Stars Gravitate Toward Greg Oden

LOS ANGELES -- Talk about a power lunch.

Across the table from Greg Oden at the tony Level 3 nightclub in Hollywood on Wednesday was 2004 NBA Most Valuable Player Kevin Garnett. To Oden's right was Jill Smoller, head of sports marketing at the powerhouse William Morris Agency .

A little later, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning sat and chatted with the Lawrence North High School basketball star.

It continued in the evening, when Oden walked the red carpet in front of hundreds of photographers for the taping of the ESPYs at the Kodak Theatre, the same red carpet walked by movie stars each year for the Oscars.

Oden was in the land of stars for the presentation of the Gatorade High School Athlete of the Year award. He was the only one of the five male finalists who is still in high school, and he didn't win; the award went to Greg Paulus of Syracuse , N.Y. , the national prep football Player of the Year who will play basketball at Duke this fall.

But Oden was excited nonetheless.

"It was great," he said. "I was surprised Peyton knew me. He was great. K.G. was really cool."

Manning, for one, was impressed with his fellow Hoosier.

"I was in the spotlight somewhat in high school, but nothing like what Greg has experienced," Manning said. "It looks like he has handled it very well."

When Manning was named the Gatorade Football Player of the Year in 1993, there was a ceremony in New Orleans and a presentation at halftime of a Saints game.

"It was nothing like this, where they fly everyone out to Los Angeles and you meet people like Kevin Garnett and Mia Hamm," he said.

"When you're in high school, you win district player of the year or Indy Star player of the year, but when you're a Gatorade High School Player of the Year, that puts in perspective what you've accomplished."

Oden joined NBA star LeBron James as the only juniors to be named Gatorade Player of the Year for boys basketball. He said he wasn't disappointed at not being named Male Athlete of the Year.

"I didn't want to have to go up there and present an award at the ESPYs," Oden said, referring to the winner's duty. "They gave it to a very deserving athlete."

The awards luncheon, emceed by ESPN personality Stuart Scott, included last year's No. 1 NBA draft pick Dwight Howard, WNBA star Lisa Leslie and others. The elaborate setup included ice sculptures surrounded by fresh flowers as table centerpieces. Oden met most of the stars.

Oden nearly met Manning last year when Oden was in Los Angeles after attending the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in Sacramento , Calif. He and teammate Mike Conley saw Manning in a crowd.

"From that point, I always wondered if he knew who I was," Oden said.

Oden shared the day with his parents. His dad, Greg Sr., flew in from Buffalo , N.Y. , and his mom, Zoe, came with him from Indianapolis . Gatorade provided first-class tickets for each of the athletes, but the parents had seats in coach. Oden had an empty seat next to him and brought his mother up to first class.

Garnett said he knew of Oden after reading several newspaper stories about him. He offered advice for handling stardom to the player who is considered a future NBA star with millions in endorsements only a few years away.

"You want to continue to do the things that got you to this point," Garnett said. "You have to have a sense of who you are."

Garnett, who jumped straight from a Chicago high school to the NBA in 1995, spent most of his lunch talking with the five male nominees, and said Oden made an impression.

"He reminds me a lot of myself," Garnett said. "He's quiet. It seems like he's an observer. He's very bright; you could tell that from the first couple of words. He's a very respectful young man. I was very impressed."

The nominees and their parents were flown to Los Angeles on Tuesday morning. They spent Tuesday bowling and at a mixer to meet each other.

After lunch, Oden's parents, who are divorced, watched as a public relations person guided their son through interview after interview. Soon after, the 7-foot center who is headed to Ohio State in the fall of 2006 was ushered to the ESPYs taping.

"It's great," Greg Oden Sr. said. "We have a lot to be proud of."