to another level. The league needs him. He could be a wonderful, thoughtful personality along the lines of Bill Bradley, Kevin McHale, Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson and Bill Walton—an original, someone who defies every unfair stereotype of NBA players.
Oden told Portland GM Kevin Pritchard, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," after finding out he needed knee surgery. He played piano for JT at the ESPYs. He messes with reporters during interviews by seeing how many questions he can answer in a monotone. He's such a nice person, I guarantee he will never throw a punch in a game. He never takes himself seriously. He's legitimately funny and self-aware, wise beyond his years, intuitive almost to a fault.
When The Oregonian's Jason Quick casually mentioned to Oden that he'd been a little underwhelmed by his preseason, Oden took it so personally that Quick cringed for the rest of the conversation. Oden never yelled at Quick nor defended himself, but his feelings were genuinely hurt. The reporter eventually walked away feeling terrible and wrote a terrific piece about it. Do we ever hear stories like that about professional athletes anymore? I've been writing columns for 20 years, dating back to college, and this is the first one I've ever worried about the subject reading.
I can't remember a more fascinating big guy. Shaq was contrived. Robinson was a saint. Ewing was forced. Hakeem was bland. Kareem was a ninny. Wilt was self-absorbed. Russell was angry and defiant. Oden presents the first chance for us to connect with a big guy on a semispiritual level. He's the lovable goofball who could have been your college roommate or next-door neighbor, the kid who went big time and took us with him. I want him to make it for the simple fact that I love basketball and we need more players like him. We just do.
Unfortunately, he has rarely seemed like a franchise center in anything more than hype. I was concerned during his high school years when it was revealed that one leg was shorter than the other. Hmmm. I was concerned during his Ohio State season, when everyone kept making excuses for him despite mounting evidence that THE NEXT GREAT CENTER GREG ODEN just couldn't dominate night to night. I was concerned after watching him walk down a hallway after the 2007 ESPYs, when he reminded me of Fred Sanford. I was concerned after the sudden announcement that he needed major surgery.
Hey, if someone's body isn't quite meant to survive 1,000 to 1,200 NBA games—well, in my opinion, you can tell right away. Bill Walton always ran like a guy with bad feet. Why? His feet couldn't handle an NBA season. They haunted him, betrayed him and ultimately murdered his career. Structurally, he had a problem that couldn't be solved.
By contrast, young Hakeem moved like a seven-foot soccer player—impossibly light on his feet, jarringly quicker than everyone else—and you couldn't watch him without thinking, This is where basketball is going.
So it makes sense that Hakeem played nearly 800 more games than Walton did. Watch them running on NBA TV, and it will still be no surprise.
That's the thing about first impressions: Maybe they don't say everything, but you can't ignore them. I would've bet my life that Hakeem was going to become a great player, barring injury, in 1984. I don't feel even remotely the same about Greg Oden. We know he's a wonderful person, and a skilled player, but it remains unclear whether his body was meant to play basketball for a living.
From what I've seen so far, the answer is no. Just know that I've never wanted to be more wrong about anything.
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