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"At first he'd get the ball and walk with it or stand in the lane forever," says Smith. "But after a year or two, he started to really develop." He picked up rebounding and shot blocking quickly. His offense developed more gradually.
When Oden was in sixth grade, Mike Conley Sr. came calling. Conley, the 1992 Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump and a former high school point guard in Chicago, had taken a job with USA Track and Field in Indianapolis, moving there from Fayetteville, Ark., where he had coached Mike Jr.'s AAU teams to fourth- and fifth-grade national titles. Conley took over as coach of a team then known as the Riverside Oddsbreakers and went to Terre Haute to sign up a tall kid he had heard about. "I spoke to his mom and to Jimmy Smith, and then I met Greg," says Conley. "He was a sixth-grader, about six-four with big ol' feet. I asked him what he wanted to be. He said, 'A dentist.' I thought, Hmmm."
In the fall of 2001 Zoe found a job in Indianapolis, working as a rehabilitation technician at St. Vincent's Hospital. By then an eighth-grader who stood 6'7", Greg was enrolled at Craig Middle School and joined a school team that included Mike Conley Jr. at point guard. The team went undefeated and played to packed stands of more than 2,000 fans. "I went there to look at Greg," says Jack Keefer, the Lawrence North coach since 1975. "My gosh! They were devastating. My first thought was, I don't want them to play the varsity."
A year later Keefer made Oden his starting center and Conley his starting point guard as freshmen, and Lawrence North went 21--3. Last winter, when they were sophomores, Lawrence North won the Indiana large-school state championship; Oden averaged 14 points (taking only nine shots per game from the field) and 10 rebounds, and shot a mind-boggling 71% from the floor while often guarded by three opponents. "I'd like him to shoot more," says Keefer. "This year I think he will."
On the fiercely competitive AAU side, the Riverside Oddsbreakers became Spiece Indy Heat (named for sponsor Tom Spiece, an Indiana sporting goods executive), a veritable Midwestern all-star team that included Oden, Conley, 6'10" power forward Josh McRoberts of Carmel, Ind., forward Daequan Cook of Dayton and guard Eric Gordon of Indianapolis. They won major tournaments in North Carolina and Las Vegas; Oden was named MVP in both, sending his stock soaring.
Since 1999, 21 high school players have been selected in the first round of the NBA draft, including eight last June. Unless the league adopts a minimum-age rule, expect the best schoolboy players to continue taking guaranteed contracts and shoe deals immediately, rather than risk losing them to an injury or by underperforming in college.
Oden, however, says he may wait. During the summer AAU tour, he made unofficial visits to North Carolina, Wake Forest and Michigan State. He attended Indiana's Midnight Madness. (Hoosiers coach Mike Davis has been at many of the games Oden has played, high school and AAU, since Oden was 14.) In the third week of October, Conley Sr. took his son and Oden to homecoming at Arkansas, his alma mater. They went to a fraternity step show, a concert and a football game, and the boys loved them all. "I have never heard Greg talk about the NBA," says Travis Smith, Oden's longtime bud from Terre Haute. "He talks about college all the time."
Says Oden, "I don't see myself being ready for the NBA in two years. I know people say I am, but I need to work on so much--dribbling, better post moves. I know they say I'm quick, but I need to get quicker. I went to a shooting coach [ Purdue legend Rick Mount], and it helped me. When I shoot it right, it goes in, but I need repetition. When I go to the NBA, I want to be ready. That's where college comes in."
Says a Division I coach who knows Oden, "If there's one of these kids who will buck the trend, it's Greg."
Of course, there isn't any money on the table yet. "As a 16-year-old making the decision today, Greg's going to college," says Conley Sr. "The question is whether outside entities will make it so attractive that he has to take advantage of it right away."