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It's January 2003, and a major-college basketball coach is preparing to scout a high school player. A reporter asks the player's name, which the coach can offer only anonymously because NCAA regulations prohibit him from speaking about recruits in the media. " Greg Oden," says the coach. "Six-eleven. Athletic. Smart. Great kid. And you'll love this: He's a freshman."
In the nearly two years since, Greg Oden of Lawrence North High in Indianapolis has become the Next One. The next Kobe. The next KG. The next LeBron. The next Dwight Howard. The next precocious teenager being run through the well-oiled star-making machinery that turns potential into a blank check, no college experience necessary. Now a 16-year-old junior, Oden is seven feet tall, weighs 250 pounds and can no longer play video games because his hands are too big for the controller. He can take a step, jump up and touch a spot on the backboard 11 feet, 11 inches off the floor, and when he's running at full speed (which is often), he eats up a court the way an 18-wheeler swallows flat highway. Against type, he is an honor-roll student who is generous with his time and says he wants to go to college before getting rich in the NBA.
Oden is the brightest blip on the radar screens of talent hunters across the basketball spectrum in America, whether they represent the NBA, a college, a shoe company or a television network. "He's fabulous," says one NBA personnel executive. "He's the next great, difference-making big man from the United States. When he ends up in the NBA, whatever team gets him will become a contender."
A prominent Division I college coach says, "I couldn't believe how good he was as a freshman. He's just good at too many things. He's got unbelievable quickness for a big guy, he's getting strong--and he's got a brain, which is illegal on top of [everything else]. I'm guessing he'd be the Number 1 player in the draft if he came out this year."
sonny vaccaro, senior director of grassroots basketball at Reebok (a position similar to those he held first at Nike and then Adidas), whose company sponsors Oden's AAU team, says, "He's so damn good, and there's nothing in his life that even connects to a negative situation. He will get offers. He will have to think about a very nice shoe contract." Rashid Ghazi of Paragon Marketing Group, which is in final negotiations with ESPN to televise Lawrence North's Dec. 9 game against Poplar Bluff (Mo.) High and its North Carolina--bound power forward, Tyler Hansbrough, says, " Greg Oden is, by most accounts, the Number 1 player in the country who is not in the NBA. [He's got] big buzz. Greg Oden and Lawrence North are the national story in high school basketball this year."
Amid all this hype Oden is also a big brother, who has a car and a little brother--6'8", 240-pound freshman Anthony--who needs a ride on a rainy autumn evening. So Greg stands behind the couch in his family's modest, two-bedroom apartment a mile from Lawrence North and begs his mother, Zoe, for a reprieve from chauffeur duty. "I don't have time," he says. Mom laughs. Anthony wins. Greg drives. The two boys run through the rain toward a battered minivan. "It ain't no Hummer," says Zoe. "It's just an old van that one of my friends used to drive."
Here is the disconnect. In the basketball world Oden is a future star and millionaire-- Bill Walton or Bill Russell in training wheels. "The best big-man prospect in high school or college," says another NBA executive. Yet in his own world Oden is a boy measured by his potential as a grownup. He dates a sophomore, Samantha Shell, a forward on the Lawrence North girls' team. During study periods, he works in the school's athletic department, filing papers, answering phones and running for coffee. And after practice he likes to dash off to Best Buy to see if any new DVDs are on sale. The kid lives for movies. "Renting movies, buying movies, going to the movies, you name it," says Mike Conley Jr., the Lawrence North junior point guard who's also a blue-chip Division I recruit. Once in a while Oden will go to the movies alone and sit in the rear of the theater, his head towering above the back of the seat, enjoying a good flick.
Recently, while meeting with a reporter in the empty field house at Lawrence North, he wore a red headband emblazoned with the NBA logo. But don't read anything into it. The headband belongs to teammate Warren Wallace, and Oden used it to hold his glasses in place during pickup games because he forgot his contact lenses. It's true, he earned a 3.9 GPA for the first marking period, but Oden quickly qualifies that performance. "I'm not taking honors classes," he says. "Chemistry, algebra II, German, American history. But not honors."
The buzz that excites others doesn't stir him. A few weeks ago he went to the mall with his mother. They hadn't been shopping together in a long time, so in the car on the way over Greg said, "Mom, I've got to tell you before we get there: People are going to be staring and talking, and probably some of the them will ask for my autograph." And that's exactly what happened. People stared and talked and asked for Oden's autograph. "I don't mind it," he says, "but I don't deserve it."
oden was discovered as a fourth-grader, not long after Zoe was divorced from Greg's father, also named Greg, and moved from Buffalo to Terre Haute, Ind. An AAU basketball coach in Terre Haute, Jimmy Smith, was looking for kids to round out a newly formed team, and the dad of one of his players had seen a new kid on the playground at Fuqua Elementary. Smith went to the school's principal and said to her, "There's a young man going to school here, and I don't even know his name, but he's very tall and I'd like to know if he'd be interested in playing basketball on my AAU team." Smith left a business card with the principal, who gave it to Greg, who in turn gave it to Zoe, and a few days later Greg was a member of the fourth-grade Terre Haute Stars, though he had never played basketball.