Blazers' Oden reinvents himself
PORTLAND — Greg Oden reinvented himself this summer.
After an inconsistent debut season, the 7-foot center for the Portland Trail Blazers slimmed down, worked on his defense, focused on his footwork and even added a turnaround jumper to his repertoire.
He also changed his attitude.
"It wasn't really an 'Aha!'" he said. "It was more just, I know that something needs to change and I've got to do something about it."
Oden was the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft after one season at Ohio State. Portland fans rejoiced, dogpiling on the floor of the Rose Garden arena when the selection was announced — then turning out en masse for a rally when he arrived in town.
Oden was heralded as the next Bill Walton, a big man who would lead the Blazers back to the NBA's elite.
But shortly thereafter the party was over when Oden underwent microfracture surgery on his right knee, forcing him to miss his entire rookie season.
Despite his absence on the court, Oden was still a looming presence in the organization. He appeared in commercials for local businesses, attended charity events, threw his support behind Barack Obama's presidential campaign and even blogged. Through it all, he kept his trademark wit.
Oden's postponed rookie season was also met with anticipation, but that was soon crushed too when he sprained his right foot in the opener against the Lakers and missed the next six games.
He sat another 14 games after the All-Star break because of a bone chip in his left knee. The injuries drew comparisons to Sam Bowie, the injury-prone forward the Blazers selected in the 1984 draft ahead of Michael Jordan.
Replaced in the starting lineup for much of the season by Joel Przybilla, Oden averaged 8.9 points and seven rebounds. He often had foul trouble.
But most dramatically, Oden seemed to lose his humor along the way.
When the season closed, Oden returned to Columbus, Ohio, where he spends the offseason, and set about remaking himself.
"It wasn't what I had hoped it would be," Oden said about last season. "I foresaw it as being a lot better, I definitely had my good points and I had my low points. Those injuries were definitely the low points.'"
Every week, Oden was visited by Blazers assistant coach Bill Bayno to work on his on-court skills. Off the court, Oden slimmed down, trimming 15 pounds from his 285-pound frame.
"I think last year Greg felt he had to be bigger and stronger," Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. "This year he decided it would be better if he were lighter on his feet."
Finally, there was Brian Grant.
Grant, a former Blazer who still makes his home in Portland, was asked by the team if he'd be willing to work with Oden. Grant jumped at the chance, and flew out to Ohio several times over the summer.
It was hoped that Grant would evolve into something of a mentor for Oden.
Grant, a dreadlocked 6-foot-9 forward who played 12 seasons in the league and built a reputation for hard-nosed play after a ferocious battle against Karl Malone in the 1999 playoffs, was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
As a result, Grant has been transforming himself into a vocal advocate for fellow sufferers.
"I was telling him it's OK to feel that way (about last season), but what are we going to do about it now?" Grant said. "Now you're healthy, now you've got an opportunity to do something about it. What is it you want to do?'
"He's a warrior. He's somebody who wants to work, he wants to get better."
Oden said Grant's help was invaluable.
"He was somebody I could talk to," Oden said.
The Blazers won 54 games last season and made it to the playoffs for the first time since 2003 but fell in six games to the Houston Rockets in the first round. Oden struggled in the postseason, averaging five points, 4.3 rebounds and 16 minutes.
In the offseason, Portland signed guard Andre Miller and veteran forward Juwan Howard, part of an effort to add some experience to a team that was second-youngest in the NBA last season.
Miller, vying to become Portland's starting point guard, has especially shown chemistry with Oden — and even jokes about it.
"You always want to get a good thing going with the biggest guy on the team," he smiled.
But of all the changes, Oden said his weight loss has made the biggest difference.
"The best thing is being lighter on my feet," he said. "The movements, the things you want to do when you're heavier, you sometimes don't have the energy or you're just tired because you're carrying extra weight around. ... My body's feeling good. I'm not keeping myself down because of all that extra weight."
And the attitude shift? That's still a work in progress.
"I feel good now," said Oden, who admits he's a perfectionist. "I'm going out there and just playing and not really thinking too hard about anything. Trying to enjoy it."