PORTLAND, Ore. -- The premise was simple: jet up to the Pacific Northwest, see what life's like 4½
months after the numeric combinations delivered the top two picks to the Portland Trail Blazers and the Seattle SuperSonics.
I thought I knew the answer before I even printed my boarding pass. Sure, it might be a bummer that knee surgery will sideline Portland's Greg Oden for the season, but at least Blazer fans don't have to worry about their team leaving town right, Seattle? Advantage, Portland.
Or so I believed.
That was before I talked to Oden and Brandon Roy -- while their healthy teammates practiced without them. That was before I walked into a gym packed with excited Sonics fans, without a sign or peep of protest. That was before I learned that right now Oden is at a matchup disadvantage with his dog, Charles Barkley McLovin, let alone Yao Ming and Tim Duncan. That was before I saw the Sonics' full-throttle offense in an open scrimmage. It was before I heard Roy say he might need surgery on his left heel. And before I heard the Sonics fan who spends five hours a day spearheading efforts to keep the team in Seattle say he was optimistic.
I wasn't prepared for the big letdown that comes with Oden walking into a room with the aid of crutches the size of a collegiate point guard. If you can remember vinyl records, you can remember that sickening feeling when one of your favorites got scratched.
This can't be happening to Greg. It's not just the Blazers that need Oden. And not only the NBA, either. Sports needs more people like him. As Portland general manager Kevin Pritchard said, "Oden brings an aura of a superstar player, but he doesn't act like a superstar."
Oden's polite to the point of offering me my choice of chairs to sit in. Since he's the one with the most value and the worst knee, I let him take the Herman Miller Aeron chair. He's engaging and humorous, even making fun of his giant crutches.
"They're bigger than half the people in Portland," he said.
He's met enough of the locals to make that statement definitively. People come up to him when he's shopping for DVDs at Target or when he pops into a grocery store to use the ATM. They aren't shy. They greet him, welcome him to Portland and wish him well. I wonder if, in some way, even though it's no fault of his own, he feels as if he's letting them down.
"Yeah, I do," he said. "Because I want to be out there and I want to just show everybody and prove to myself, to the league and to this city. Not being able to do that kind of sucks."
He can't do much of anything right now. His friends drive him around town and to the Blazers' practice facility for rehab work. He uses the crutches for every step, except when he ditches them to hop around on one leg and scoop up Charles Barkley McLovin, a Boston/beagle mix whose name is a blend of one of Oden's favorite player and favorite movie ("Superbad").
The thing with Oden is, it isn't just this injury. He had a broken right wrist that kept him out the first month of his lone season at Ohio State. A frenzied schedule of appearances from coast to coast after the draft left him wiped out, and with a case of tonsillitis as well. Now he's had holes drilled in his knee to create fluid, the dreaded microfracture procedure that has been career-altering for some players.
How can we be assured Oden won't make more appearances on the injured list than at the All-Star Game?
"Because I am 19," Oden said. "Unless you have really, really bad luck, you're not going to have that many problems. I'm working hard. I feel I can come back from it. I just want people to know I have confidence I can come back. I'm going to work really, really hard to bring my knee back. My wrist is already back. All I'm doing is just my rehab, like they tell me to do."
When Roy heard the news about Oden, his shoulders sagged and his head dropped. Roy represented the Trail Blazers in Secaucus, N.J., when they won the lottery, and from the moment the Blazer logo went into the No. 1 spot he wanted Oden. After playing with him over the summer, Roy felt compelled to call his dad to say, "Man, Greg Oden is the real deal."
Now he's trying to find whatever positive spin he can after three little incisions in Oden's knee punctured gaping holes in Portland's season. At least they're aware beforehand that he'll be out for the year, Roy figures, so his absence won't be a shock.
"We know he's not going to be here," Roy said. "So we have got to step up."
Except when Roy tried to step up on the first day of training camp he felt a sharp pain in his left heel. It was a new sensation for an old injury. The heel first bothered him in the preseason last year, a soreness that never went away. His hard-working attitude and desire to make a good impression actually worked against him; he didn't complain and kept playing even though the pain didn't subside.
Finally, after the fourth regular-season game, he had an MRI exam and learned the irritation stemmed from the talus bone near his heel. Roy missed 20 of the team's first 25 games, and he says now that after he returned he never topped 90 percent of his capacity.
The good news is that Roy playing at 90 percent (and appearing in only 67 percent of the Blazers' games) was good enough to win Rookie of the Year. He's a savvy player with the mentality to make the right decisions and the skill to execute them. The bad news is coach Nate McMillan is already plotting ways to use Roy less this season, maxing him out at 35 minutes a game.
"It's hard, because he's one of those guys you don't want to take off the floor," McMillan said. "But you have to."
The Trail Blazers will keep him out of most if not all of the preseason games. But even the basketball version of the Yankees' "Joba Rules" might not be enough to keep Roy off the surgeon's table.
"There is a concern, because I don't want this to occur every year," Roy said. "And I don't want it to occur, maybe, in January. I think after the season we may revisit the idea of surgery. It's such a tough injury, they don't even know exactly what they would do if they went in They know it's the bone, but they don't know if they shaved it down, would that make it better?"
After all those dark "Jail Blazer" days, when controversies and arrests for marijuana possession were regular events, now the team's has chronic issues of the injury kind.
The community relations part they have down. Oden's ready to go visit high schools at a moment's notice. Roy was all over the city last year, even wearing an orange vest to work as a crossing guard at an elementary school.
Pritchard told owner Paul Allen he'd rather lose with the right players than win with the wrong players. He has the right guys.
"We have made it an absolute priority to have great character, not characters," said Pritchard, who traded Zach Randolph away for pennies on the dollar last summer as part of the team's cleansing.
"Does that translate into wins immediately? No. Do I feel like culture can ultimately translate into winning team and a team that can do things in the playoffs? No question."
But the euphoria that greeted Oden's arrival cooled off when the news broke that he would miss the season.
"It felt like somebody had died," said John Canzano, a columnist for The Oregonian.
Season-ticket sales are up, but the franchise that once had 18 consecutive years of sellouts still has seats available for games this year. Seeing is believing, and it'll take a full season with Oden and Roy on the court for Portland fans to be convinced.
The natural next step would be an Oden-Kevin Durant rivalry, the 2007 draft classmates battling for supremacy in the Pacific Northwest.
But will the Sonics still be in Seattle next year?
For more on the Sonics' situation, click here.
J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.