It's January 2003, and a major-college basketball coach is preparing to scout a high school player. A reporter asks the player's name, which the coach can offer only anonymously because NCAA regulations prohibit him from speaking about recruits in the media. "Greg Oden," says the coach. "Six-eleven. Athletic. Smart. Great kid. And you'll love this: He's a freshman."
In the nearly two years since, Greg Oden of Lawrence North High in Indianapolis has become the Next One. The next Kobe. The next KG. The next LeBron. The next Dwight Howard. The next precocious teenager being run through the well-oiled star-making machinery that turns potential into a blank check, no college experience necessary. Now a 16-year-old junior, Oden is seven feet tall, weighs 250 pounds and can no longer play video games because his hands are too big for the controller. He can take a step, jump up and touch a spot on the backboard 11 feet, 11 inches off the floor, and when he's running at full speed (which is often), he eats up a court the way an 18-wheeler swallows flat highway. Against type, he is an honor-roll student who is generous with his time and says he wants to go to college before getting rich in the NBA.
Oden is the brightest blip on the radar screens of talent hunters across the basketball spectrum in America, whether they represent the NBA, a college, a shoe company or a television network. "He's fabulous," says one NBA personnel executive. "He's the next great, difference-making big man from the United States. When he ends up in the NBA, whatever team gets him will become a contender."
A prominent Division I college coach says, "I couldn't believe how good he was as a freshman. He's just good at too many things. He's got unbelievable quickness for a big guy, he's getting strong--and he's got a brain, which is illegal on top of [everything else]. I'm guessing he'd be the Number 1 player in the draft if he came out this year."
sonny vaccaro, senior director of grassroots basketball at Reebok (a position similar to those he held first at Nike and then Adidas), whose company sponsors Oden's AAU team, says, "He's so damn good, and there's nothing in his life that even connects to a negative situation. He will get offers. He will have to think about a very nice shoe contract." Rashid Ghazi of Paragon Marketing Group, which is in final negotiations with ESPN to televise Lawrence North's Dec. 9 game against Poplar Bluff (Mo.) High and its North Carolina--bound power forward, Tyler Hansbrough, says, "Greg Oden is, by most accounts, the Number 1 player in the country who is not in the NBA. [He's got] big buzz. Greg Oden and Lawrence North are the national story in high school basketball this year."
Amid all this hype Oden is also a big brother, who has a car and a little brother--6'8", 240-pound freshman Anthony--who needs a ride on a rainy autumn evening. So Greg stands behind the couch in his family's modest, two-bedroom apartment a mile from Lawrence North and begs his mother, Zoe, for a reprieve from chauffeur duty. "I don't have time," he says. Mom laughs. Anthony wins. Greg drives. The two boys run through the rain toward a battered minivan. "It ain't no Hummer," says Zoe. "It's just an old van that one of my friends used to drive."
Here is the disconnect. In the basketball world Oden is a future star and millionaire--Bill Walton or Bill Russell in training wheels. "The best big-man prospect in high school or college," says another NBA executive. Yet in his own world Oden is a boy measured by his potential as a grownup. He dates a sophomore, Samantha Shell, a forward on the Lawrence North girls' team. During study periods, he works in the school's athletic department, filing papers, answering phones and running for coffee. And after practice he likes to dash off to Best Buy to see if any new DVDs are on sale. The kid lives for movies. "Renting movies, buying movies, going to the movies, you name it," says Mike Conley Jr., the Lawrence North junior point guard who's also a blue-chip Division I recruit. Once in a while Oden will go to the movies alone and sit in the rear of the theater, his head towering above the back of the seat, enjoying a good flick.
Recently, while meeting with a reporter in the empty field house at Lawrence North, he wore a red headband emblazoned with the NBA logo. But don't read anything into it. The headband belongs to teammate Warren Wallace, and Oden used it to hold his glasses in place during pickup games because he forgot his contact lenses. It's true, he earned a 3.9 GPA for the first marking period, but Oden quickly qualifies that performance. "I'm not taking honors classes," he says. "Chemistry, algebra II, German, American history. But not honors."
The buzz that excites others doesn't stir him. A few weeks ago he went to the mall with his mother. They hadn't been shopping together in a long time, so in the car on the way over Greg said, "Mom, I've got to tell you before we get there: People are going to be staring and talking, and probably some of the them will ask for my autograph." And that's exactly what happened. People stared and talked and asked for Oden's autograph. "I don't mind it," he says, "but I don't deserve it."
oden was discovered as a fourth-grader, not long after Zoe was divorced from Greg's father, also named Greg, and moved from Buffalo to Terre Haute, Ind. An AAU basketball coach in Terre Haute, Jimmy Smith, was looking for kids to round out a newly formed team, and the dad of one of his players had seen a new kid on the playground at Fuqua Elementary. Smith went to the school's principal and said to her, "There's a young man going to school here, and I don't even know his name, but he's very tall and I'd like to know if he'd be interested in playing basketball on my AAU team." Smith left a business card with the principal, who gave it to Greg, who in turn gave it to Zoe, and a few days later Greg was a member of the fourth-grade Terre Haute Stars, though he had never played basketball.
"At first he'd get the ball and walk with it or stand in the lane forever," says Smith. "But after a year or two, he started to really develop." He picked up rebounding and shot blocking quickly. His offense developed more gradually.
When Oden was in sixth grade, Mike Conley Sr. came calling. Conley, the 1992 Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump and a former high school point guard in Chicago, had taken a job with USA Track and Field in Indianapolis, moving there from Fayetteville, Ark., where he had coached Mike Jr.'s AAU teams to fourth- and fifth-grade national titles. Conley took over as coach of a team then known as the Riverside Oddsbreakers and went to Terre Haute to sign up a tall kid he had heard about. "I spoke to his mom and to Jimmy Smith, and then I met Greg," says Conley. "He was a sixth-grader, about six-four with big ol' feet. I asked him what he wanted to be. He said, 'A dentist.' I thought, Hmmm."
In the fall of 2001 Zoe found a job in Indianapolis, working as a rehabilitation technician at St. Vincent's Hospital. By then an eighth-grader who stood 6'7", Greg was enrolled at Craig Middle School and joined a school team that included Mike Conley Jr. at point guard. The team went undefeated and played to packed stands of more than 2,000 fans. "I went there to look at Greg," says Jack Keefer, the Lawrence North coach since 1975. "My gosh! They were devastating. My first thought was, I don't want them to play the varsity."
A year later Keefer made Oden his starting center and Conley his starting point guard as freshmen, and Lawrence North went 21--3. Last winter, when they were sophomores, Lawrence North won the Indiana large-school state championship; Oden averaged 14 points (taking only nine shots per game from the field) and 10 rebounds, and shot a mind-boggling 71% from the floor while often guarded by three opponents. "I'd like him to shoot more," says Keefer. "This year I think he will."
On the fiercely competitive AAU side, the Riverside Oddsbreakers became Spiece Indy Heat (named for sponsor Tom Spiece, an Indiana sporting goods executive), a veritable Midwestern all-star team that included Oden, Conley, 6'10" power forward Josh McRoberts of Carmel, Ind., forward Daequan Cook of Dayton and guard Eric Gordon of Indianapolis. They won major tournaments in North Carolina and Las Vegas; Oden was named MVP in both, sending his stock soaring.
Since 1999, 21 high school players have been selected in the first round of the NBA draft, including eight last June. Unless the league adopts a minimum-age rule, expect the best schoolboy players to continue taking guaranteed contracts and shoe deals immediately, rather than risk losing them to an injury or by underperforming in college.
Oden, however, says he may wait. During the summer AAU tour, he made unofficial visits to North Carolina, Wake Forest and Michigan State. He attended Indiana's Midnight Madness. (Hoosiers coach Mike Davis has been at many of the games Oden has played, high school and AAU, since Oden was 14.) In the third week of October, Conley Sr. took his son and Oden to homecoming at Arkansas, his alma mater. They went to a fraternity step show, a concert and a football game, and the boys loved them all. "I have never heard Greg talk about the NBA," says Travis Smith, Oden's longtime bud from Terre Haute. "He talks about college all the time."
Says Oden, "I don't see myself being ready for the NBA in two years. I know people say I am, but I need to work on so much--dribbling, better post moves. I know they say I'm quick, but I need to get quicker. I went to a shooting coach [Purdue legend Rick Mount], and it helped me. When I shoot it right, it goes in, but I need repetition. When I go to the NBA, I want to be ready. That's where college comes in."
Says a Division I coach who knows Oden, "If there's one of these kids who will buck the trend, it's Greg."
Of course, there isn't any money on the table yet. "As a 16-year-old making the decision today, Greg's going to college," says Conley Sr. "The question is whether outside entities will make it so attractive that he has to take advantage of it right away."
Outside entities would be shoe companies. LeBron James got a seven-year deal from Nike worth $90 million, more than seven times his Cleveland Cavaliers contract. But, says Vaccaro, "Nobody [will get] close to LeBron money for a long time. You take that deal out of the equation." In that case consider this one: Point guard Sebastian Telfair, out of Brooklyn's Lincoln High, was drafted 13th last June by the Portland Trail Blazers; in addition to his three-year, $5 million NBA contract, he received a six-year, $15 million package from Adidas.
Zoe, 41, will be an important voice in her son's decision. She has raised two sons on a modest income, working tirelessly at a succession of jobs. (Greg has kept in touch with his father, a plumbing and heating contractor, who helps support Greg and Anthony.) "We make bad choices in life," she says. "I got married too soon, had kids too soon. I always told Greg, 'I've worked so many hard jobs, and if I had a college degree, I wouldn't have had to work so hard.'
"The NBA talk, and all that money, it sounds great," says Zoe. "I expect that age limit to come into effect, but if it doesn't, Greg can just take that money and run. Even if his career doesn't work out, he still has the money. But he really wants to experience the things you experience in college. It's a big decision, and it's very scary."
A predawn fog hung over Lawrence North High when Greg arrived for a workout with teammates before school recently. He practiced post moves with his brother and dribbled two balls back and forth across the court. When he recognized a reporter in the gym, he jogged over to shake hands and addressed him as Mister. Buses began dropping off students outside and a bell rang. Oden darted for the locker room, hurrying to prepare for the school day, rushing to cram his entire youth into a tiny window.
Oden is "the next GREAT, DIFFERENCE-MAKING big man from the United States," says one NBA executive. "Whatever team gets him will become a contender."
"I don't see myself as being ready for the NBA in two years," says Oden. "I know people say I am, but I NEED TO WORK on so much--dribbling, better post moves."