Greg Oden Jr., A Rising Son, So Far Away

BUFFALO , N.Y. -- Greg Oden Sr. pokes at his food in a blue-collar restaurant just outside the city limits, struggling to describe what a divorce and a 500-mile gap can do to the relationship between a father and son. Lament is as clear in his eyes as in his words.

He recalls the good times. His boys racing on the sidewalk in front of the plumbing store where he once worked. Greg Oden Jr. and his cousin playing the Super Mario Brothers video game. Then Greg Oden Sr. speaks of last March, and his voice drops. Hoping to see Greg Oden Jr. lead Lawrence North High School to a second consecutive Indiana state basketball championship, the proud father set out on the eight-hour drive only to have his van break down in Cleveland . He called a tow truck, rode a bus back home and later watched his son's heroics, once again, on videotape.

"When they (Greg Oden Jr. and his brother, Anthony) started basketball, I couldn't see them as much," Greg Oden Sr. said softly. "I used to have them for summers and entire Christmas breaks because I never wanted them to think I forgot about them."

On its face, the Odens' story appears all too familiar. Many of this country's elite basketball players, as countless news stories have documented, grew up without their father around. But each family's story is complex and unique, and this one is at once brighter and more painful, or differently painful, than the common perception.

For one thing, Greg Oden Jr. wasn't abandoned by his father, as was the case with many basketball stars. Greg Oden Sr. and Zoe Oden remain amicable in their divorce, which came when Greg Oden Jr., 17, and Anthony, 16, were in elementary school, and all say Greg Oden Sr. stays as close as possible with his sons.

Yet such closeness while so far apart brings its own special hurt.

Greg Oden Sr., a 42-year-old plumbing and heating contractor with little free time for trips to Indianapolis , has had to watch from afar as his son has become the most talked about high school basketball big man in a generation.

Greg Oden Jr., a high school senior, has had to grow through all the traps and trappings of fame -- not to mention adolescence -- without the traditional guiding male hand.

"I hate it," Greg Oden Sr. said. "Even the discipline. I hate to discipline over the phone. It's hard to chastise your kids over the phone. "I didn't want (Zoe) to leave ( Buffalo ), but it's kind of worked out. The programs and stuff at school are a lot better in Indy."

Greg Oden Jr. visits his father when time allows, but that's a lot less often than it used to be. The high school basketball season runs through the Christmas break, and for the past several years his summer team has played through the end of July, traveling all over the country. He misses many things, even little ones, especially Saturday nights, when his dad would bring pizza home and the family would watch SNICK, Nickelodeon's Saturday night programming. "It was two hours of that," Greg Oden Jr. said. "Pizza and Nickelodeon." After this past summer season ended, Greg Oden Jr. spent a week with his father, during which time he got a tattoo on his left shoulder. It says, "Always There."

"It means always there for my brother," he said of Anthony. "He's always having problems with my mom. "Because I really don't talk a lot when I'm at home, sometimes I think he doesn't think anybody's there for him because all he's got is my mom. I want him to know I'm always there for him. All he has to do is ask." Greg Oden Jr. said he understands Anthony's feelings. He said he used to have them. "I was just angry at my mom," Greg Oden Jr. said. "I don't know if it was because they broke up, but I used to argue with my mom a lot, just over little things." Zoe Oden acknowledged that growing up without a father is difficult for a young man. "I'm sure it is," she said Monday night after a 12-hour shift as a rehabilitation technician at a local hospital. "But I think it's mostly because of the male figure that's not present. You try and do it all. But I think Greg's the kind of kid, he tries not to be a problem."

Perils of no father

Greg Oden Sr. and Zoe Oden separated in 1996, after which Zoe moved with the boys to Terre Haute , Ind. , where her father lived. During Greg Oden Jr.'s eighth-grade year, Zoe moved the family again, to Indianapolis .

If, as so many expect, Greg Oden Jr. goes on to NBA stardom, coming from a fatherless home would hardly be unusual. No official studies have been done on the family backgrounds of NBA players, but research conducted by The Star found that eight of the 12-U.S. born members of last year's 15-player All-NBA team came from single-parent homes. In 1995, when there were far fewer foreign players in the league, the Toronto Star reported that 23 of the 30 NBA All-Stars grew up without a father. Big-name examples abound. LeBron James, who three years ago received even more fanfare in high school than Oden receives now, grew up not knowing his father. The fathers of Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson and Ben Wallace all left their families when the boys were very young. Some NBA stars speak of distant relationships; others don't like to talk about it. Last fall the Indiana Pacers' Jermaine O'Neal told The Star that he has no connection with his father, who abandoned the family before Jermaine was born. Shaquille O'Neal went so far as to write a rap song called "Biological Didn't Bother" about his real father: "I want to dedicate this song to (stepfather) Phillip Arthur Harrison, 'cause he was the one who took me from a boy to a man. 'Cause as far as I'm concerned, he is my father, 'cause my biological didn't bother," the three-time Most Valuable Player of the NBA Finals wrote.

Part of this no doubt reflects a societal trend. Black players constitute nearly 80 percent of the NBA and, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, black children are almost three times as likely as white children to be raised by mothers only (50.4 percent of children under 18 for blacks, compared to 18.0 percent for whites, according to 2004 statistics).

But some sociologists and sports researchers wonder if there's more to it, if kids who grow up in a fatherless home are more likely to turn to sports to validate their masculinity, or to substitute for feelings of inadequacy.

Both ideas are espoused by Varda Burstyn, a Canadian author who wrote about the role of men in boys' lives in her acclaimed book "The Rites of Men."

"It's very important for boys to have men in their lives," Burstyn said in an interview with The Star. "What happens when men are absent, boys have to construct an idea of men based not on what men are really like. That's where fantasy heroes become more powerful." The problem with turning to sports, she said, is so few athletes make it professionally. "Quite a few young athletes go to university on scholarship and get a very poor education," Burstyn said. "Sport training is not a full training for life. That's the big issue." Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University 's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, notes that on the positive side, sports can play an affirming role fatherless kids so often need. "When a young person grows up with a father not in his life because the father chose not be involved, that can be debilitating," Roby said. "You start to ask, 'Is it my fault?' If the child is not old enough, he can start to internalize: 'I'm not worthy of his affection, so I must not be much of anything.' "When you start to have success in athletics and get the adulation and praise that follows, that becomes quite an addiction. It gets you feeling better about yourself -- 'Maybe I am worthy.' That's why it may fuel that passion and drive to be great." Others point out graver concerns, beyond sports. Research has shown that about 70 percent of long-term prison inmates came from fatherless homes, and that such individuals are far more likely to have children out of wedlock, drop out of high school or be idle (out of school and out of work) than adults who were raised in two-parent homes. Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, who has five children, is involved in All Pro Dad, a program that advises fathers on their role in parenting. He has seen first-hand the problems that come to young men who grow up without a father.

"You really don't know how to grow up. You don't know what your next step is," said Dungy, who often talks of the great influence his late father, Wilbur, had on his life. "You have to get that from somewhere. You have to follow someone, and, unfortunately, many times, guys in that situation will follow older kids in the street who are in the same boat, who don't have that guy either. "So many times, it's someone who doesn't know where he's going leading other people who don't know where they're going."

'Relationship is real'

Greg Oden Jr. has been lucky in that regard. He and his father have a good relationship, one that extends far beyond basketball. Greg Oden Sr. said that when Greg Oden Jr. comes to visit, he often wants to hang out on the couch, away from everything. "Everybody wants to show him off, but I don't do that," Greg Oden Sr. said. "If he wants to lay there, I make sure he has cable to watch and food to eat." That seems a far cry from James' mother, Gloria, who was known for wearing a jersey with "LeBron's Mom" on it and shouting "We going to the bank," when James was in high school. In fact, the Odens don't talk basketball that much. For one thing, at 6-foot-3, Greg Oden Sr. is not exactly the ideal teacher for a 7-footer some are calling the best center prospect since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Greg Oden Sr. didn't even play high school sports, didn't have time. At age 12, he started working part-time at a skating rink. At 15, he worked every day after school at a plumbing store, which became his full-time job after graduation. Like Greg Oden Jr., he is quiet, not given to excesses. One of his favorite haunts is Alton 's Family Restaurant, a non-descript place near the suburbs where the top sirloin is $11.

"You are who raised you. I've never been into entourages and stuff, and I know Zoe hasn't either," Greg Oden Sr. said as he ate a Greek steak sandwich, still dressed in the denim shirt he wore to work that day. "That's why I understand when he comes here and doesn't want to be bothered."

Other male role models

Greg Oden Jr. has had a number of male influences in his life, including his AAU coaches, first Jimmy Smith of the Terre Haute Boys and Girls Club and more recently Mike Conley in Indianapolis . Greg Oden Jr. is best friends with Mike Conley Jr., Lawrence North's point guard. Both have made oral commitments to play at Ohio State in the fall of 2006.

Greg Oden Jr. has become especially close with the Conleys. Beginning early in high school, he'd stop by their house simply to watch TV or take a nap. "They were just there. They were always there, just being the kind of people they are," Greg Oden Jr. said of Smith and Conley Sr. "They helped me see they were the kind of people I wanted to be, good family men, making a living, being happy." Greg Oden Sr. acknowledged those who have helped his son last summer during a banquet at Lawrence North. "I thanked everybody because I can't be there all the time," said Greg Oden Sr., who made it to Indianapolis for two games last season. "He has a lot of people that care about him, which makes a lot of difference."

One factor in the family dynamic will soon change, and in a big way. Regardless of when Greg Oden Jr. opts for the NBA draft -- he'll become eligible after his freshman year in college -- he's likely to get a multimillion-dollar contract. Throw in a possible shoe deal worth even more, and it's a jump to riches hard to imagine for anyone, and one that could potentially be fraught with conflict for a family affected by divorce. Yet none of the Odens expect the money to change anything fundamental. "I know my family," Greg Oden Jr. said. "I know who I know. If I make it, I know who I know. If I don't know somebody, there's no reason to help them. "My mom and dad work hard. . . . I see that and I wish I could help." Said Greg Oden Sr.: "Our relationship is real. It's no fake. He's down to earth, and I'm down to earth. We'd never have a falling out over money."