Despite Setbacks, Oden Still Enjoying Life, Cheering for Ohio State
By Brandon Castel
INDIANAPOLIS — Greg Oden’s hand looked even more enormous than I remembered as he reached out to shake my hand.
Photo by Jim Davidson
It was a déjà vu moment, as if I had experienced that exact handshake before. It was also a strange moment, more like a dream. The last time I shook Oden’s hand was probably some point during the course of his one season at Ohio State. (It’s possible I have shaken his hand since then, because he has been at a number of OSU basketball games and he’s often around Columbus in the summer. I just don’t remember actually shaking that enormous hand.)
Oden was larger than life back then. The 7-footer from Indianapolis was like a mythical creature walking around Ohio State’s campus.
“It was kind of the last time where I felt like I was kind of a normal kid,” Oden said.
“Maybe I was doing a lot on the basketball court, but when I went to class and just being on campus, I was a normal guy. I definitely miss that.”
There are a lot of things Oden misses these days, like the full use of his legs, which he once used to explode off the hardwood for a thunderous slam dunk—or missed slam, as was the case against Georgetown in the 2007 Final Four.
That’s when Oden threw down what might have been the greatest one-handed dunk in college basketball history…if only it had gone in. Oden’s leaping slam bounced off the front of the rim, but he did pick up a blocking foul on Jeff Green, who was nearly engulfed by Oden’s soaring 7-foot frame.
At the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis, Oden could not get to his seat to watch the Buckeyes without the help of crutches. It’s not something he likes to talk about, but the big man who once roamed the middle for Ohio State recently underwent his third microfracture knee surgery.
It was the second on his left knee, which will cost Oden yet another season of professional basketball.
“I'm alright,” he said with a somber look on his face.
“Rehabbing, you know. I gotta do what I gotta do.”
Oden was recently released by the Portland Trailblazers, who used the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft to select the explosive center over Texas wing Kevin Durant. Despite the injuries, which have limited him to just 82 games in five seasons, Oden wants to play again.
He has expressed interest in playing for the hometown Indiana Pacers, but OSU head coach Thad Matta would just like to see him play somewhere in the NBA again at some point.
“The hard part is all you want Greg to do is get healthy,” said Matta, who still keeps in frequent contact with Oden.
“When he left Ohio State, I felt like he was going to be one of the better NBA centers of all time. At 19 years old, he left us. He's had what I'd consider a bad run of luck. Hopefully for his sake, he can get healthy and keep his spirits up. Because Greg is a prideful kid. I know that he loved the game of basketball and wants to play again.”
While playing basketball is still at the forefront of Oden’s thoughts, he was in Indianapolis at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on that day to watch his beloved Buckeyes.
“I definitely like all of their successes that they're going through,” he said.
“Just Coach Matta, just knowing him I always feel a part of the family. So I always watch and follow them and I like to see him when I can.”
Oden paid especially close attention to last year’s team, which featured a star big man in Jared Sullinger, but also David Lighty—one of Oden’s former teammates, and classmates from the original “Thad Five” recruiting class.
“I loved it,” he said with his first truly classic Greg Oden smile.
“Dave is my guy always. Definitely every chance I get to go watch him play, you know, I definitely took that.”
Though he is not currently playing for an NBA team—and hasn’t stepped foot on the court for an NBA game since Nov., 2010—Oden said he keeps up with some of the other Ohio State players in the league.
That obviously includes former teammates like Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook, but also guys like B.J. Mullens and Evan Turner, who came after Oden’s time in Columbus.
“I'm definitely happy for those guys and what they're doing,” he said.
“There's a lot of us who've put on that Ohio State jersey who are in the league right now. I'm definitely proud of that.”
There should be at least one more in the league next year if Sullinger decides to turn pro after his sophomore season with the Buckeyes. He could also be joined by classmate Deshaun Thomas, who is having a tremendous postseason this March, but Oden would love to see both of them in the scarlet and gray for at least one more year.
“What would I personally say to him,” Oden asked rhetorically.
“I would say, ‘You've got a once in a lifetime chance. You can't miss out on that, but, you know, education's important.’ So I would say stay in school, but he has to take what's the best thing for him and his family.”
That might sound like suspect advice coming from a player who turned pro after just once season at Ohio State. Especially considering Oden’s life would be drastically different right now if he had injured his knees in college rather than after signing his first professional contract.
None of that changes the advice he would offer to someone making the decision Sullinger will have to make—yet again—after this season comes to a close.
“It's always a good move to stay in school,” Oden said emphatically.
“You get to work on your degree, because there is life after basketball. And you get one more year of good coaching by Coach Matta. You know, the NBA's not going anywhere.”
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