Top NBA Rookie Oden to Miss Season

Greg Oden, one of the most highly touted basketball players in recent years, will miss his rookie season with the Portland TrailBlazers. A damaged knee will take up to a year to mend. The towering center was the first pick in the NBA draft after spending a year at Ohio State.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One of the most highly touted pro-basketball players in recent years will miss his upcoming rookie season. Seven-foot-tall center Greg Oden of the Portland Trail Blazers was the first pick in June's NBA draft. Yesterday, he found out he has a damaged knee and it will take up to a year to mend.

From Portland, NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: If it's possible for an entire city to smile, Portland's grin broke out on that day last June when the Trail Blazers made Greg Oden the number one pick in the draft.

The 19-year-old star-in-waiting shared the joy in an ESPN interview at draft central in New York City.

Mr. GREG ODEN (Center, Portland Trail Blazers): It came true. I'm happy just to be here with my family. My mom's loving it, and it's a great thing.

GOLDMAN: The next day, he was in downtown Portland, waving, smiling, even bowing to an adoring crowd of several thousand who turned out for a welcome Greg Oden rally. This was the man-child who would make Portlanders forget the ugly Jail Blazer years, when the team was known more for its lawbreaking than fast-breaking. And so it was easy to imagine an entire city grimacing when Blazer general manager Kevin Pritchard announced yesterday that exploratory knee surgery on Oden discovered something bad - cartilage damage requiring a procedure called microfracture, which stimulates cartilage growth.

Mr. KEVIN PRITCHARD (General Manager, Portland Trail Blazers): Greg will be off his leg for six to eight weeks. And then he will be out for the season, six to twelve months.

GOLDMAN: Pritchard said the disappointment he felt was easily matched by Oden.

Mr. PRITCHARD: Greg looked at me as he was coming out of his surgery, and him and his mom Zoe probably said sorry 20 times. I could feel the weight of the world on his shoulders.

GOLDMAN: Greg Oden knows he is considered the savior of the franchise. He knows he was the focus of a national sports debate leading up to the NBA Draft - who was the better first pick, Oden or fellow collegiate star Kevin Durant. Pritchard sent a reassuring message to his rookie center.

Mr. PRITCHARD: We picked the right kid. And he hasn't let us down at all. He came here early. He was working on getting in shape; that's a great thing.

GOLDMAN: But questions about Oden's health are unavoidable. He played one year at Ohio State and missed the first part of his season after having wrist surgery. He says he first noticed his knee problem when on vacation he got up from the couch and felt a sharp pain. Oden recently wrote on his blog: I would like to be playing and not seem like I'm a high maintenance player, but things just keep popping up. Pritchard says MRIs on Oden's knees before the NBA Draft were absolutely pristine.

But NBA analysts like ESPN's Ric Bucher wonder about Oden's long-term durability.

Mr. RIC BUCHER (NBA Analyst, ESPN): Because of the alignment of his body, because of a back issue, because one leg is longer than the other, how is he going to do under the grind of the NBA season? Is he going to have problems like this with either his ligaments or his joints or his cartilage being a seven-foot, 300-pound guy running up and down the court?

GOLDMAN: Portland fans shudder at the prospect of another damaged first round draft pick. In 1984, a year that lives in basketball infamy here, the Blazers passed over Michael Jordan and chose center Sam Bowie. His career was cut short by multiple leg injuries. Believers in basketball karma reject the notion that Oden is another Bowie. Oden will rehab, they say, and be the savior just a year later, and the sun of NBA prosperity will shine on Portland, the way the sun was supposed to shine yesterday. The forecast called for morning drizzle to give way to blue skies and 80-degree weather, but the drizzle never lifted.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Portland.

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