Hanging with Greg Oden
No. 1 pick just might be the biggest kid in the NBA
Posted: Monday August 27, 2007 5:32PM; Updated: Tuesday August 28, 2007 11:19AM
MALIBU, Calif. -- I'm trying to recruit Greg Oden, but I've hit a road block. "I'm sorry," he says. "I don't drink."
The thing is, I need a partner for a friendly game of Beirut against some feisty, bikini-clad models at the LG Beach House here in Malibu and I really can't take no for an answer. "That's fine," I tell him. "I'll drink for you, but I need a wingman."
After taking a look at the table outside, a few steps from the pristine shoreline, he agrees to join my team, and for a moment I can relate to Ohio State coach Thad Matta. You know, sans the bikini-filled beach house.
Oden is relaxing at the moment and enjoying his final days of summer before he begins his new job as the savior, er center of the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers. "We actually go up a month before training camp begins," he says. "So I'm just enjoying this nice weather for as long as I can."
From the looks of Oden's shooting form in Beirut, I think he could use a lot of practice, although he quickly reminds me that throwing a ping-pong ball into a plastic cup isn't exactly a drill that they run during camp. "Everyone here is drinking except for me," he says. "I think you play better when you drink. That's the problem."
While a throng of thong-wearing beauties cheer us on, the party takes on an Entourage feel as Rumer Willis rolls by in a two-piece with Rex Lee not far behind. "Hey, look," says Oden. "Ari Gold is here too."
Sure enough, there's Jeremy Piven, wearing a swimsuit and a fedora, grabbing a drink from the bar before Oden goes up to him and takes a picture with everyone's favorite faux Hollywood agent. "He didn't really see me, but I was shaking and smiling the whole time, like, 'That's Ari right there!'" says Oden. "I watch that show every Sunday and I've got all the DVDs too."
Oden's enthusiasm during the party rivals that of a wide-eyed child, which makes sense since most who know Oden consider him a big kid. "He's like that all the time," says Mike Conley Sr., Oden's agent and the father of his best friend, Mike Conley Jr. , the Memphis Grizzlies' first-round pick. "When he's around people and enjoying himself, he likes to have fun. He has a great, great personality. Some people think that some of this is manufactured, but it's not."
It may not be manufactured, but it's taken time for Oden to open up and show others his infectious personality. As he towers over the sun-kissed crowd at the beach house, he still addresses party goers as "sir" and "ma'am" when he's introduced to them. He mostly keeps to himself until he feels comfortable enough to break out of his shell. "Greg has always had great manners around adults," says Conley Sr. "It's always, 'Yes, sir' or 'No, sir.' He just grew up that way.
"He entered the limelight at a young age, but society expects you to have a personality, expects you to entertain and perform," Conley added. "He wasn't raised that way. Around adults, you had to be respectful. Ever since he got to college it's been like, 'Okay, Greg it's okay to act around adults like you act around your friends. It's okay to be yourself around a reporter, just like if you were talking to little Michael. That's okay, there's nothing wrong with that.' Once he made that transformation, you got to see the real Greg Oden all the time."
The real Greg Oden is on display the day after the party as he stands in the middle of a studio in Los Angeles. He is wearing a full-body spandex motion capture suit as dozens of cameras record his every move for College Hoops 2K8, a video game that will feature him on the cover. Most of the moves he's showing at the moment, however, probably won't be in the game. "You got Superman," says Oden, dancing like a super hero as he looks at a skeleton version of himself moving on the big screen above him. "You got Batman and Spiderman. Yeah, you can see all these dances on YouTube."
While Conley Jr. helps Oden out with his dance moves, he is still amazed at how far he and his childhood friend have come as they prepare for their first season in the NBA and first basketball season without each other as teammates. "I look at him and I think, This can't be the same guy that I first knew back in Indiana," Conley Jr. says. "But it's good to see all of this come into place right now. I know it's happening really fast, but it's been fun."
Oden never stops having fun. When he finishes doing his dances he heads over to the air hockey table in the corner of the studio and challenges Isaiah Renfro, a 10-year-old boy who is wearing Oden's jersey. Up until now, Renfro has been sitting and watching Oden with his mom, awe-struck at the sight of his favorite player. Now it's hard to tell which one is the child as they pick up their mallets. "You're really making me feel good about myself, little man," says Oden as he starts dancing after scoring a goal. "You better come harder than that."
As Renfro laughs, he quickly scores a goal. Oden eventually takes the game and throws his hands in the air after he wins, runs around the studio, knocks over a chair and starts dancing in front of Renfro. "I'm sorry I had to beat you, little man," he says before jokingly turning to the mother. "I'm sorry I had to beat your son like that."
Renfro's mother, Chieko Woods, simply smiles as Oden continues playing with her son, challenging him to a game of one-on-one on the nearby court and swatting away his shots. "No sympathy," he says jokingly. "No sympathy, little man."
"I thought maybe I'd surprise [my son] and he'd get an autograph," says Woods. "I never thought he'd become friends with his hero, but [Oden'] like a kid, a really big kid."
Most kids, even the seven-foot tall variety, aren't asked to turn around the fortunes of a struggling franchise, but that's exactly what most fans in Portland are expecting Oden to do once he takes the court for the Trail Blazers this season. As he prepares to head north for his first job he appears ready for the challenge, even if he might not sound like it initially. "I'm scared, really scared," he says, before flashing a huge smile and laughing. "Nah, I'm joking. I'm excited. I'm going to try to have fun."
That's usually never a problem for the NBA's biggest kid.