Emotion overwhelmed Greg Oden as he picked up his identification card inside the student center at Ohio State University, surrounded by giddy 18-year-olds.
What happened? He thought to himself. What happened the past 10 years?
A decade ago he had done the same thing in the same place. Back then, he was a giddy young student with his own dreams in front of him.
He remembers the feeling of invincibility in 2006 as he embarked on an Ohio State basketball career. He was there, having just led his Lawrence North High School team to three consecutive state championships. He had been named IndyStar Mr. Basketball and had been showered with national accolades.
He was there as the player Buckeyes coach Thad Matta recruited with glee. A player who, after one year at Ohio State, Matta swore “was going to be one of the greatest to ever play in the NBA.” A player who left the Buckeyes after one year to be taken No. 1 overall in the 2007 NBA draft by the Portland Trail Blazers.
But there he was again, two months ago, standing in line, an NBA bust — some say the biggest bust of all time — picking up where he left off.
Oden is enrolled this semester at Ohio State, a 28-year-old sophomore majoring in sports industry. Asked whether he’d play basketball again, he said, “I wish. It’s over.” Instead, he is back with the Buckeyes as a student coach, helping out the players and Matta any way he can.
“I wouldn’t say I regret anything,” Oden told IndyStar Thursday in a phone interview. “I would say I just wish I did things better.”
Because if things had been done better, if luck had been on his side, if injuries hadn’t happened, he might not be restarting his life at the same place the dreams started.
“I’m like, 10 years later, I’m back in line,” Oden said. “I definitely feel like an old man.”
Some of Oden’s best times came during that freshman year at Ohio State. In the Sweet Sixteen, Oden blocked the potential winning shot in the final seconds against Tennessee. He was the hero as Ohio State won 85-84.
He remained the hero as he led the Buckeyes past Memphis and Georgetown and on to the national championship game. There, Oden scored 25 points, had 12 rebounds and four blocks against Florida.
Ohio State lost 84-75, but the NBA scouts had seen enough. Professional basketball was ready for this 7-0 phenom.
Oden says he doesn’t regret jumping into the NBA at 19, but he does wonder how things might have been different. He now mentors Ohio State players about that life-changing decision.
“I have talked to them about the situation and going to the pros and what’s expected,” he said.
Oden — selected No. 1 overall, ahead of Kevin Durant — signed a four-year, $22-million contract with Portland but had to sit out his first season because of microfracture surgery on his right knee. A foot injury delayed the start of what became his rookie season in 2008-09, but he played a total of 61 games for Portland, flashing his potential in a five-game stretch in January, averaging 16.4 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. But Oden was not able to consistently maintain that level of performance and a collision with Corey Maggette in February led to another knee injury.
Oden managed just 21 games in 2009-10 — including another five-game stretch in which he averaged 17.4 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks — before a patella injury caused him to miss the rest of the season. He had another microfracture surgery on his knee the following November, suffered a setback in rehabilitation and re-signed with Portland for $1.5 million, but he couldn’t get back on the court. There were two more knee surgeries — causing him to miss three more full seasons — before he played 23 games with Miami in 2013-14. Oden’s NBA career was over after 105 games. He averaged 8.0 points and 6.2 rebounds. He played in China last season, but was cut in January.
“Honestly, it was definitely unbelievable,” Oden said of his injuries. “With the third injury in a row, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me right now?'”
Oden said he’s tried to be tough. But he also said some things have been very tough on him.
Oden was a free agent in 2014. He was also a man, he said, who had known nothing but basketball since he was a child.
Back in his mother’s Lawrence home in August 2014, Oden’s life took its worst turn, when police allege he attacked his former girlfriend after a night of drinking. Oden was accused of punching Christina Green in the face three times, fracturing a bone in her nose. Oden’s mother, awakened by the commotion, had to pull Oden off Green to bring the incident to an end, court documents stated.
When investigators initially questioned Oden, police said he was “calm, apologetic and cooperative.”
“I was wrong, and I know what has to happen,” Oden told police, according to a Lawrence Police Department report.
Oden was arrested and charged with one count of battery resulting in serious bodily injury, a Level 5 felony, as well as misdemeanor charges of domestic battery and battery resulting in bodily injury. Oden was fined $200 and ordered to complete 26 weeks of domestic violence counseling, alcoholics anonymous classes and 909 days of probation, as part of a plea agreement, according to court documents. A no-contact order was also put into place.
Oden didn’t talk Thursday specifically about that time in his life, but did allude several times to how he wished he’d “done some things better” and how he is “trying to move on and make a new life for himself and his family.”
Just five weeks ago, Oden became father to a little girl. He and the baby’s mother live off campus in Columbus.
“I wanted to stay around basketball, and coach gave me a lifeline to be here,” he said. “To give me something to do with my afternoons.
“I’m still trying to figure out my life. Since I’ve been in fourth grade, all I’ve known was basketball. I’m just trying to better myself and work on my degree and set something up for the future of my family.”
Follow IndyStar reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow.