By Ben Osborne
I didn’t get to the Final Four this year. Lang did, but work took him away after just the Saturday session, and his seats were so far away he didn’t go to any interview sessions. However, I’ve got a couple good friends who are also sports reporters that were down there and attended pretty much every interview chance there was (they get soundbites for TV, and the more they get the better, so they have to be at everything), and they came back raving about Greg Oden. Obviously he impressed everyone with his play, particularly in the Championship Game, but these guys were more moved by him as an interview subject. “Wry,” “witty,” and “insightful” were three words one of my friends just gave me on the phone to describe Oden when I called to confirm his positive impressions.
Was I surprised by any of this? Not really. Basketball-wise, while I’m not nearly as prolific a commenter as Ryan or even many of our readers, I have been moved to post comments to the effect of “Greg Oden will be the first pick in this year’s draft,” at least 10 times since the season began, frustrated by the people who don’t recognize how good he is/will be. I’m just of the opinion that when a game-changing big man comes along, you take him and wait for the rings to start coming in a few years later. I love Kevin Durant, too, as he might represent a better Tracy McGrady, which is no small feat. But to me, assuming Oden joins Durant in the draft, G.O. has got to be the guy. As for the personality stuff, I think we in the sports media have a tendency to take what players give us and assume we know what they’re really like. This is dangerous, because except for rare occasions, we’re not talking with these athletes amongst their friends or family. So my friend’s impression doesn’t make Greg Oden a saint or anything; the claim is just that, in the known context of dealing with the media, Greg Oden is great. I learned that a year ago, when I did a cover story on him for our July ’06 issue. In honor of our being in the midst of closing our July ’07 issue, and in honor of my friend’s impression of Greg as a great interviewee, and in honor of everyone talking about Kevin Durant today, I wanted to run the transcript of my interview with Oden from a year (almost literally; I conducted this interview before the Roundball Classic on April 8 of ’06) ago. I’ve removed some totally dated stuff, but most of it is still interesting and yet didn’t make it into my story. Hopefully you all will enjoy his comments, uttered when this soon-to-be-millionaire was still a high school student. Be sure to notice the stuff about his left hand (he was worried about his right wrist already) and who the best player he’d ever played against was…and also note the sad footnote at the bottom.
SLAM: Can you still watch as a fan? If you were home on a weeknight the last few months, would you have been watching college, pro, neither?
G.O.: I love to watch basketball. I’ll watch both. I’ve been watching the college game lately. I also watch the NBA game, especially when the Orlando Magic is on TV because of Dwight Howard. That is the guy I like to watch the most.
SLAM: And is it like you’re realizing and watching like a fan, or do you find yourself picturing yourself out there and wondering what you’d do in certain situations?
G.O.: I can relax and enjoy the game. When I watch them, the thing that goes through my mind is how much hard work they put in to get there, and how much work I have to do to get there.
SLAM: Did you ever play against Dwight?
G.O.: No. One time we were one game away from playing his team in Vegas a couple years back, but we lost. And I remember thinking after we lost, [acts out an exaggerated, fist-pumping Yesss], cause we saw them after, and they were just killing.
SLAM: Have you ever worked out with any Pacers?
G.O.: No. I’ve never worked out with any NBA players.
SLAM: So who is the best player you’ve ever played with or against?
G.O.: Hmm. Kevin Durant? He’s pretty good. It would be someone my age because I never worked out with any NBA guys or even the guys at Ohio State.
SLAM: How many times have you been down to Columbus?
G.O.: Four or five times.
SLAM: Have you been to games there?
G.O.: Been to a basketball game, football game. The football game was sold out, and the students weren’t even there yet. It was summertime. It was crazy. Texas-Ohio State. Basketball, I saw the Michigan State game. Double overtime, they lost. Good crowd.
SLAM: What do you like to do when you have some free time?
G.O.: Sleep, watch movies and get fat. Put on some weight. Got a couple more months.
SLAM: That’s a sign of relaxation, yeah, but I did want to ask you about getting bigger. What are you now? 7-0, 270?
G.O.: 7-0, 260. They say I’m 6-11 1/2, so I say 6-11. I don’t like to say seven feet. Makes you seem goofy.
SLAM: Fair enough. What do you want to do with that? Is there a size people want you to get to?
G.O.: I just think at that next level you have to be strong. Just try to gain some weight now, and turn it into muscle when I get there. That’s me, but I’ll probably talk to Coach Matta in the next few weeks, and he’ll tell me what the right thing to do is.
SLAM: Do you like working out? I mean, some kids can’t get enough of being in the gym and playing. Other guys it’s like, wake me up for the game.
G.O.: I mean, who doesn’t love sleeping in? I mean, I sleep in, but when I get on the court, I know what I’m here for: to work hard and get better. I just gotta’ wake myself up, but when I get there I’m ready to work.
SLAM: Even something as simple as free throws; a lot of guys your size, your age, struggle there. But you have a nice touch from there, and I’m guessing that mostly comes from putting a lot of time into practicing them.
G.O.: I have to hit 80 percent out of 50 free throws, every day at the end of practice, before I can leave practice. If I hit like 38 out of 50, I have to keep shooting til I get to 80 percent. I did that all season. Our coach owns a restaurant. He said, if I shoot 80 percent from the line, I get a free steak dinner.
SLAM: [laughing] So what did you end up at?
G.O.: 79-point something. [laughs] But I think he might let it slide just a little bit.
SLAM: Another thing that is very noticeable about you is the shot blocking; size and athleticism is a part of that, but is there anything specific you do to work on that part of your game?
G.O.: Not really. [shrugs] A lot of people don’t put arches on their shots. Some of my blocked shots are ones where they shoot it because they think I’m like five feet back, and I just jump straight up and meet it in the middle. I just look at it from a defensive standpoint—you don’t want the other team to score. I’m a defensive guy—I like to get rebounds and block shots.
SLAM: If you’ve never met Dwight and you haven’t really met any NBA guys yet, I wondered if you had, like a basketball mentor?
G.O.: I don’t have any playing mentor, but I definitely have a mentor. My first AAU coach, Jimmy Smith in Terre Haute, I can talk to him about anything. And his son, Travis, is my best friend. That whole family is so great to me.
SLAM: Watching you get some shots up; how is your left hand? That seems like something that might be a little more important at the next level?
G.O.: We played Jon Scheyer’s team, and I got a lot of left-handed shots. They were taking away my right-handed move when I came across, so I turned and hit like three left-handed bank shots. So I feel like when I need to I can make those.
SLAM: We were talking about how you work on other stuff, and another thing people love about you is how you get up and down the court so fast. Do you work on cardiovascular stuff? Ever run distances?
G.O.: I mean, preseason, that’s it. But our team is a fast-break team, and our coach stresses big men running the floor. When you run the floor and get layups, you want to run the floor then. My teammates are pretty good at getting me the ball so I don’t mind running the floor.
SLAM: That type of up and down play can lead to dunks; we talked about the shotblocking. These are intimidating, game-changing plays; do you like that aspect, where you can really get in the heads of the guys you’re playing against?
G.O.: Yeah. I just have fun running up and down the floor, when the team’s scoring and we’re stopping the other team from scoring, I enjoy that.
SLAM: That’s a great thing, how you play. There are guys who play who take plays off, but that doesn’t seem like it’s ever been your thing. You go all out pretty much all the time.
G.O.: I really have fun out there. When you run and you get the ball, you always have fun. That’s the big thing. I love my guards, because they give me the ball. I’m not the type to always shoot the ball, but I like to touch it every time down. I like to get assists. I mean, I like passing and leading to scoring more than making a post move that leads to scoring. I’m just that type of player.
SLAM: This being the first time we’ve had a real story on you in SLAM, I did want to get a couple of childhood questions to you. What is your first memory of playing?
G.O.: My first memory of playing is with Jimmy Smith in the fourth grade. I played, but I was goofy. Couldn’t really hit a lay up. But we practiced a lot. My first basket in a game was in the fifth grade. [Shaq-like pause]. It was a bank shot. [And another one]. It was for the other team. This is no lie. It really was. The first basket I ever scored in a game was for the other team. And I was excited. We won that tournament and my friend Travis got MVP. I remember getting the ball, I swear, even though there were no cameras it felt like as soon as I got it there were lights flashing and I was like, yeaahhhh!. But everyone else was like, What?! And my coach was like, Greg! What are you doing?! Everybody was making fun of me, but I was happy. It was my first basket.
SLAM: So nothing before Indiana?
G.O.: No. In Buffalo I just never played.
SLAM: How old is Travis?
G.O.: Senior also. He used to play til this year, but then he quit. He didn’t like the coach in Terre Haute.
SLAM: So he’s not going to play in college?
G.O.: Not basketball. He’s a golfer. He’s going to play golf at Ball State. He’s real good at golf.
SLAM: Did you ever golf with him?
G.O.: He’s got woods in his backyard so I went back there to hit with him. He’s like, hitting it to the moon, I’m like, hitting it to the fence two feet in front of us.
SLAM: So overall, for your basketball beginnings, it was Terre Haute and Jimmy Smith that got you started.
SLAM: And were you tall as a fifth grader?
G.O.: I was always tall.
SLAM: Do you remember the first time that you kind of realized, this is fun for all these kids but it might be different for me; I can use this for college or the NBA?
G.O.: I had never thought about it actually. Everything just always came into place for me. Nothing was really that tough. I went to the Boys Club in Terre Haute everyday. Everyday. And everything fell into place. Started playing with Coach Mike Conley in sixth, seventh grade; he would travel back and forth from Terre Haute. And then in the eighth grade we moved to Indianapolis. Just been playing. Started getting college letters, but I never really looked at them because they were questionnaires. With the colleges, my coaches handled all the little stuff, so all I had to do was go on the visits, which I usually did with Mike. Then I made my choice, but I never really thought about it.
SLAM: So you get to high school and you had a lot of success. Is there any favorite memory from your high school career?
G.O.: I’d say winning the first state championship. That was pretty special. We didn’t win my first year, we didn’t really have the mindset where we knew what it was to win. That was great. Coach Keefer had won one with Montross, but that was a special one. He got that second one, and we got to experience it, because until you do it you never know what it takes.
SLAM: Do you think that your experience has been that much more special that you had your high school success in the state that is most known for that sport?
G.O.: Um, it is, but I really don’t know what other states are like. I’m just excited that my high school career went so well and that people recognize me for it. I know I’m not the best talent out there, but I do work hard and I’m happy about that.
SLAM: Well, just with the level of interest the press and all the fans took in you, did that ever feel like a burden?
G.O.: Um, sometimes you get people coming up to me, like, ‘dang, Greg, you’re in the paper every day.’ That’s basically what it was. It’s too the point where I don’t even read them anymore. It’s an honor that people want to write about you, but I’m not the best talent out there and I know that. I’m just going to keep working hard so that hopefully one day I will be.
SLAM: And there’s a book about you? Or the team?
G.O.: I think it’s about LN basketball and the program itself. He wasn’t around me that much, but I started to worry when he wanted to interview my Dad. My Dad’s only been to a few games, so why would he want to interview my Dad?
SLAM: Your Dad got to the State Championship this year, right?
G.O.: I was out to breakfast with my big man coach, Coach Scott, at Le Peep’s—great, great food, by the way—and I called my Dad, and he was in bed. He said he didn’t know if he’d be able to come. But then he just woke up and drove down and made it. It was cool.
SLAM: As much attention as you got, you did go to a public school that is known for a lot more than just basketball. Do you feel like when the reporters weren’t around and you weren’t on the court, that you had a sort of normal high school experience?
G.O.: I did, actually. People at the school were really cool. I never felt uncomfortable there. The only thing was that I don’t like eating in the cafeteria; I’d rather eat in the athletic office where there’s peace and privacy. But in class, teachers treat me right; they understand when I have some things to do. But it’s pretty cool. Most of my friends are from basketball, but I do get to meet some other kids in class. And then Travis from Terre Haute, that’s my best friend. He’s not really playing basketball—this is a short white guy. And that’s my getaway from basketball, when I go down to Terre Haute to hang out with him.
SLAM: When the college stuff started, did you do five visits?
G.O.: Yeah. North Carolina, Wake Forest, IU, Ohio State and Michigan State. Mike [Conley Jr] did all five with me.
SLAM: Was it a guarantee you guys would go to the same place?
G.O.: No. I know IU was one of my top choices, and I don’t think it was for him. I thought he would go someplace different where he could go and be his own person, but his thing is that he wants to win, and when I said Ohio State he said that was cool.
SLAM: And have you two, and maybe David and Daequan, started talking about what it’s going to be like?
G.O.: I was just texting David Lighty the other day, like, ‘you ready, boy? Couple months and we’ll be there.’
SLAM: I don’t know how much you saw of the other teams or know who is coming back or whatever, but do you feel like you guys can be a national contended pretty much right away?
G.O.: I really don’t know. I know it’s going to be some hardwork. It’s going to be hard. But we’re going to go in there with some energy; we’re freshmen, and hopefully we can all play. It’ll be a lot of fun.
SLAM: Any strategic discussions with Coach Matta?
G.O.: When we went on our visit he kind of showed us what they did. Showed us tapes of how the play and have been playing for the past years. It was pretty cool.
SLAM: How about visions beyond college; do you ever think about winning NBA titles, being in NBA all-star games, or is that still too far down the road?
G.O.: I don’t really think about. I never think that far down the road.
SLAM: I mean, there are people calling you the next Great American Center. Is that crazy to think in those terms?
G.O.: I’ve gotta keep getting better. That’s why I feel like I’m not there yet; I’ve got so much to work on. My body, and my skills. There’s just so much I feel like I need to do to be there, and I just don’t see it happening yet. There are a lot of guys out there who can do stuff that I can’t do, and that’s why I feel like I’m not there yet.
SLAM: Just give me an example—handling the ball, shooting range, what?
G.O.: I’ll give you an example, look at the McDonald’s Game. Kevin Durant got the MVP. He was awesome. Hitting those threes, taking it to the hole. But, you rarely saw him inside posting up with the big guys, which is what I do. You see his talent against my talent, and you call me the best player? But you see how he did in that game, and I just did all right. I know these all-star games are for guys [on the wing], but still.
SLAM: You mentioned Dwight Howard; is there anyone else who you kind of see yourself as?
G.O.: David Robinson.
SLAM: That makes sense. Is that a guy you remember watching, or is it that since you’ve gotten really good, people have told you to check him out?
G.O.: Not really. One guy actually tells me I play like The Chief. I never got to watch him, but I’ve seen a couple of tapes.
SLAM: Cool. Thanks so much.
One sad but important end note. Greg’s friend Travis died in a car accident in January. You can read a really good column about Greg, and his relationship with the Smith family, here.