As you head downtown, there's a giant mural draped on a hotel. On it is the image of Greg Oden, the 7-foot freshman phenom at Ohio State.
The mural makes Greg Oden appear larger than life, and in these parts, he is.
He's the most highly touted big man to enter college basketball since Patrick Ewing came along a quarter-century ago. Based on his long-term potential, Greg Oden has drawn comparisons to legendary centers Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton.
That's a lot to live up to for a 19-year-old only 23 games into his first college season. But high expectations come with the territory when you're hyped as much as LeBron James coming out of high school.
That said, the Buffalo-born Greg Oden is college basketball's most reluctant superstar. He doesn't think he's as good as people say he is. His idea of fun is hanging out with teammates or watching DVDs in his room. He's a high-profile athlete who prefers to be anonymous.
"He doesn't go out a lot because it's hard," said Ohio State freshman point guard Mike Conley, Greg Oden's teammate at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis and closest friend. "He'd rather be a short person and not get noticed. But it's not possible. It's going to be that way for the rest of his life."
Ohio State coach Thad Matta got a clear indication of the attention on Greg Oden after reviewing some game film.
"I'm watching the tape and we get a rebound," Matta said. "Greg's on the bench and the camera goes to him on the bench as we're going in transition. It has been a unique situation, but I like the way Greg has handled it. The thing I've always loved about him is he's a guy that lets his actions do the talking."
>He's a handful
Greg Oden hasn't let the pressure of being basketball's next big thing affect his game. He averages a team-best 15.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.5 blocked shots per game while leading the Buckeyes (27-3 overall, 15-1 in the Big Ten) to a second straight conference championship and their first No. 1 national ranking since 1962.
Greg Oden's numbers are even more impressive considering he has played most of the season without being able to use his shooting hand. He had surgery in June to repair a torn ligament in his right wrist and missed the first seven games. The wrist still isn't 100 percent.
Using mostly his left hand, Greg Oden is shooting 61.4 percent from the field and made 17 shots in a row during his first three games. He takes all of his free throws left-handed and is making only 63.1 percent from the line, but he did sink 9 of 10 from the line during a Jan. 2 game against Indiana.
"I feel like I can play a lot better than I have so far," Greg Oden said. "I can't use my wrist as an excuse. Actually, my injury has been a blessing in disguise because I'll be able to use both hands equally well."
Greg Oden doesn't get a lot of shot attempts because Ohio State relies heavily on outside shooting. But perhaps the Buckeyes should get the ball in Greg Oden's hands more because he's virtually unstoppable inside. He had 24 points, 15 rebounds and three blocked shots in a 68-66 win over Tennessee. Seven of his nine field goals came on dunks. He poured in 29 points to go with 10 rebounds and two blocks in an 82- 63 victory over Iowa. When he draws double teams, which happens often, he is good at finding the open man.
Greg Oden is a man among boys, and not because he looks 40. Solidly built at 280 pounds, he's bigger and stronger than a lot of NBA centers. He's also better.
Said Fran Fraschilla, an ESPN analyst and former coach, "If he were healthy, Greg already would be one of the three or four best centers in the NBA right now."
Beyond his uncommon package of size, quickness and agility, Greg Oden is a rarity among today's big men because he'd rather play inside than on the perimeter.
"I said this when we got Greg, 'I got the only guy in the country 7 feet tall who wants to be a center,' " Matta said. "Greg knows where he's at his best. I really like the fact that he thinks that way."
>Father in background
Though born in Buffalo, Greg Oden was long gone before he ascended to stardom. He was 9 when his mother, Zoe, moved him and his younger brother, Anthony, to Terre Haute, Ind., in 1997 shortly after divorcing Greg Oden Sr.
A plumbing and heating contractor in Buffalo, the older Greg Oden maintains a close relationship with the boys, who visit their relatives here as often as possible.
Greg and Anthony have always acknowledged the elder Greg Oden as their father, but Anthony and Greg are half brothers. Young Greg's biological father is Joe Jones, who also lives in Buffalo. He hasn't been a big presence in Greg's life and prefers to stay in the background. He has attended some Ohio State games and is proud of his son's accomplishments.
"There's a lot of pressure on him right now, but he's handling it well," said the 6-6 Jones, who also played college ball at Fairmont in West Virginia after a standout career at McKinley High School. "All the credit has to go to his mom for raising him up to be the man that he is. I think you can kind of see what he's going to be right now. I wish nothing but the best for him."
Zoe Greg Oden, who raised the two boys on her own, said she never had any trouble with her sons because they never got into any outside the home.
"They were always good kids," she said. "They knew right from wrong, so I never had to worry about what they were doing."
Greg Oden discovered basketball in the fourth grade. He stood 6- 4 in the sixth grade and 6-8 as an eighth grader. By the time his family moved from Terre Haute to Indianapolis in 2001, he had grown in size and talent.
Greg Oden had 1,873 points, 1,058 rebounds and 341 blocked shots in four seasons to lead Lawrence North High to three consecutive Class 4A state championships and a 103-7 overall record. The school never lost a conference game and was undefeated at home during Greg Oden's career.
He also became the fourth two-time national High School Player of the Year since the award was started in 1955. Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Jerry Lucas and James were the other repeat winners.
Greg Oden was such a big celebrity in high school that fans would form long lines after games to get his autograph, take his picture or shake his hand.
But those who know Greg Oden appreciate who he is more than what he does.
"I'm always quick to tell people that he's not just a great basketball player, he's a great person," said Lawrence North Athletics Director Grant Nesbit. "Here's a kid that got more national exposure than just about any kid that's come along in high school and just handled it with the utmost of humility."
"He's a kid without an ego," added Mike Conley Sr., the 1992 Olympic gold medalist and 1984 silver medalist in the triple jump and Greg Oden's AAU coach from the sixth grade through high school. "He deflects praise whenever people try to shower him with it. He's a team-first player."
Greg Oden is the best known freshman in college basketball, but is he the best? The question has been raised with the emergence of Kevin Durant, the 6-10 sensation at Texas.
As far as Greg Oden is concerned, comparisons to Durant aren't fair -- to Durant.
"Kevin Durant is a more developed player than I am," Greg Oden said. "I just play my game and do what I can. But I know that he's better than me right now. I'm just going to work at it to be the best player I can be."
Others might agree that Durant is the best, but some of Ohio State's opponents believe Greg Oden is a cut above the rest.
"I've said from Day One, he's the best player in college basketball," Purdue coach Matt Painter said of Greg Oden. "I'll stay with that because the two most important factors in the game are defense and rebounding. Those are the two most important things that help you win games, and he's the best at it.
"Now, you throw offense in, and he's playing with one hand. He plays within himself, he makes his free throws with the opposite hand. He's just special."
Perhaps no college player has a greater impact on the game without the ball than Greg Oden. His instincts and timing as a shot blocker are impeccable. He doesn't bite on pump fakes and never leaves his feet until the last possible moment. Instead of swatting shots out of bounds, he keeps the ball in play to ignite his team's fast break. His presence forces intimidated opponents to alter shots.
"In that sense, he's very Bill Russell-like, and I don't throw that name around lightly," Fraschilla said. "I know the impact Bill Russell had on the game of basketball. This kid can have an impact on any game, without even scoring."
>Loves being a Buckeye
Greg Oden was the only high school player invited to work out with the U.S. Senior National team last summer in Las Vegas. He was unable to participate because of his wrist surgery. He was disappointed because he wanted to compete against NBA players. He'll have that chance soon.
If Greg Oden were to leave school after this season, it is expected he would be the first overall pick in the NBA draft. He might be in the league now if not for the rule that forces high schoolers to spend at least one year in college.
Most NBA general managers and scouts are convinced the era of the Ewings and Tim Duncans staying four years in college is over. But some people won't be surprised if Greg Oden stays at Ohio State for another year.
"My guess is he'll come out," said an NBA scout, who attended a recent Ohio State game. "But from everyone I've talked to this kid genuinely loves being in college. Whether he stays or goes, we'll just have to wait and see."
Zoe Greg Oden has spoken to Greg about the NBA, but it's not a regular topic of discussion.
"There will be plenty of time for that," Zoe said. "Right now, he wants to focus on his school work and playing basketball. That's the way it should be."
Greg Oden's 3.7 grade-point average shows he's in college for more than basketball. He knows that he's holding a huge lottery ticket, one that will parlay into millions of dollars at the pro level. But he also knows the money will be there whether he comes out now or later.
"I really don't know what it's like to play in the NBA," he said. "This is all I know right now, and I'm loving it. Playing in the NBA is a dream of mine, but I have to know if I'm ready physically and mentally to make that move."
How far Ohio State advances in NCAA Tournament, which begins next week, may have a bearing on Greg Oden's decision. Matta plans to sit down with Greg Oden and discuss his options once the season is over.
For now though, Greg Oden has only one thing on his mind.
"All I'm thinking about is trying to help my team win the Big Ten and national championship," Greg Oden said. "All that other stuff can wait."
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