Anyway You Slice It, Greg Oden Is Huge

INDIANAPOLIS -- Three picked-over pizza boxes lay on the table, and three student managers for the Lawrence North High School basketball team engage in a fierce Xbox 360 battle on the television overhead. Seven feet of trouble then ducks through an adjacent doorway.

"What are y'all doing?" Greg Oden asks.

"Don't worry about it, Greg," a manager replies, an eye on the grub and an eye on the game.

It is already too late. One of Greg Oden 's kite-size hands snares a room-temperature slice of pepperoni. After a feigned look of disgust at the snack hoarders, he unfurls across three chairs for a chat with a visitor. The reigning national high school player of the year gets lots of visitors.

Now, though, answers come easier because others have narrowed questions into a neat rope line. In June, the NBA instituted an age minimum for entry. Thus, whatever tide-bucking Greg Oden 's desire to attend college seemed to be, in light of being the likely No. 1 pick in the June '06 NBA draft, the issue is now moot. Future Ohio State accounting major Greg Oden can eat his pilfered pizza in relative peace.

"Somebody told me it was just like every year, there has to be that special player," Greg Oden says. "You got LeBron [James], you got Josh Smith, you got Dwight Howard and then you got O.J. Mayo, a grade younger than me. You have to have somebody in my grade.

"I'll take the pressure, but I know I have a lot to improve on. I just want to work on my game and be the best player I can be because I know I'm nowhere on the list with those guys. Those guys are great. Me, I'm just an average player who's a 7-foot guy."

Now there's something for Greg Oden to work on in college: his sense of irony.

Finally relaxed

It is late in a Dec. 14 game against Arlington High broadcast on local television and Indianapolis ' ESPN radio affiliate. Two cutters, guarded well, move past Greg Oden in the high post so he dribbles, spins and--covering 10 feet in maybe a stride and a half--dunks two-handed.

Kneeling at the scorer's table, Arlington center James Brewer shakes his head.

"He does that when everybody's there," he says. "It's ridiculous."

Playing for the first time in six days--he cut his mouth two games earlier-- Greg Oden posts 23 points, 12 rebounds and nine blocks. The age minimum came in June, Greg Oden signed with Ohio State on Nov. 9, and observers believe relieving those pressure points freed the 7-footer to, you know, play basketball.

"It was terrible before he made the decision," Lawrence North Principal Lynn Lupold says. "All the anticipation, what he was going to do and where he was going to go. Now he's a kid who's still good and still getting attention, but he's going to Ohio State . That has been a positive."

Says Greg Oden 's best friend, fellow Ohio State signee Mike Conley Jr.: "It's a lot easier decision: go to a college, have fun for that year or however long he's there. It's just a lot easier on him. [He's] just focused on the state title and high school and being able to be a normal kid, for him."

The qualifier--"for him"--is superfluous inside the walls of Lawrence North. Four years of celebrity buildup has numbed Greg Oden 's peers. ESPN cameras followed him from class to class for half a day last year, but that's as glamorous as the hallways got.

"He's just Greg Oden," says Rachel Ehret, a Lawrence North track standout and Greg Oden friend. "Of course everyone knows him, but he's a good kid, he's very humble. . . Everyone likes him, and he's nice to everyone."

Such is Greg Oden 's philosophy on managing the gravitational pull of his stardom: Don't act like a rock star and people won't throw themselves at you on stage.

So he sometimes eats lunch alone in the athletic office. As a junior he was nominated for homecoming king, which carries with it two or three appearances. Greg Oden asked several times, in vain, to have his name withdrawn from the voting.

"I'm just a regular student," Greg Oden says. "My classmates, they treat me like that. Every now and then you get a couple of freshmen who act childish and immature. But everybody else, they're real cool, they treat me like a regular guy. Because that's what I am."

This is evident when the subject turns to movies. Then Greg Oden 's eyes shed their premature world-weariness and light up. His runaway favorite flicks: "American Pie 2" and "Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back."

And then there is the DVD collection, 50 or 60 deep. A recent unlikely purchase is "Sky High," a piece of fluff about a child attending a superhero high school.

"I don't know why I liked it," Greg Oden says. "But I liked it."

Man-child, indeed.

"Nowadays, everybody's growing up quicker than they're supposed to," Greg Oden says. "Instead of people skipping [steps], being thrown into that `man' stage, just develop, become a young man, and then you'll get to that `man' stage. I feel college will help me. I'm still an immature young guy, watching `Sky High.'"

All eyes on him

The doors to the Indianapolis Southport High gym open and heads swivel in unison away from the on-court action. Digital cameras and camera phones click away. Greg Oden walks up stairs, pulling eyes toward him all the way.

Later, he will skewer Proviso East for 31 points and 16 rebounds in the Circle City Classic on Dec. 17. Game MVP trophy in hand, he is torn away from groups of autograph seekers three times. No one is convinced what they're seeing is average.

"He's the best shot blocker I've seen since Bill Russell, that I have personally ever witnessed," Indianapolis North Central coach Doug Mitchell says. "He runs the floor like I've not seen many big men run. Throw anything to him, he's going to catch it. Just the laws of big men he defies. People talk about his offensive skills. Well, he's 18 years old. Just hang on a minute."

Greg Oden lived in an impatient universe for years. Then the very specter that haunted him--the NBA--provided some salvation with the minimum entry age.

That in mind, Greg Oden is asked if, as he falls asleep watching the Disney Channel, he ever considers what life would be like minus six or seven inches. A look of long-ago surrender filters from drowsy eyes through his wire-rimmed glasses.

"It doesn't matter to me," Greg Oden says. "This is all that I know. I really don't know anything else. Right now I'm just living my life and I'm happy."