Friday, June 8, 2012

Forever Waiting on Greg Oden

on pop theology, philosophy, theology, culture, pop culture, christianityby Ben Howard

As an Ohio State basketball fan, Greg Oden probably first entered my consciousness sometime in 2006.  Oden, universally regarded as the best high school basketball player in the country and one of the best of the decade, was the crown jewel of the “Thad Five” recruiting class under first year coach Thad Matta.  Oden was tasked with establishing Ohio State, historically a football school with a mediocre basketball team, as one of the NCAA’s elite programs. 

However, the summer before he enrolled, Oden broke his wrist and was forced to sit out the first half of the season.  At the time, it was reported as an injury that occurred late in his final high school season, but the truth was more ominous and foreshadowing.  Greg had actually suffered the injury defending himself in a fight with his brother, Anthony, who had become angry at the idea of his brother’s success and future.  This would not be the only time where Greg would be hurt, physically or emotionally, by those close to him.

Once Oden got back onto the court, the Buckeyes became a powerhouse.  They would eventually play in the National Championship game where they lost to a juggernaut Florida team by 9.  The loss was in no way a deterrent to Oden’s career though, and he declared himself eligible for the 2007 NBA Draft where he was drafted with the first overall pick by the Portland Trail Blazers.

Expectations were once again high in Portland.  With Oden, along with young players Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland was set to establish a dynasty in the NBA.  However, at this point Greg’s career began to go off the rails.  The summer before his first NBA season, Greg began experiencing some pain in his knee and was forced to visit a specialist.  The resultant microfracture surgery meant that Oden would miss the entirety of his first season, and possibly the beginning of his second.  Oden would later reveal that the disillusionment of the surgery, along with the tragic loss of a close friend in a car accident led him to begin drinking heavily in addition to “doing things I shouldn’t have been doing.”

Greg came back in in his second year and played in 61 games, but the drinking had become even worse.  Looking for guidance during his recovery, Oden invited his cousin, a veteran from the Air Force, to live with him.  However, the cousin took Oden even deeper into alcohol.  In Oden’s own words:

My cousin got wrapped up in the NBA lifestyle and threw parties at my house all the time. So I got wrapped up in it too. When I played well, I'd drink to celebrate. And when I played poorly, I'd drink to forget. That second year in Portland I pretty much became an alcoholic.

The offseason gave Greg the incentive to get a handle on his problems.  He stopped drinking, hired a personal chef and got into great shape.  He began the next season on fire, and was beginning to fulfill his much-longed for potential.  Then, in the first quarter of a game on December 5, 2009, Greg landed awkwardly fracturing his left patella.  Oden has not played in an NBA game since.

In the myopic world of sports fandom, Greg became a joke.  Even though he wasn’t responsible for the injuries he had suffered (it isn’t like hurting your knees is tied intimately to some deep character flaw), Greg was mocked and ridiculed by the fans of Portland.  He had come to symbolize both their hope and anticipation, and their bitterness when that hope vanished due to bad luck.  During this rather difficult time, yet another humiliating event occurred in Oden’s life.  At the risk of being indelicate, Oden was a wealthy young bachelor and therefore had his fair share of female admirers.  One of these admirers leaked nude pictures of Greg onto the internet.  Oden was humiliated by the event and refused to leave his house for three days.  Not only was he the symbol for failure and unmet potential, now he was a fool and a target of wrath and mocking for the sports community.

Over the next two years, Oden continued to meet frustrations and setbacks with his recovery.  Every time he seemed on the verge of making a comeback, yet another obstacle emerged and prevented it.  It also eroded his confidence in his employer, who he believed had tried to rush his return thus extended his recovery time with ill-advised treatment.  Oden was eventually released by the Blazers in early 2012.  He has returned to his childhood home of Indianapolis, Indiana where he intends to rest and rehabilitate during the 2012-2013 season before attempting a comeback.  If/when he comes back, Greg will only be 25 years old and will still possess the potential for a long and happy career.

I’ve always felt bad for Greg Oden, and I think that’s because I’ve always felt a little bit like him.  Now, I’m not trying to say I have world-class talent or something like that, I may be arrogant at times and a bit grandiose, but I’m not that arrogant. However, I do understand the struggle to hold up under the weight of expectations that you have neither courted nor control.  We live in a culture that is enamored with the idea of expectation and potential.  Our schools have programs for the “talented” and “advanced” kids, politicians drone on and on about how children are our “future”, movies and TV shows succeed or fail often based primarily on their trailers and the buzz surrounding them, and ESPN broadcasts the drafts of every major sports league.  At the same time, potential is exactly what it says it is: the potential to become something, achieve something, be something.  It is not the thing in itself.
I think our cultural obsession with potential, the next thing, the new “Best Ever”, has the shadow effect of demoralizing those who don’t, or can’t, achieve to the level that they’ve been predicted.  We’ve subtly undercut the belief that you can be happy and content without being an overachiever who does amazing, storied feats.  Personally, I feel this crunch quite acutely.  I am 25 with a college degree, a good entry level job, nearly finished with a Master’s degree, surrounded by friends and family who love me, and a majority of the time I feel like a chronic disappointment.  I see 20 year old savants with doctorates and people my age with book deals, people who have “achieved” something, and somewhere in my warped perspective of the world, I feel like this is the norm, when it is more than exceptional.

The story of Greg Oden isn’t the story of failure.  Instead, I think it’s the story of an idea, the concept of GREG ODEN towering over and enveloping the man.  The problem is that Greg Oden has never been and can never be in charge of GREG ODEN, he can only be in control of himself.  Perhaps, in my case, or yours, the expectations we feel are illusory and the crush is self-imposed, but it is a perception birthed from a culture that idealizes its young and its future at the expense of its contentment and its present.

At its core, this obsession with expectation and potential is deeply unchristian and deeply destructive of the image of God embedded within us.  We follow in the paths of people plucked from what we would perceive as mediocrity and placed in positions of power and leadership.  We come from a line that believes and trusts that we do not achieve under the work of our own talent and potential, but through the work of God’s spirit through us.  Our achievements are not our own, but they are the gracious out-workings of God in us and through us.  We do not aspire to become the best version of ourselves, but instead we struggle and strive to incarnate the very image of God embedded within us at our creation.  We are full of expectation, we are full of potential, but it is not the potential of the I or the Us, it is the potential of our creator and our redeemer.


Much thanks to Mark Titus for his incredibly useful interview with friend and former teammate Greg Oden.  Read his interview here:

1 comment:

  1. Add to the fact that he was universally regarded as a decent person and it kind of breaks your heart. I once heard an anecdote where he botched an attempt to talk to Rihanna, and he was so embarrassed by it he couldn't talk. If I was him I'd be thinking "Rihanna would be lucky to have me", of course I'm not him and I still think that so....