In a rare and candid interview, the former top pick in the NBA draft discusses his injury-plagued career
By Mark Titus on May 9, 2012
Greg: "So what is this article going to be about?"
Me: "Well, my goal is to humanize you and give people an idea of what the last five years have been like for you. You might not realize it, but you're one of the biggest enigmas in the NBA. Because of your injuries, most fans haven't seen you play. And since you never do interviews, they don't know anything about you off the court either."
Greg: "I know. And that's the way I like it."
It's hard to believe you could say this about a former no. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft who also had naked pictures of himself leaked onto the Internet, but Greg Oden is as private a person as I've ever known.
Our friendship dates back to the summer of 2001, when I joined Greg's AAU team shortly before we both entered eighth grade. My previous AAU team was comprised of a bunch of kids who were like me: upper middle class white guys from the Indianapolis suburbs. Greg's AAU team, on the other hand, was almost exclusively made up of black guys from the city. Because of this, as I entered the gym for my first practice, I felt as out of place as Christian Laettner on the Dream Team and wondered if I'd ever fit in. But it only took five minutes for this uneasiness to subside. Why? Because I realized that the tall, goofy-looking kid wearing Rec-Specs and shooting by himself on the side basket was just as shy as I was.
Since he was the only other introvert on the team, Greg and I immediately hit it off. On road trips, when the rest of our team would go out at night and do exactly what you would expect teenage boys who are visiting new cities to do, Greg and I would typically stay in our hotel room and watch TV, quote Will Ferrell movies, or discuss Laguna Beach. As we got older, I stopped growing, somehow became less athletic, and transformed into the scrub benchwarmer that I'm known for being today. Meanwhile, Greg ditched the Rec-Specs, figured out how to run without tripping over his own feet, and transformed into the best high school big man since Lew Alcindor. Yet despite the attention that accompanied being one of the most sought-after college recruits ever, Greg never really stopped being that goofy eighth grader who shied away from attention and just wanted to play ball.
And now, with his career in limbo after all that's happened to him, he's the same guy today. Last month, we met for dinner in downtown Indianapolis, just a few weeks after the Portland Trail Blazers released him to create a roster spot after trading Gerald Wallace to New Jersey. I hadn't seen Greg in a few months and I was surprised to hear that, after a record three microfracture surgeries and 338 missed games in five years, he was considering walking away from basketball completely. But he didn't seem depressed at dinner. He was just … Greg. For instance, as we were finishing our meal, three separate groups of fans approached him and asked for autographs and pictures. Like always, he granted their requests with an annoyed expression, didn't say any more than three words to anyone, and then shook his head as they walked away.
"You're a fun-loving guy with a ton of personality," I said. "So why do you hate it so much when people approach you in public? Why don't you let your personality shine through and smile when you take pictures with fans?"
"Because I don't understand why they are so excited to meet me," Greg responded. "I'm just a person. I guess I didn't really mind it when I was at Ohio State and even right after I was drafted, but it just seems so fake now. Like, why are you bothering me at dinner for a picture when I'm nothing now?"
"I get that," I countered, "but you've never really been yourself around fans, even when everything was going well and you were dominating at Ohio State. Why not just let loose and give people the chance to get to know you a little bit?"
"I don't know," Greg said, "but I've always been this way. I only open up to my family and friends because I trust you guys. Nobody else needs to know anything about me. That's why I don't like when people come up on the street to talk to me, and it's why I don't like to do interviews."
His emphasis on privacy explains why you probably didn't know the real reason he injured his wrist just before he got to Ohio State — you know, the reported basketball-related injury that sidelined him for the first half of his freshman season. What actually happened? He damaged ligaments defending himself in a fight with his hotheaded younger brother, Anthony. The incident occurred shortly before the Indiana state tournament, when Greg was a senior leading Lawrence North High to a third straight state title. Greg and Anthony's occasionally ugly sibling rivalry is similar to a lot of brothers' relationships, but the fact that one brother, Greg, was the best basketball player in the country during his high school years only intensified things. Even though Greg's success has always been a wedge between him and Anthony, Greg's first tattoo — the words "Always There" on his left shoulder — was meant to be a message of unyielding support and love for his brother. Unfortunately, that support has not always been mutual.
Greg's emphasis on privacy also explains why you probably didn't know that, during his lone season at Ohio State, his best friend since childhood, Travis Smith, died in a car accident the same night that Greg scored 19 points and grabbed six rebounds in a two-point home win over Michigan State. Travis had planned on coming to that game until Greg's mother and grandmother stepped in and claimed Greg's remaining tickets. But a few hours before the game, Greg was informed they weren't coming because his grandma didn't feel well, which meant Travis could have attended the game after all.
Greg found out about Travis's passing shortly after the game. When he heard the news, he promptly left the gym and drove around the outer belt of Columbus while sobbing. He wasn't seen or heard from until practice the next afternoon. A few days later, he served as a pallbearer in Travis's funeral just hours before 14,000 Purdue fans rained boos on him at Mackey Arena during pregame introductions. Today, he never takes the rubber bands with Travis's name inscribed on them off his wrists. He still considers Travis's parents to be his own. He visits Travis's hometown of Terre Haute multiple times throughout the year, including every summer for a golf outing he helped organize that honors his fallen friend and raises money for the local Boys & Girls Club in Travis's name.
It's almost like a cloud has been following Greg since high school. He even had bad luck with the 2007 draft, landing in the same class as Kevin Durant. Experts spent two months comparing them and picking apart Greg's résumé, which didn't stop Portland from selecting him with the first overall pick. That summer, his right knee started bothering him and doctors determined that he needed microfracture surgery. Greg's rookie season was over before it even began. Portland fans, who endured the injury-ravaged careers of Bill Walton and Sam Bowie, freaked out. What those fans didn't know was that Greg's heart was still aching because of Travis's death; he was already headed down a destructive path of drinking and "doing things I shouldn't have been doing" (his words at dinner). The knee surgery only made things worse.
"For starters, Portland isn't a great city to live in if you're a young, African American male with a lot of money," Greg explained with an embarrassed grin. "But that's especially true if you don't have anybody to guide you. Since I was hurt the entire season, I was on my own a bunch and didn't have veteran teammates around to help me adapt to the NBA lifestyle."
Even while adjusting to the change in culture, Greg successfully rehabbed his knee and played in 61 games the following season, averaging nine points and seven rebounds in 21.5 minutes. He wasn't dominating like he had in high school and college, but he provided enough highlights to make Blazers fans feel optimistic about the team's future. It seemed to me while watching Greg on TV that he would be able to recover from his surgery and in a few years' time could be one of the premier big men in the NBA. But after longing for a veteran role model the previous season, Greg got exactly what he wanted in his second year, only the results were disastrous. That's because it wasn't an NBA veteran who took Greg under his wing in his second season — it was his veteran cousin from the Air Force who moved into Greg's house in Portland.
"If you know anything about guys in the Air Force," Greg explained, "it's that they drink a ton. My cousin got wrapped up in the NBA lifestyle and threw parties at my house all the time. So I got wrapped up in it too. When I played well, I'd drink to celebrate. And when I played poorly, I'd drink to forget. That second year in Portland I pretty much became an alcoholic."1
During the ensuing offseason, a much-needed period of self-reflection gave Greg the incentive to pull out of his rut. He stopped drinking, hired a chef to cook him healthy meals, and worked himself into the best shape of his life. Everything looked like it would pay off in the 2009-10 season — in his first 20 games, he averaged 11.7 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks in less than 25 minutes a game. He was becoming the dominant center we had always expected him to be.2
And then this happened.
Greg Oden hasn't played a single NBA minute since.
This time, it was his left knee — a broken kneecap that made Greg the butt of jokes among NBA fans. And rightfully so, considering that he played less than a third of Portland's games in his first three seasons. Before too many Unbreakable jokes could be made about Greg's inability to stay healthy, however, even better material surfaced when nude pictures Greg had taken of himself in a mirror were leaked in January 2010. Few people who saw the pictures had any sympathy for Greg; the only real takeaway was that his genitalia are exactly as big as you would think they would be.3 This would have been the most embarrassing moment of anyone's life, but for an introvert who values his privacy?
After those pictures hit the Internet, Greg says he locked himself in his house for three straight days until Portland personnel knocked on his door and essentially dragged him to the gym for rehab. Going forward, he found it difficult to show his face in public, assuming everyone was thinking about the pictures and laughing to themselves.
"I wish it wouldn't have happened," he said. "But I'm not going to apologize for it. After all, I'm human and there are worse things that 21-year-olds could do. I just got caught up with women throwing themselves at me. When a girl sends me 100 pictures, I have to send something back every now and then. I'm not an asshole."
(Hey, we've all been there, right?)
Dealing with another season-ending injury and now nude pictures circulating on the Internet, Greg sought out sports psychologist Joseph Carr. In the spring of 2010, Greg began seeing Carr regularly, and he paid for their sessions with his own money. Months later, when the season started, the Blazers also hired Carr, who started showing up at games and practices. Greg said he saw Carr talking to Blazers front office personnel on several occasions. This seemed like a conflict of interest, Greg said, and he couldn't shake the suspicion that Carr was sharing details from their sessions with the team. In response, Greg stopped meeting with Carr and his distrust of the Blazers deepened.
As the start of the 2010-11 season approached, he believed he was making strides with his rehab but didn't think his body was ready to practice at full speed. Feeling guilty about missing so much of those first three years, he returned to practice against his better judgment. In hindsight, Greg said he regrets that decision as much as those cell phone pictures, because rushing back to practice played a big part in him needing another microfracture surgery, this time on the same knee he had been rehabbing because of the broken knee cap.
Although Greg never took my bait and blamed the Blazers for his premature return, it's impossible not to wonder if Portland's medical staff contributed to any of the problems Greg endured during his injury-plagued career. This isn't to say Greg never would've gotten hurt had he played somewhere else, but Portland's medical staff has long been rumored to be less than stellar.4 At any rate, nobody can deny that Greg genuinely felt pressured — either by the Blazers, their doctors, his own guilt, or all three — to return to the court before his body was ready. That's why he claims he wasn't surprised that he needed a second microfracture surgery. That's why he responded to the news by shrugging his shoulders and saying "OK" as if he had just been told by a McDonald's employee that the McFlurry machine wasn't working.
This second microfracture operation led to another missed season, which meant that in Greg's first four years in Portland, he played in only 82 games. Somewhat thankfully, the NBA lockout forced him away from the Blazers' facilities last summer, and he moved to Los Angeles to continue rehabilitating at a private clinic. Even if the change of scenery served him well, that clinic was juggling too many athletes to give him the personal attention Greg thought he needed, so he found a different clinic that was more hands-on. Greg's new physical therapist informed him that, while his left knee was healing well, it wasn't nearly as strong as it should've been. He referred Greg to a New York colleague who specialized in things like "making someone's knee better after it endures two devastating injuries in less than a year." Before Greg shifted operations to New York, however, the lockout ended and forced him back to Portland. Again, he felt rushed to return to the court before he was ready. And wouldn't you know it — he ended up needing another microfracture surgery in the same knee he was already rehabbing.
Look, I'm not trying to make excuses for Greg. He's a grown man. He shouldn't have done anything he didn't want to do. At the same time, he clearly needed direction and guidance. He needed someone to value the long-term over the short-term and tell him: "Don't come back unless you're 100 percent. Otherwise you're going to make this worse." For whatever reason, he never had that. Imagine, for a moment, that Oklahoma City, one of the league's best-run franchises, had landed the first pick in 2007 (even though they were the Seattle SuperSonics back then). Would they have handled Greg differently? Would they have been more careful? Would Greg have been in better hands? Would Greg be leading them in the playoffs right now? We'll never know.
As if all this career adversity and all these "what ifs" weren't bad enough, Greg's personal tragedies kept piling up. During his stay in Los Angeles, the blind dog that Greg had raised for the past four years crawled through a hotel balcony railing and fell eight stories to its death. Shortly thereafter, he found out that his cousin from the Air Force — someone who had remained close with Greg, even though they probably should never have been roommates — had been diagnosed with cancer. He died just six weeks later.
Then, another lost NBA season ended abruptly when Portland released him on March 15, finally bringing the Greg Oden era to an end. He's one of the biggest NBA draft busts ever, and even worse, he knows it.
Meanwhile, the NBA playoffs are under way, with big names from Greg's draft class like Durant, Al Horford, Mike Conley Jr., and Joakim Noah all playing pivotal roles on their playoff teams. Once upon a time, Greg Oden was supposed to be leading this group. Along with Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, he was supposed to be competing for the title every year as part of Portland's "Big Three." Instead, Roy is long gone (retiring in December after years of battling his own knee woes) and Greg is rehabbing a knee injury for the third straight postseason. Only this time, he's doing so without a job.
Just don't think for a second that Greg feels sorry for himself. And don't think that he carries any animosity toward other guys in the 2007 draft, most notably Durant, the second pick and someone whose name will always be linked with Greg's. Now an MVP candidate and a likely starter for this summer's Olympic team, Durant's career arc has been the polar opposite of Greg's. Greg knows this, too.
"I'd be lying if I said that it didn't suck to see Durant doing so well," he said. "Only because every time he had a good game in those first few years, I knew I was going to get a bunch of crap from all of my haters. But that doesn't mean I dislike him as a person or anything like that. He's a good guy and one of the three best players in the league right now. The only reason it hurts to watch him play is because I know that if I got the chance to show what I've got, I could be making All-Star teams like he and Horford are, too.
"That's the worst part about all of the injuries and the criticism. It would be one thing if I had been healthy for five years and just sucked when I was on the court. But I can't prove what I can do because I can't stay healthy. Not having control over the situation makes it tough."
I thought Greg might retire from basketball after Portland released him. That's not happening. Right now, his plan is to take off the entire 2012-13 season, move back to Columbus, take all the time he needs to rehab his knee back to full strength, and continue working toward the degree that he abandoned after one year at Ohio State. Once he feels ready, he plans to sign with an NBA team in 2013 and (hopefully) string together a few years of injury-free basketball. No NBA player has ever returned from three microfracture surgeries, so there's no denying that the odds are against him. But here's the good news: Even though his appearance would lead you to believe otherwise, he's only 24 years old. There's still enough time to salvage a decent NBA career and maybe even reach some of the potential that once seemed so limitless. Not that he's thinking about it that way, of course.
"I don't care about what all of these injuries mean for any legacy I might have," he said. "I just want to play basketball. I could've signed with a team after Portland cut me and just sat on the bench and collected paychecks, but that's not my style. That just seems really unethical. Besides, money doesn't matter to me. I've got enough money. All I want is to get 100 percent healthy and get back on the court."
"But what if you can't get back on the court?" I asked him. "What if a doctor examines you in the summer of 2013 and says that if you play basketball again, you might not be able to walk when you're 50?"
"I'd just have to accept it," Greg said. "I'm at peace with everything. I want more than anything to be able to play again. But if I can't, I'll still have a decent life. Getting cut (by Portland) kind of put everything into perspective. There's more to life than basketball, and at some point it's going to end anyway. I'm going to do what I can to get back on the court, but if it doesn't work out, I'll find something else to do and have a normal life."
Yes, in a lot of ways Greg Oden is still the same eighth grader who was uncomfortable with attention and just wanted to play basketball. For the next year or so, he'll finally get the privacy he always wanted. As for playing the game he loves, maybe he'll find the right franchise someday — the right coach, the right medical staff, the right teammates, the right everything. Or maybe he'll never play again.
But no matter what happens, he will find a way to survive, because he's been surviving all along.