x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Blazers burned by a number

Seven-footer Oden's long injury list has shades of 1984 when Portland opted for Bowie over Jordan.

Greg Oden, top, the Portland Trail Blazers centre, is nursing a fractured left knee.
Greg Oden, top, the Portland Trail Blazers centre, is nursing a fractured left knee.

In the National Basketball Association, size matters. It not only matters, but it rules. It not only rules, it intoxicates.

Evaluators of young basketball talent cannot resist a strapping seven-footer (2.13m). If he can walk and chew gum simultaneously, perhaps even block shots, rebound and score now and then, he is the wanted man.

The NBA draft, like others in American professional sports, is designed to balance the league by distributing the best prospects to the weakest teams. In a perfect world, the future Hall of Famer goes first.

In the real world, the Portland Trail Blazers, with the first pick in the 2007 draft, had an either/or choice.

Greg Oden, 7ft and and 127kg of muscled athleticism, projected as the Now Generation version of past great centres such as Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. And with a menacing-looking beard, too.

The "or" to Oden's "either" was Kevin Durant, a sleek and slender 6ft 9ins forward, a more polished player than Oden but with, to many judges of the sport, less upside as a man who could dominate games.

How did it turn out?

Let's Google "Kevin Durant" and see what pops up.

Ÿ The rookie of the year for the Seattle SuperSonics.

Ÿ Responsible for transforming the fortunes of the franchise after it moved to Oklahoma City, generating constant sell-outs in the NBA's least-populated metropolitan area. Anchor on the league's up-and-coming team.

(Pause to catch breath.)

ŸLast season, the youngest player, at age 21, to lead the NBA in scoring. Second behind LeBron James in Most Valuable Player voting.

Ÿ Led the United States to the Fiba World Championships when his platinum-level peers found something better to do over the summer and skipped the tournament.

"He elevated," Mike Kryzewski, the US coach, said after the final. "He was on a pretty high floor already, but he went close to being in the penthouse."

If Oden has not reached the penthouse, it is only because he cannot climb the stairs. It turns out that the man of steel has feet (and knees) of clay.

Oden's current season ended almost before it started with the diagnosis last week of a fractured left knee.

It was discovered during rehabilitation for a broken knee cap that limited him to 21 games last season.

Oden's rookie year was washed out by microfracture surgery on his right knee. He managed to stay upright for 61 games the following season. Some athletes hold a grudge against guys selected before them in the draft. Not Durant. It would be easy for him to verbally abuse Oden.

Rather, he voiced sympathy. "He's been through so much," the No 2 pick said of the No 1. No one has questioned Oden's basketball character.

He had an embarrassing moment when he e-mailed some private photographs, but that had nothing to do with his dedication to his job.

Jay Jensen, the Blazers' physiotherapist, nearly wept when he recalled receiving the dreaded news of Oden's latest knockdown, saying: "It felt like hearing someone close to us had died."

You decide if Portland ignored the warning signs.

Oden was shelved early in his only season of college basketball, but because of a broken wrist. The knees checked out, but one leg proved shorter than the other.

Too bad for the Blazers that the tape measure did not find the top of Oden's head at something less than 7ft. Maybe they would have fallen for Durant instead.

But when that height threshold is crossed, horns start blaring and balloons start falling.

The number "7" is as powerful to NBA scouts as it is to a dice player. It should come with a "buyer beware" sign.

It seems as if the game is exacting cruel and unusual punishment on the Blazers, whose older supporters have never stopped lamenting the most egregious draft miscall of all.

The second pick in 1984 boiled down to a decision between a centre and a shooting guard.

Like Oden, the big fellow in this scenario stood 7ft, had endured injuries in college but had been cleared by the Trail Blazers' medical people.

Like Oden, as soon as he reached the NBA he kept breaking down like an old jalopy, missing one entire season and more than half of four others. Portland, fed up, traded him away after four years.

Like Oden, he has been the object of scorn, despite respectable career averages of 10.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, diminished by injuries that were no reflection on his integrity.

Yes, the Blazers selected Sam Bowie.

Instead of Michael Jordan.