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Tonight is a big night for Greg Oden. It marks his return after an ankle injury during the season opener. But Portland Trailblazers owners, coaches and fans won’t be the only ones with their fingers crossed. There is a line of sports marketers waiting to see if this big man can stay healthy.
You see, Oden is no ordinary seven-footer. “He is intelligent, articulate and has a genuine personality and sense of self you don’t find in many athletes,” said Nova Lanktree, executive vice president of marketing services for CSMG International, a Chicago firm which matches athletes to commercial opportunities. “But he has to prove he can play in the NBA. He has to play and get himself out in front of people to prove his true marketing value.”
Many NBA pundits thought this year Oden would challenge the likes of Derrick Rose and Michael Beasley for rookie of the year. Oden missed all of last year—what would have been his rookie year—with a knee injury. Now there are questions about his durability and long-term viability.
One thing is certain. The NBA hasn’t seen a big man with such a magnetic personality since Bill Walton, who oddly is the man Oden’s propensity for injury is drawing comparison to. Walton was more prone to statements of controversy and alignment with the counter culture than Oden. And Oden doesn’t have the know-it-all persona that has turned some people against Walton.
Oden is much less aloof than Patrick Ewing, much less reserved than Hakeem Olajuwon and takes himself much less seriously than Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. While Oden is lighthearted—even funny—he is less apt to use his humor to take jabs at people like Shaquille O’Neal. “There’s a lot to like about Greg, but he simply has to play,” Lanktree said.
Sports marketers aren’t the only ones sweating Oden’s health. The NBA could also use such a shining knight to bolster its image and boost its business during this economic downturn.