Greg Oden’s Issues Reveal Frailty Behind the Façade


I’ve always been somewhat tall, especially growing up in South Florida. There’s a perception that is unfairly attached to people of considerable size, a feeling that height and weight eliminates the responses that are normal in everyone else.

You become desensitized because you’re told you should; kids as big as you shouldn’t feel pain.

It’s a falsehood, of course. And Greg Oden’s recent battles with alcohol and domestic violence expose that even perceived gentle giants have the same demons as people of lesser size.

In a recent story by ESPN’s Michael Wallace, it’s revealed that Oden’s early-August arrest for allegedly striking his girlfriend was fueled by alcohol. Oden has battled this particular addiction before although it’s often been a muted issue in comparison to his struggles with chronic injuries.

It’s a problem fans and media share when considering athletes; an emphasis is placed on the physical while ignoring the emotional and psychological.

This isn’t a plea to forgive Oden his most recent transgression. Far from it. Merely the suggestion that while athletes of above-average size lumber across the hardwood floor or the playing field, we should recognize that there are often frailties that go beyond the physical.

In one of the many dichotomies of sports, athletes are expected to represent ideals, both physical and mental, that those along the periphery can hardly hope to attain. They are supposed to play through pain while we sit on the couch and enjoy the spectacle. They should shy away from temptations of money, fame and sex that we could hardly resist if we were in their place.

We place them on a pedestal built on a foundation of lies and act indignant when they invariably fail. Or worse, we revel in that failure and enjoy their long fall from grace.

Oden was supposed to be a feel-good story this past season, his years of recovery resulting in a successful comeback that would help the Miami Heat in their historic quest for a third straight championship. Instead, he faltered against the opposing players – Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah, to name a few – that he was theoretically supposed to contend.

We questioned his physical limitations and, despite his history with addiction, never wondered if there might be something deeper and more powerful that needed to be addressed.

As Wallace details in his piece, Greg Oden has continued working out despite his legal troubles; his trial date has been pushed from October to November 19. He remains unemployed, a free agent with well-chronicled health issues and now – finally – a legal issue that underlies a much more important struggle with addiction and the rage it induces.

Oden’s agent, Mike Conley, Sr., explained that the real concern is now what happens off the court:

"“He doesn’t want to talk about basketball or anything outside of basketball right now. He never stopped working out. That’s not even the issue right now. But he’s not even thinking about basketball.”"

Maybe it’s for the best. If Oden never returns to playing professional basketball and never lives up to the promise of his 2007 draft selection, some might consider it a failure.

But if he can take the necessary precautions to avoid alcohol and stave off the demons that are often found at the bottom of a bottle, then maybe it will be a successful conclusion to a story whose ending has seemingly been written many times before.

And maybe we can remember to look past the façade of an athlete’s imposing physical presence and recognize that there are all-too-human frailties that are often hidden from view.