Greg Oden’s Long Walk Home
Greg Oden early. Earlier than most of the players he is going to coach. On this clear, windy February morning in Indianapolis, he steps out of his Denali and lumbers into the Hinkle Fieldhouse.
The shootout at Butler University’s historic basketball arena is only 45 minutes away, but Oden doesn’t waste a second. He sits on the edge of the secretary’s desk and studies the training plan, taking notes. Soon the players enter the game, and Oden breaks into a wide gleeful smile, almost humming with excitement, as if the game is drawing to a close in five hours.
He wears a tiny red mesh tank top over his gray sweatshirt, which looks like a baby bib on his 7 foot tall, barely covering the top of his chest. But it doesn’t bother him at all; he is in his element. He joins the scouting team on the court, whispering advice to the players between sets. He throws a dunk, soft and clean, offering a great glimpse of the player that everyone in this gym, in this city, remembers him.
During his time starring at Lawrence North High School, just 20 minutes from the Butler campus, he was considered the NBA’s next great. He led Lawrence North to a four-year 103-7 record and three consecutive class 4A state titles. He was the Gatorade National Player of the Year in 2005. And 2006. And in a state like Indiana, where basketball turns mortals into gods, Auden became a mass celebrity. New York Times called he was called “the center of the basketball generation”, mentioning his name next to the name of Bill Russell. He went on to lead Ohio State to a national championship game as a freshman 16 years ago this month.
But Auden is mostly known for what happened next: after being chosen, no. In the 2007 NBA draft, after taking first overall pick over Kevin Durant, he suffered a debilitating knee injury that kept him from living up to the Herculean expectations placed on him. For years he had carried such a heavy burden that he nearly crushed it. It has since been followed by cruel, inhuman comments: namely, that he largest bust in NBA history.
This story, this four-letter word haunted him for a long time. It hurt to hear. It hurt to explain. But that word does not capture the spirit of his struggle, his journey, his resilience, his joy and, most importantly, where his path has taken him today: he finds a new purpose as a coach. He completes his first season as director of basketball for Butler. And he does it with his former Ohio State coach Ted Matta, who is now at the helm of the Butler program: a man who never gave up on Auden, even when many did.
Oden could have quit basketball. He could get a regular job that has nothing to do with the game. But that peach-dotted leather ball kept pulling at him, kept reminding him of the deepest love he’d ever known despite trying to break his heart again and again. Because for as long as he can remember, he hasn’t just played basketball. It was to him.
Hired last April, Oden now dreams of becoming a head coach someday. “It’s fun. It’s challenging. But I really enjoy it,” he says. He shines when he thinks about the future, how excited he is this summer, when he can spend more time working with the players. He thinks about what it was like would one day run his own program, which would eventually become his own coaching philosophy: “I really think I can do it.”
In a way, he’s a newbie again, paying his dues. True, with a little less pressure and more anonymity. With no cameras, no hype, he was left with the unsullied love of basketball he had for basketball since childhood, scoring his first basket, grabbing an opponent’s mid-air rebound and bringing it back into the basket.
He spends hours dissecting game films and filming footage of rivals for other Butler coaches. He hugs the grind. “I know I have a lot to learn and I will keep working on it,” Auden says.
He constantly absorbs as much wisdom as possible. He often asks other coaches about strategies and schemes or how they deal with certain situations. And, more often than not, Auden says, “Does anyone need help? How can I do more?
Auden is quick to grasp and often points out in the films that other non-athletic coaches might overlook. “When I coached him, he had a great mindset for playing basketball,” says Matta. “It was not just about his physical characteristics. His understanding [of the game] that’s what made it special.
“Now he’s in a position where he’s learning and he has to teach more because the guys we’re dealing with aren’t as talented as him and they don’t have the characteristics that he had,” Matta says. . . “I think he ends up being a much better basketball coach.
Some of Auden’s most popular high school games were actually held at the Hinkle. He never expected to return. Anyone who has gone through the traumas, failures, and disappointments of Auden may never want to look back to basketball. But Auden continued to reach for it. He never lost his love for the game.
He is still needed.
And maybe a part of it should have come back Here. To Indianapolis. The same house he lived in when he bought the place in 2012. He had just come out of Portland after playing just 82 games in five seasons, missing three campaigns entirely and then missing another season before joining the Heat. He left the house to return to the NBA with the Heat in 2013, but various family members have lived there since.
The house, painted in blue and gray, completely remembered Auden. It is surrounded by trees, next to the forest, a little away from the surrounding ancient area. It was one of the reasons he bought it after the end of his tenure with Portland. He needed his own space. He was devastated.
“I just retired from everyone,” he says.
Sometimes he stayed in the house for two weeks in a row. He was too ashamed to go outside. He was afraid to run into anyone from high school. “I felt like a failure,” he says.
On the rare occasions when he went outside, he pulled his hood far over his head, hoping to protect his face, eyes, and, quite impossible, his 7-foot build. “I just felt like a failure. I felt like I let a lot of people down,” he says. “Failed Portland, let down all the staff and the whole organization. I felt like I let my family down and everyone who trained me and believed in me.”
Auden often thinks about how much life has changed since He has since changed. He has a family now. He and his wife Sabrina have a young daughter, Londine. Rooms in the house that were once empty are now filled with love.
But there are rooms that he cannot bring himself to enter, such as the theater room. There he usually sat and drank until he passed out, until he drowned out for a while the pain and shame of elusive basketball dreams.
He became addicted to painkillers during his time with the Blazers. And as the years went by, he became increasingly frustrated with his inability to get his body to work the way it needed to. Just as he expected.
Auden spent years dealing with issues off the court that led to his darkest moments. He worked to heal, to move forward in his life. Coaching gave him new joy. He feels excited about the opportunity.
Finally, he found … peace.
But he is human. He is still fighting. It still hurts sometimes when someone calls him a “loser”. He occasionally watches his old YouTube highlights, especially the 2007 National Championship game against Florida, where he scored 25 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks. Some part of him still needs to see these clips. To remember what he could have done then. Who is he was then.
But Auden doesn’t necessarily see himself as a different person these days. He also doesn’t see coaching as a second act. He came to accept all parts of his journey: what he wanted to happen and what he never wanted to happen. It’s all one long, continuous road. “I have been riding this attraction for 35 years,” he says.
Auden’s journey has brought him home to where it all began. It was a long way back: a long way that started just a few minutes away.
Dozens of slender, leafless trees line the streets leading to Lawrence North. It’s only 8 miles from Butler and the roads are almost empty on this February morning. A group of suburban brick houses is opposite the high school. Every second entrance has a hoop. After all, this is Indiana.
The wall of the Hall of Fame is visible in the school’s gymnasium. In the right corner is a picture of a much leaner, baby-faced Auden, flashing both rows of teeth and twirling a ball on his finger. His National Player of the Year trophies are in a glass case nearby.
Then no one could keep him on the court. lane was his. It seemed like he could block a shot from anywhere, at any time. But Auden seemed almost oblivious to his own talent. “He didn’t seem to understand why they thought he was the next big star,” says Jimmy Smith, who Oden considers a sort of foster father. He and his wife Tami regard the Oden family as a son. Their biological son Travis has been Auden’s best friend since he was 9 years old, and Jimmy coached the boys’ team.
Together with Auden’s mother, Zoey, Jimmy and Tami helped Auden deal with his budding fame as he…