By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
He would finish homework assignments in class before McCord finished the lesson. Oden asked questions constantly, usually a step ahead of McCord; her answers, typically, were, "We'll get to that." On one exam, Oden earned a 49 out of 50, then argued with McCord about the point he missed.
Oden still keeps in contact with McCord. When Oden called her two weeks ago, he talked about how much he liked his History of Rock & Roll class and told her a funny story about one of his friends. They never mentioned basketball.
"If you take basketball away from him, I don't think he's going to lay down and die on us," Keefer said. "He wants to be an accountant."
He tries to be a 19-year-old enjoying college. Someone sent Keefer, in an e-mail, a video of Oden dancing with a girl. ("He didn't look bashful there," Keefer said.) His mother has to plead with him not to stay out until 3 or 4 a.m. when he comes home.
"I enjoy the freedom," Oden said. "That's the main thing. Just being away from my mom, stay up all night. Eat what I want. I'm enjoying the freedom."
But freedom can be difficult to find for a public figure. He changed his phone number after someone claiming to be an Indiana fan called and said, "I hope you die." Once, someone put a flier on his car with an unflattering photo taken off the Internet of him and a girl.
He attended an autograph signing for football players at Ohio State, but fans flocked to him instead. So he left. Oden signs only for kids now, tired of seeing his signature pop up on eBay. He scrunches down in movie theaters so people notice him less, just like he used to duck in the hallways of Lawrence North to hide his height.
Even on the court, pressure mounts. He hates to disappoint, and he feared he would while he was recovering from early-season wrist surgery. The Buckeyes jelled slowly when he did come back, which was tough for Oden to deal with. In high school, he and Mike Conley Jr., Ohio State's freshman point guard and Oden's best friend, won three straight state championships using unrivaled chemistry.
"High school, it was better," Zoe said. "Right now, it's dealing with different personalities. It hasn't quite clicked yet with Ohio State. They're an awesome team when you need to pull together, but I think it could be less stressful if it wasn't so divided. I think it's divided because Greg is not a selfish player. I don't think that the ball goes around enough before the shot is thrown off. If they threw it inside, he'll throw it back out, and then somebody is throwing up a three."
All the pressure builds to the question Oden has been hearing all season: Will it lead him to decide to make his money in the NBA? Or will he enjoy his "freedom" at OSU again next season?
"He gives me mixed emotions," Zoe said. "Half of him will say: 'Mom, I'm really enjoying this. Right now, I don't feel like I'm ready to go on.' But the other half of him says, 'If I have to get beat down like this, I might as well get paid for it.' I really don't know."
When Oden returned to Lawrence North to watch a playoff game this season, he made sure to shake hands with the team's bus driver and ask him how he was; he had built a relationship with him in high school, something none of Keefer's other players had done. McCord once asked him to attend one of her 10-year-old son's basketball games. He showed up and talked with him afterward.
So is Oden a teenager trapped in an adult's body? A center blessed with Hall of Fame potential? An accountant cursed with a seven-foot frame?
"He's one of us," said Q Owens, one his high school teammates. "He don't act different because he's got the name Greg Oden or he's seven foot. He acts like one of us. He's a normal 19-year-old."