anticipated news of the young college basketball season was received in the
parking lot of a Target store. Ohio State freshman Greg Oden, the best American
big-man prospect since Patrick Ewing, was Christmas shopping with teammates on
Dec. 1 when a text message from his surgeon, Tom Fischer, worm-warped into his
cellphone: you're cleared to play. Dropping his personalized Christmas
stockings and holiday candy to the pavement, Oden pumped the phone (and his
surgically repaired right wrist) into the cold Columbus air and let out a
whoop. "I had," Oden recalls, "the biggest ... smile ...
Two games later the Big(ger) O's smashing debut--five weeks ahead of schedule after a six-month layoff--has rival coaches around the country delivering angst-ridden exclamations like so many Ron Burgundys (Great Oden's raven!). The new reality is this: Oden's addition to an already stacked team is causing a seismic shift in the college hoops landscape. "At 7 feet, he changes the game so much," says North Carolina coach Roy Williams, whose Tar Heels beat the Oden-less Buckeyes 98--89 on Nov. 29 in Chapel Hill. "They were very good without him, but when you add what he does to the mix, they become, if not the best team, then certainly the team that has more potential than anyone else."
The 270-pound Oden's coming-out party in a 78--58 win over Valparaiso on Dec. 2--14 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in 23 minutes--was all the more remarkable considering he didn't have the complete use of his wrapped shooting hand (he "shot-putted" free throws, as he described it, with his left hand) and hadn't played in a full practice since undergoing surgery last June to repair the wrist tendon that he injured last March. Then last Saturday, the two-time national high school player of the year from Lawrence North High in Indianapolis was even more tantalizing in a 78--57 win over Cleveland State, shooting 8 for 8 and scoring 16 points despite playing only 22 minutes because of early foul trouble.
Granted, the opponent wasn't the caliber of Ohio State's upcoming foes--Cincinnati, Iowa State and defending national champion Florida, which will host the Buckeyes in a mouth-watering showdown on Dec. 23--but all of Oden's goods were on display. He swatted three shots with majestic ease, his mere presence forcing the Pirates to take more than half their field goal attempts from three-point range. He backed down a defender on the block, reverse-dribbled to his left and thundered home one of his five rim-rattling dunks. He rumbled like a runaway 18-wheeler on the fast break and executed the pick-and-roll to perfection with point guard Mike Conley Jr., his longtime friend and high school teammate. By the time Oden received a standing ovation in the game's final minute, he had dominated like the early-to-puberty kid on a sixth-grade team, only with infinitely more skill and against a Division I college opponent.
"Our first few games we didn't really have a big inside presence," Oden said last week. "Now I hope I can come in and provide that and open up things for our shooters." As for when his right wrist (now at around 80% strength) will be fully healed, Oden says he still isn't sure. "But I do need it," he says, "because every post move's counter is a turnaround jump shot. I've worked on my lefthanded jump shot, but it's still awkward. I just have to get my motion and strength back."
While Ohio State coach Thad Matta says that anyone who declares the 8--1 Buckeyes the national-title favorite "must be on drugs," his wide smile suggests that he'd rather be playing with his guys than yours. "It's so early, and we're still a young basketball team that's a work in progress," he says. "But every day that Greg gets a quarter inch more flexibility [in his wrist], we're going to be a little bit better."
Indeed, Oden's display last Saturday was a glimpse of the talent that has already caused Boston Celtics fans to begin chanting his name at home games, a not-so-subtle suggestion that their team lose as often as possible to increase its chances of winning the No. 1 pick (read: Oden) in next June's NBA draft. Yet while Oden himself leaves open the slim chance that he'll stay longer than one season in Columbus (more on that later), most NBA observers consider him a lock to be the '07 top dog. "If you're looking for a post player, it's a no-brainer," says one NBA player personnel director. "Oden could impact an NBA game right now just because of his defensive ability. He blocks shots, and he runs like a gazelle. He doesn't have a real go-to move down low yet, but his offense is starting to catch up to his defense."
"If he doesn't score another point this season, he's still the Number 1 guy," says Sonny Vaccaro, the senior director of grassroots basketball at Reebok, which sponsored Oden's high school summer-league team. "He'll be in his era what Bill Russell was in his. Greg won't get the biggest shoe deal"--LeBron James's $90 million Nike contract is considered unmatchable--"but he will get the best shoe contract ever for a big man. And get this: He's the most unassuming superstar I've been around in 44 years in the business."
The NBA's new age-minimum rule may have forced Oden to pass up the pros for a year, but here's the thing: He likes college. He likes participating in campuswide stunts like an attempt to set the record for the world's largest pillow fight. He likes writing papers for his English class criticizing the rise in sexual content of adolescent-geared TV shows. He likes cooking burgers on the George Foreman grill in the dorm suite he shares with the Buckeyes' three other scholarship freshmen. And he likes walking unaccosted through campus, not least because he isn't the biggest star in pigskin-addled Columbus. "Of course not!" he says with a baritone chuckle. "We've got Troy Smith, Ted Ginn Jr., all those guys."
Likewise, college has helped Oden discover a budding social conscience. When he was corralled recently by a campus volunteer extolling the virtues of wind power instead of coal for Ohio, Oden stopped, listened and pulled out a $20 donation. ("That's a big issue," he says.) He recently bought the DVD of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's environmentalist call to arms, and had a sort of awakening. "I was like, Man, I think I'll walk to class instead of driving, and I'm going to start recycling too," says Oden, a voracious movie buff who owns some 700 DVDs (his teammates call him Mr. Blockbuster) and has tastes ranging as far afield as Cold Mountain, Kung Fu Hustle and Brokeback Mountain.
"Greg's one of the most unique kids I've ever coached," says Matta. "He's really mature for his age. When you sit down and talk with him, you can have an intellectual conversation or just joke around." That sense of humor plays well when Oden gets tagged as the latest inductee into the Otis Nixon Society of athletes (Shawn Kemp, LeBron, Freddy Adu) who look almost twice their age. Recently some friends kidded him about a segment on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption titled "Greg Oden: Over or Under 40?"
"I laughed," says Oden, who turns 19 next month. "I think it's my beard. But you know what? People over 22 get this beard in two days. This has been a whole month's work! And I'll keep growing it out because I find [the reaction] hilarious."
Yet Oden knows that the decision he'll face next spring is no joking matter, and for all the benefits of college he vows that he won't be naive when considering his future. "I love it here," he says, "and I want to win a national championship, but it could get to the point where it would be stupid not to go pro."
And so, for the next three months, at least, Oden belongs to the college game. In such a short season his early arrival is clearly a gift to the Buckeyes, who have far more time to meld Oden into their system. "He would have felt weird coming in later in the year if we had guys averaging 20 points a game," says Conley. But it's also a gift to college basketball fans, who in the next month alone will get to see Oden square off against Florida's fearsome front line (Oden figures he'll match up against Al Horford, not Joakim Noah) and begin the Buckeyes' Big Ten schedule at home on Jan. 2 against Indiana, followed by trips to Illinois and Wisconsin.
By that time Oden will have knocked any remaining rust off his game, which is another way of saying that the equation for the season just changed. "Greg Oden is a presence," says Badgers coach Bo Ryan. "If you find any chinks in his armor, let me know."
We looked, Bo. Looked hard. Didn't find many.
Get more on the big Buckeye from Grant Wahl, plus other college hoops scoops, at SI.com/collegebasketball.
"He'll be in his era what BILL RUSSELL was in his," says Vaccaro, who calls Oden "the most unassuming superstar I've been around."