Greg Oden: On the Road to Redemption
As the Miami HEAT begin their quest for a three-peat, Greg Oden believes he is progressing along in his personal quest to resume his career.
During halftime of the HEAT’s recent preseason game against the Brooklyn Nets, Oden took the long walk from the visitor’s locker room out to the herringbone-patterned wood floors at the Barclays Center. Oden stood tall, but limped, ever so slightly.
As he made his way out to the court, he looked around and gazed up into the dimly-lit crowd in Brooklyn.
Back in an NBA arena. Back involved with the game. Hopefully, back for good.
Throughout the preseason, Oden has been planted near the end of the HEAT’s bench, looking on intently, optimistically pondering his immediate future.
Obviously, though, not forgetting his painful past.
“My last couple of years in Portland, I wasn’t even traveling with the team,” Oden told HOOPSWORLD.
Now, as a member of the HEAT, he has moved on past his painful time in Portland.
“Just being on the team, being at practice every day, being able to go to the gym, that is the greatest thing,” Oden said. “It’s everything to me.”
And now, as Oden hopes to resume his career, he merely wants to be a part of a team again.
“For a while, I was just sitting at home in Ohio,” Oden sadly recalled. “My friends and family supported and loved me and now I’m here.”
Nodding intently, eyebrows raised, Oden excitedly muttered three words that he seemed quite proud to utter.
“We’re getting close,” he said.
“He’s very diligent,” Spoelstra told HOOPSWORLD. “We’re happy to open our arms to him and see him go through the process of actually getting back onto the court.
“Just being around the guys, being around the locker room, being around the coaches, a team again, traveling with us, practicing with us, you can see how much it helps his spirit.”
Being away from the game clearly took a toll on the big man. Now, he is back.
Long before the scheduled 8:19 p.m. tip-off at Barclays Center, and long before droves of fans showed up to watch LeBron James do battle with Paul Pierce, Oden diligently worked out on the floor, in a nearly empty arena.
Drop-steps and hook shots.
Rebounding and conditioning drills.
He worked, in virtual solitude.
And as tip-off approached and fans began to file in, Oden fled from the court and found a stationary bike back in the visitor’s training area.
Away from the spotlight, away from the cameras, he worked tirelessly, just like he does each day.
The luxury of being able to blend in among the HEAT’s other stars, and away from the lofty expectations that being the first overall pick of the 2007 NBA Draft manufacture is partially what attracted Oden to Miami in the first place.
“We have a lot to offer in terms of our culture,” Spoelstra said. “We have a lot of cultural expectations around here so you can just fit in. That’s all [Oden] wanted to do was to fit in, get healthy and work his way to the point where he can help us.”
And at this point, that’s all Oden wants to do: help. Because he had been away from the game so long, he didn’t want to join a team that expected him to be a focal point. It’s why he signed with Miami, despite receiving more lucrative offers from other NBA clubs, including the New Orleans Pelicans.
“I’m coming back,” Oden said. “I wouldn’t know if I could be ‘the man’ because I’m coming off of not playing for three years. I think this is the best opportunity for me to get back and get to be myself while working through it.”
With a front row seat to Oden’s daily progression, Spoelstra has been impressed with his resiliency and work ethic.
“He’s been great,” Spoelstra said when asked about Oden’s spirit and attentiveness in practice. “He’s been through a lot; it’s tough for anybody to really relate, to have something you love taken away from you for multiple years, something you can’t control. So, we’re just trying to help him through the process until he can get back on the court.”
And once he does? What are Oden’s goals?
“To walk on the court and play however many minutes,” Oden says, his voice raising noticeably to emphasize the latter part of this thought,”…and to walk off healthy.”
That is certainly a good place to start.
Since being selected with the first overall pick of the 2007 NBA Draft, Oden has played in just 82 NBA games. Since then, some of his draft mates—Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Marc Gasol and Joakim Noah—have become All-NBA performers.
In all likelihood, he will probably never be allowed to forget the fact that he was selected ahead of Durant.
He can, though, put it all behind him and focus on resuming a career that was once thought to have Hall-of-Fame potential.
Today, that is exactly what he is attempting to do.
Watching him, speaking with him and interacting with him, there is no indication that Oden is carrying any of that type of crushing weight on his shoulders.
Long after the October 17 preseason contest ended, Oden, in dark blue jeans and a pink and grey striped hooded sweatshirt, made his way out to the court and conversed with friends and loved ones. The conversations were airy and light-hearted.
And when he spoke with HOOPSWORLD about his road back to the NBA, from the Trail Blazers training facility in Portland to St. Vincent’s Sports Performance in Indianapolis, and all the way to Eagle County Colorado’s renowned Steadman Clinic—he recalled his circuitous journey, filled with ups and downs.
“It was a lot of hard work,” Oden said. “The biggest thing was the diet and losing the weight. But it’s coming along. Really, the biggest thing was taking last year off so I didn’t feel rushed back.”
Rushing, of course, is one thing that the HEAT certainly will not do with the 25-year-old.
As James and his gang attempt to win their third consecutive championship and establish a dynasty, Oden has found himself in a pressure-less situation.
“To be a part of something like that and just be able to play and have the chance to win [a championship], it’s something I’m definitely looking forward to,” Oden said.
After the trials and tribulations he has endured, forward is exactly where his attention should be.
With 5:48 remaining in the third quarter of an utterly meaningless preseason game, the Nets called a timeout. As the HEAT players made their way to the bench, Oden got up and joined the team huddle. As he stood in his white and black warm ups and his hands folded behind his back, one fan courtside yelled out the word “bust.”
Staring up into the rafters, certainly looking forward to taking the court, Oden—for a moment—turned and looked at the fan sitting in Section 13. Oden smirked, and as the horn sounded, signifying the end of the timeout, he returned to his seat.
The bounce of the leather basketball, the toot of the referee’s whistle and yes, the jeers of the opposing crowds—Oden has missed it all.
After fading into the background all night long, it was perhaps the only personal acknowledgement that Oden—who did not appear in the game—received during it.
There and then, at that moment, it was obvious that he has returned.
Gone from the game for what has felt like an eternity, before the TV cameras began rolling and long after the production crews had packed up, Oden was courtside. First, warming up before the game, and then, relaxing among loved ones after it.
Believing his return to the game to be imminent, his optimism and positive spirit is noticeable.
With good fortune, a diligent work ethic and the weight of the world off his shoulders, in Miami, he is hoping, this time, to stay for good.