EARLY ON THE afternoon of September 13, Pritchard huddles with McMillan and Trail Blazers president Larry Miller in a concrete-floored Rose Garden hallway outside a room packed with reporters. Greeting a passerby, he smiles gamely, but the mood under the soft fluorescent light is undeniable—three men steeling themselves to give a eulogy.
As everyone from Gresham to Kazakhstan found out that day (ESPNews carried the press conference live), Greg Oden almost certainly won’t take the court this season, due to an injured knee that required microfracture surgery. Judging from the best-case comebacks of other players who have had the same procedure (including the Phoenix Suns’ Amare Stoudamire and none other than Zach Randolph), he could also be a little ginger in 2008-09. While delivering his official statement, Pritchard’s voice catches several times, and he looks more tired than he ever did during the weeks before the draft.
Pritchard didn’t select Oden for his knees or even his overall ability.
There’s no doubt this is a major setback—for one thing, most of Pritchard’s moves revolved around a plan to let the team’s young core (Roy, Oden and Aldridge) develop for the next two seasons. By then he’d have a sense of who belonged as well as enough salary-cap room to add a major piece (“a closer,” in Pritchard’s draft-day parlance) via free agency. More imminently, there is no way to replace the big guy as a box-office draw, let alone a civic superhero. The NBA and its two cable partners didn’t peg the Blazers for 12 national TV games because of Taurean Green and Josh McRoberts. Season ticketholders didn’t wonder about refunds after Darius Miles’s microfracture surgery. Oden’s injury felt like the big karmic correction—the good luck of the draft lottery and exuberance at his arrival instantly replaced by existential dread and memories of Bill Walton and Sam Bowie. Oh, right. We’re Portland. City of roses, rain, and injury-prone big men.
But is Kevin Pritchard worried? Sorry? Dripping with regret about the pick? Not even a little. The GM who’d rather lose with the right players than win with the wrong ones would also rather have the right injured player than the wrong healthy player. Pritchard didn’t select Greg Oden for his knees, or even his overall ability to play the game. He selected the whole person. He selected “The Caregiver.”
So when Oden came out of anesthesia on that September morning, even as Portland’s collective sports-fan heart was about to shatter and the ESPNocracy began polishing their puns (“Mo-rose City,” “Sam I Am?”), Kevin Pritchard looked at his wounded gentle giant and felt awful—but as good about the fact that Greg Oden was a Blazer as he ever had. The persistent lump in Pritchard’s throat during the press conference was not that of an NBA muckety-muck whose job just got a lot harder—it was more like that of a father who just left his son’s hospital bed.
“Greg looked at me as he was coming out of his surgery and he and his mom, Zoe, probably said ‘sorry’ 20 times,” Pritchard recounted to the media throng that night. “I could feel the weight of the world on his shoulders…. My first thought was how lucky we were to have a guy that cares about the organization so much, and secondly, we’ve got to help this kid through it. We picked the right kid.”
The right kid for the Portland Trail Blazers. The right kid for the “culture.” The right piece of the foundation. And you’re not getting Kevin Pritchard off of his foundation.
“Whether we’ll win a championship, I don’t know,” he says. “A lot of things have to happen. But I do know this: We’re going to be a team that’s going to be easy to watch and easy to be proud of. And that’s where I start every morning. Because if I’m not proud of the team, then how can I expect anybody else to be?”