When Ohio State coach Thad Matta walked into his team's locker room on Saturday before the Buckeyes' game against Valparaiso, he saw his prized 7-foot freshman center, Greg Oden,sitting by himself and intently reading the scouting report. "You're starting to pay attention, huh?" Matta said.
"Now it matters, Coach," Oden replied.
Matta knew that day would come, but he never guessed it would arrive so early. Before Saturday's game Oden, the phenom from Indianapolis who has been billed as the best pivot man to enter college basketball since Patrick Ewing, had not played any competitive basketball since undergoing surgery on June 16 to repair a severed tendon in his right wrist. Six weeks ago, the screw used to reattach the tendon was removed. His doctors had long ago scheduled a strength test for last Friday, but even the most optimistic projections had Oden returning to the lineup in mid-December. The more realistic timetable was early January.
"For a while I'd go every day to our trainer and ask, When's he coming back?" Matta told me Monday. "Our doctor finally said, 'Hey, I'll have him ready for the Big Ten season.' I said, 'That's fine. When he gets here, he gets here.'"
Yet there he was Saturday afternoon, announcing his arrival with a 14-point, 10-rebound, five-block performance in 23 minutes, all while wearing a soft rubber cast on his right (shooting) hand. The impressive showing belied the butterflies Oden felt inside.
"Earlier in the morning, when I asked Greg how he was doing, he told me, 'I'm just going to keep smiling so nobody will know that I'm nervous,'" Matta said. "I told him just be yourself."
What's truly amazing about Oden's debut is that before Saturday he had never participated in a full practice at Ohio State. Instead, he spent most of the preseason trying to maintain his conditioning and doing some isolated skill work. Since getting his hard cast removed 2 1/2 weeks ago, the coaches have been gradually working Oden back into the fold, but he still had done most of his offensive work in five-on-zero drills. When the practices would shift to full-contact and rebounding drills, Oden would be sent back to the sidelines.
"There are very few guys who could have walked out and played like he did Saturday after not having played for seven months," Ohio State assistant coach John Groce said. "He took his rehab very seriously and worked hard to bridge the conditioning gap. He's just a special, special player."
Oden did his best to use his time away from competition constructively. For one thing, the injury forced him to spend countless hours developing his left hand with assistant coach Alan Major.
"We did an Ohio high school coaches' clinic not too long ago, and at one point I looked up and all the coaches were staring at Greg as he made about 18 left-handed jump hooks in a row," Groce said. "There's no way he could have done that when he first arrived here."