Blessing And a Curse
Thursday, March 22, 2007
INDIANAPOLIS -- Zoe Oden unfolded the crinkled paper, as she had countless times. Her son's birth certificate was tattered from years of being unfolded and refolded on the AAU basketball circuit, its quadrants clinging together by a center strand, like a four-leaf clover.
"I had to pull this out so many times," Zoe said, gently laying the paper out. "I had to make so many copies of this thing and take it with us, especially in sixth grade. Nobody believed he was the right age."
But the truth is there, in black and white and strange, reddish discoloration: Gregory Wayne Oden Jr. was born in Buffalo at 4:53 a.m. on Jan. 21, 1988, an honest-to-God 19 years ago. Twenty-four inches long, 8 pounds and 10 ounces.
"I'm going to order another one," Zoe says, shaking her head and laughing.
At 2, Oden wore a size-6 shoe. He was 6 feet tall by middle school and kept sprouting so fast that Zoe started wearing his outgrown sweat pants to exercise. His hardened facial features made some high school classmates believe he was 30 on his first day at Lawrence North High.
But Oden, now 7 feet tall, has grown up fast in other ways, forced to carry so much on his mountainous shoulders. He is key to the national championship hopes of the top-seeded Ohio State basketball team, which plays fifth-seeded Tennessee on Thursday at 9:57 p.m. in the South Region semifinals. A significant portion of his free time is spent granting interviews, avoiding death threats and weighing the legitimacy of autograph requests. And whenever his season is over, he must decide between staying for another year of college or leaving to take the NBA millions earmarked for him since his first high school basketball game.
All of it can be a bit much, even for a 19-year-old who is (almost) as mature as he looks. Sometimes, Zoe said, he wishes himself a normal student, rather than the biggest basketball star remaining in the biggest sporting event in the country.
"I think he always wishes that," Zoe said. "He doesn't like a lot of attention. I think he could have enjoyed it more if he hadn't have been playing basketball. He would have been more relaxed and would have a major."
Oden said he wouldn't change anything about his freshman season, but that came right after he said that if he were 5-9, he probably wouldn't play basketball. "I would be a brainiac," he said. "I'm not really that athletic."
Oden disliked basketball as a kid; he preferred riding bikes with his cousins. He didn't play in an organized league until he turned 9, when he and Zoe moved from Buffalo to Terre Haute, Ind. He started playing at the Boys & Girls Club, but his body couldn't catch up with his gangly limbs. Zoe could see his disappointment after a game, and he would cheer up only after she took him to Wendy's for a Frosty. His high school coach, Jack Keefer, threatened to bench him if he didn't shoot more.
But he loved school. He would come home from kindergarten and brag to Zoe about what he had learned. At Lawrence North, he took calculus as a senior and other college-level math courses for two years and earned a 3.8 grade-point average.
"I was excited to get him in class, because I had heard he was such a good student," said Donna McCord, Oden's high school math teacher. "Boy, I was really going to get him. I was like, 'I'll show you.' And he showed me."