Published on Dec. 13, 2006
By BRUCE HOOLEY
Photo by Jamie Sabau
Greg Oden is doing what he promised he would. But did he enroll at Ohio State only because of the rule barring high school graduates from going directly to the National Basketball Association?
That’s what the doubters are saying as Oden nears his über-anticipated debut as the Buckeyes’ most high-profile recruit since Jim Jackson in the early 1990s.
Subscribers to that opinion may know about Oden the 7-foot all-everything center from Indianapolis, cornerstone of head coach Thad Matta’s recruiting class, the “Thad Five.”
But they don’t know anything about Oden the introspective, goal-oriented 18-year-old whose arrival on campus for school last summer fulfilled an oft-stated vow.
“The people who really know Greg wouldn’t have been surprised by him going to college, even if the NBA hadn’t passed a rule requiring him to do that,” said Jack Keefer, Oden’s coach at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis. “Now those same people expect him to stay only one year, but I wouldn’t be completely surprised to see him stay at Ohio State for three years or even four years.
“It would be hard, because the money will be there for him in the NBA after one year. But Greg is going to do what he thinks is best for him, and he really values his education. He isn’t like a lot of kids who think only about the NBA,” Keefer said. “He wants to get his degree. Only one member of his family has done that.
“I think, to Greg, getting his degree is just as important as winning a national championship.”
Part of the team
Buckeye fans who have waited 47 years since Ohio State’s last NCAA title had to wait a little bit longer to see Oden play. A torn ligament in his right wrist, suffered during Indiana high school tournament play, required surgery in June. That sidelined him until December, when he made his debut against Valparaiso, scoring 14 points and pulling down 10 rebounds.
Oden’s rehab finished up nearly a month ahead of schedule. And Matta said he handled it well."He'll say, ‘Coach, it’s hard. I want to be out there. I want to be getting better. I want to be with my teammates.’
“We want him back, but we don’t want to do anything to jeopardize his future, so we’re being cautious.
“And when he comes back, people need to realize it’s going to take him some time to get back to where he was. It’s like if someone hadn’t typed for six months, then went back and started typing again. It would take them a while to get their rhythm and timing back to the point where they could type as well and have it feel as natural. It’s the same with Greg.”
Since taking over at Ohio State prior to the 2004–5 season, Matta has declined to make incoming freshmen available for interviews prior to their first game.
So far, he’s sticking to that policy for the Thad Five, even though media interest in this Ohio State basketball recruiting class outstrips anything in recent memory. Perhaps the Luke Witte-Allan Hornyak class of 1969–70 or the Jerry Lucas-John Havlicek class of 1958–59 comes closest.
Oden, however, spoke with WBNS-AM 1460 after completing his senior season of high school and made clear his intention not to be the focal point for the Buckeyes.
“It’s not my team; it’s the seniors’ team,” he said. “I just want to fit in and do whatever I can to help us win. There are a lot of talented guys already here, or Ohio State wouldn’t have won the Big Ten last season. We have some other talented freshmen coming in besides me. We all just want to contribute.”
Oden also addressed the suspicions of those who expect him to be a Buckeye for only one season before bolting for the NBA.
“I’m looking forward to college because I know that right now, I’m not ready for the NBA,” he said. “I’ll know I’m ready when I feel prepared to be more than just another player at that level.
“I get pushed around too much now. I need to get stronger. My game is early in its development, so I really feel like there is a good chance I’ll be in college for two years or more. I want to have the same experiences as all the other students who don’t play basketball, and I want to study and get close to my degree.”
Still skeptical? Consider that two summers ago, when Oden was establishing himself as the No. 1 recruit in the nation, he skipped an important AAU tournament to attend his cousin’s college graduation in Buffalo, N.Y.
“I think that’s what makes Greg so unique,” Matta said. “Academics are vitally important to him. From the very beginning, he made it clear to us that academics were a priority with him. Some recruits say that because it sounds good. With Greg, you could tell he meant it.”
Oden’s goal outside of basketball is to be an accountant. That makes sense: it almost required a CPA to track his high school achievements.
He claimed consecutive Gatorade National Player of the Year honors, something only LeBron James had done before.
Oden also won back-to-back Parade Magazine National Player of the Year awards. James did the same in 2002–3, Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in 1964–65, and Lucas in 1957–58.
Lucas, of course, led Ohio State to the 1960 NCAA championship and runner-up finishes in 1961 and 1962.
Expectations of that sort accompany Oden’s arrival at Ohio State, not just because of his talent but because of those joining him in the Buckeyes’ freshman class.
Daequan Cook (Dayton Dunbar), David Lighty (Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Josephs, Othello Hunter (Hillsborough Community College), and Michael Conley Jr. round out the Thad Five.
Conley was Oden’s teammate at Lawrence North, where they combined to lead the Wildcats to three consecutive Class 4A Indiana state championships.
Oden and Conley placed first and second in voting for Indiana’s coveted Mr. Basketball award. Oden received 91.5 percent of the vote—much to his consternation.
“I feel Mike Conley should have been up here with me as co-Mr. Basketball," Oden told the Indianapolis Star after his selection. “He meant so much to me and to the L.N. basketball team. He runs the team. Everything goes through him.”
Oden’s humble side caused an unusual problem for his high school coach.
“I sometimes couldn’t get him to shoot enough,” Keefer said. “I had to threaten to bench him once if he didn’t shoot more. He’d say, ‘Coach, I’m double-teamed. I’m going to pass to the open man.’”
Fran Fraschilla, a former Ohio State assistant coach under Gary Williams and now an ESPN basketball analyst, expects Oden to make an immediate and far-reaching impact in college.
“If he’s 100 percent healthy by the time he hits January, he can be the dominant center in college basketball this season, particularly on the defensive end,” Fraschilla said. “It probably sounds like hyperbole, but he is the best defensive center I’ve seen in my coaching career at the college level. He’s the best prospect at the center position going back to maybe Bill Walton or Lew Alcindor. Most guys like that would suffer from people’s expectations, but I think Greg is going to live up to people’s expectations.
“I say that because it’s very rare to find a young man who can have this kind of impact on the college game, yet be so ego-less. I’ve been around Greg, and I’m not sure he really knows how good he is. It’s refreshing to see someone of such enormous talent possess that kind of demeanor and character.”
Keefer cites another Oden trait that served him well as a prep player and likely will again in college.
“This isn’t a kid who’s afraid to work hard to get better,” he said. “Greg was at school four days a week before school started, working on his footwork, his shooting, his free throws, whatever we asked him to do. He has a hunger to improve, and he knows how the game should be played.
“He’d give me suggestions in timeouts. He understands what needs to be done and what his teammates should be doing. Even though he’s not a point guard, he has a feel for the game. He’s a student of the game.”
That same curiosity and desire to understand the entire picture, not just celebrate his own achievements, brought Oden to a forum on the 50-year anniversary of the first all-black school to win an Indiana state championship.
Oden sat quietly in the crowd until the event was over, then waited by a back door as some of Indiana’s most legendary high school players filed out because he wanted to shake their hands.
“I was impressed he would take the time,” Larry Nicks, head coach at Arlington High School and a rival of Lawrence North, told the Indianapolis Star. “My whole team was there and we had a kid on the panel, but there weren’t too many basketball kids who came on their own. That tells you the kind of kid he is."
Keefer isn’t surprised by anything Oden does.
“He’s as good a player as has ever come out of the state of Indiana, whether you want to talk about Oscar Robertson or George McInnis or whoever,” Keefer said. “What’s so neat is that fans realize how special Greg is, and not just Lawrence North fans. Wherever he goes, he signs autographs and talks with anyone who wants to talk to him.
“There aren’t many people who can walk into Ohio State and get that football-crazy place excited about basketball, but he’s done that. People realize he’s genuine. They want to be around him. Anyone who gets to know him will see that there’s much more to Greg than just basketball.”
Originally published in Ohio State Alumni Magazine.