MIAMI – Kevin Durant and Greg Oden were on the same court again Wednesday for the first time in 1,549 days.
[We pause here while you insert your own obligatory cultural reference point – the price of a gallon of gas back then, for instance, or the top grossing Hollywood movie that weekend – but let's just all agree: It was a long, long time ago.]
You’ve got to go back to Nov. 1, 2009, to find an NBA game in which both Durant and Oden played — a road victory for Oden’s Portland team at Oklahoma City. He had 12 points and 10 rebounds. Durant scored 16. Five weeks later, Oden went down in a heap – again – and their paths split. Stayed split for more than four years, too.
Until Wednesday, when they at least warmed up at opposite ends.
Forever linked by their status atop the 2007 NBA Draft, Oden (No. 1 that night) and Durant (No. 2 to the then Seattle team) hardly could be at more divergent points in a basketball player’s career. Durant is a leading contender for 2014 Most Valuable Player, carrying the Thunder’s competitive load in injured teammate Russell Westbrook‘s absence while dazzling even casual NBA fans with a string of remarkable scoring performances.
And Oden? “Heh. For me, it’s just walking off the court not injured again,” he said about an hour before tipoff between Oklahoma City and Miami, his new basketball home.
Oden, 26, is trying to salvage his career after five knee surgeries and the Heat are giving him the chance. Their hope is that, as he builds him back into game shape and chisels off years of rust, he’ll eventually be durable enough to counter some of the big men they’ll face (a.k.a., Roy Hibbert) in a quest for a third consecutive NBA title.
So far so good – and so slow. Through Miami’s first 44 games, Oden had appeared in just five. He made his debut on Jan. 15 after a half season of work on the side and, in time, in practice. Oden hasn’t scored more than six points, grabbed more than five rebounds or logged as many as 13 minutes. Prior to Wednesday, he was averaging 3.4 points on 6-for-14 shooting with 2.0 boards and 8.4 minutes.
“His spirit is fantastic right now,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Just to think about where he’s been the last four years, just to be able to get back on the basketball court, for a team like this, there couldn’t be more gratification. It’s been a long road. There’s still a long ways to go.
“There isn’t a grand master plan – we put together a plan just to get him back out on the court and then from here, it’s got to be day to day. Ultimately we just don’t know.”
The unknowns of Oden’s comeback attempt are preferable, at least, to the alleged knowns of what preceded this. The 7-footer’s inability to endure the rigors of NBA play seemed to doom him individually and serve as another sad chapter in the Portland franchise’s history of hobbled stars (Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, Brandon Roy).
“It’s been so long where I can even walk on the court,” Oden told NBA.com. “If I can go out there, play a couple minutes, just do something, even be a presence out there and walk off healthy, for me that’s good enough.”
Is he pain-free? “I wouldn’t go that far,” he said. “Nothing I can’t handle.”
As for the rust and atrophy in his skills, Oden said: “Fundamentals, everybody has that. I definitely have that. For a lot of guys in this league, it’s confidence – once they play a year or two, they start to figure it out. So for me, it’s four years off. Just figuring it out yet. This is, what, game ? So it’s still going to take some time, but it’s going to come back.”
Much of the NBA is pulling for him, though Oden said he wasn’t really aware of that. “I don’t know. There’s been so many times when I’ve heard people not pulling for me,” he said. “So I just play and try not to think about it.”
His new teammates have his back, certainly, beyond any self-interest.
“One thing about trying to make a championship run is, everybody’s going to play a huge part, whether they know it or not,” Miami forward Chris Bosh said. “With G.O., eventually we’re gonna call on him. He’s going to have to play big, consistent minutes for us, no matter how many there are. And he’s going to contribute and do a great job.
“We’re bringing him along slowly. He’s had to work out after years and years of rehabilitation, then he has to sit for weeks with us putting him in a little bit. But all that stuff is going to pay off for him.”
Oden needed to know, too, that his old friend Durant – the name critics never let him forget, for how differently things have gone for the No. 1 and No. 2 draft picks – has his back, too.
“As a friend, I’m excited he’s back in the league,” the three-time NBA scoring champ said after the morning shootaround. “He’s overcome a lot in his career. It’s a great story that he has – five knee surgeries, and he was thinking about retirement before [age] 25. But he came back and he’s out there playing extremely well. It’s fun to see him back.”
Oden could resent all of Durant’s success – and good health. Heaven knows he has been reminded of Portland’s folly, his lousy luck and the Thunder star’s ascension among the NBA’s elite, oh, about 1,549 times since they last played.
But the big fellow is polite and generous about the situation. Leave the ill will for Portland fans who wish the Blazers had drafted Durant – and for lingering Seattle NBA fans who wish the same thing, so that their relocated franchise might be the one stung by Oden’s fate.
“I’m beyond happy for him,” Oden said. “He’s one of the best players in this league. He’s one of the first guys who texted me whenever something had happened before, with my knee, and when I signed. He’s just a good dude and he’s playing amazing.”
As for the crossroads they hit in their careers and the separate paths since, Oden said: “I wish things would have worked out a little differently. But we’re both here. He’s doing his thing and I’m still trying to figure it out.”