Greg Oden is one of only 73 people in the world who know what it feels like to be the number-one pick in the NBA draft.
He’s also a two-time recipient of the Gatorade Player of the Year award and an All-American who helped lead Ohio State to the National Championship game, where they finished second, in 2007. Oden, who was 19 at the time, went on to the NBA draft and was selected as the number-one pick by the Portland Trail Blazers.
What happened after that, however, changed the course of Oden’s life for good. His story is one of perseverance, perspective and changing directions.
It was a joy to interview Oden during my annual Thermostat Cultures Live event in 2019. Here are highlights from our conversation about his career, his struggles and where he is today.
Tell us about Greg Oden as a child.
I was born in Buffalo, New York. All of my family’s there. Third grade come around, my mom wakes me and my brother up in the middle of the night. We hop on the Greyhound, and next thing I know, I’m in Terre Haute, Indiana—Larry Bird country. It was eye-opening, different, but it was fun getting to know that part of the family I hadn’t had a chance to spend time with. Me and my brother adapted quickly. I feel like I’m a Midwest guy, that’s why I live here now. Through all that, my mom’s working two jobs, just trying to provide for us in a new state. I grew up in Boys & Girls Club. That’s all I did. I would just go there every day. That was our after school thing. I was on the court, and when you start doing something every day, you kind of get good at it. I guess that’s how I started playing basketball.
And when was it that you realized I’m pretty good at this?
I started playing in the fourth grade. I didn’t get good until the seventh grade. My first basket was for the other team. I was so terrible—I never got the ball. But at the end of fifth grade, I was 6 feet tall. Sixth grade, I was 6 foot 6. Seventh grade I was 6 foot 7. They said, “Dude, you should try to dunk the ball.” I remember when I first dunked in a game, it was like something that just went off in my head. I thought, This is fun. Just keep on doing this over and over—something might come of it.
You get to college at Ohio State, make it to the national championship. What was it about the culture of that team that made it successful?
I’ll start with the characters on that team. Mike Conley, who was so unselfish and a 13-year pro in the NBA now playing for the Utah Jazz. Everybody says it was me, but when you look back on it, it was him. He made me look good. You got Daequan Cook, who at that time was one of the greatest scorers we had seen in the Midwest. We had Ron Lewis, who hit that shot against Xavier to take us to the next round. He was the star on that team, and he put it on himself to take a backseat throughout the year and let me shine a little bit. You had Jamar Butler, who was the workhorse of that team. He was the fight. He was the starting point guard, and he had to take a backseat to Mike Conley, but he was the hardest worker, the best defender on that team. We had Ivan Harris, who was the McDonald’s All American before me and Mike came, but he was the fun of that team. He was the one that glued everybody together. We had Coach Matta, who was the reason we came to Ohio State. His energy when he talked to you, he could connect with you. Before the national championship game, we’re all nervous. He turns off the lights, he turns on the TV and plays the scene at the end of “Wedding Crashers,” with Will Ferrell’s speech—that was [Matta’s] speech. He turned it off, and said, “All right fellas, go out and play.” We were all so uptight, so nervous. So we said, “Oh, OK.”
There was talent on that team, but a culture was created with a goal that was bigger than winning, right?
Yes. I don’t think we even did it with the national championship in mind. We did it because we wanted to play together and be the best team that we could be. And we just knew we were friends. I tried to get along with everybody on that team. Somehow we all built a relationship, and toward the end of that season, what was best for that team, we were all willing to do.
So then you get to draft day, and they call your name as the number-one pick. What happens?
It was a whirlwind. I had my whole family at this table. They had told us [when our name is called] to hug the person to the right and left, and that was my mom and dad. I’m the first one going up, and I don’t want to mess up anything. So that’s what I’ll do. Everybody else that went up after me hugged everybody around the table. I didn’t go hug my grandmother or brother. When I watch that, I feel so bad. So I’m trying to please everybody from the start. I go up there, it was David Stern, shook his hand, went right back to do interviews. I was the first one to do interviews, and I was the last one to leave. As soon as I got done, they said I had an hour to catch a plane. I had my whole entire family there. I spent no time with my family the whole time we were there. I didn’t get a chance to talk to my family, to take a deep breath and just enjoy myself in New York because I was doing all of these media engagements, media training, things for Junior NBA, meeting a whole bunch of people. An hour later, I was on a private plane on the way to Portland, Ore., so I really had no time in New York to do anything, even just have some time with my thoughts.
You arrived in Portland to a big parade. What were you feeling at the time?
I’m feeling like I wish I would’ve known—I wish I would’ve worn something better! I had on jeans and t-shirt. [laughing] I don’t know what I was feeling. It was so much just thrown at me in that moment. When I think about it, it was fun, but it was so much that I had no thoughts. I’m looking at everybody, but I’m just blind. I don’t know how to process it. Two months ago, I was just going to class and enjoying myself. This was not too long ago. Then I’m looking up, and it’s a whole city in Downtown Portland and they’re looking at me like, You’re going to change our city. What do you say at 19 when you don’t even know how to handle a checkbook or most normal things at that age?
So then you go into what you think is a minor preventative surgery on your knee, and while you’re under, they notice some others things and make some decisions to do a microfracture surgery that puts you out for the year. What happened when you came out of that surgery?
You have to think, I’m the number-one draft pick. I’m ready to dominate like all of them before me, the Dwight Howards, the LeBrons. This is going to be my year. I wake up to, You’re sitting out for the whole entire year. Not too long ago, we had this parade. I’m supposed to save this city. I had all of these expectations for myself. What do you do now? Now you’re telling me I have to lay on a bed for eight weeks in a machine just moving my leg? I was literally bedridden eight hours of the day for eight weeks from the microfracture. I’m 19, I didn’t get that much older, so how do you handle all of that pressure? For me, I put so much pressure on myself. I was expected to do this thing because this is all I’ve done, from all my accolades in high school when I’m out there on the court. I’m dominating, I’m winning, I’m making it to national championships and state championships. All of a sudden, for that to be taken away from me, and it’s the first time I’m actually not playing basketball since the fourth grade, it was hard to grasp, and I didn’t know how to handle it.
How many total surgeries did you end up having?
Eight surgeries altogether. I was in Portland for five years. In a span of three years, I had four knee surgeries.
As you’re rehabbing and trying to make sense of this emotionally and stay resilient, how did you begin to cope with that?
Here goes the real. I didn’t know how to cope with it. All I knew was that I was 19, 20. I had a lot of money. I had access to a lot of things. You’re in a small city like Portland, and you’re just trying to go to a club with your teammates but the whole city knows who you are and how old you are. I wasn’t going out. I was at home. My uncle could go get me a bottle of booze. I could have weed. I wasn’t getting drug tested because I wasn’t playing. Then I had all these pills. I mean, it came to a point where this what it took for me to go to sleep: I’d have to be drunk. I’d take two Vicodin, two Percocet, two Advil PMs, two Benadryl—and that was just to go to sleep for like four hours. When I look at it, I was just numb. I was numbing my body, but then I also didn’t know how to handle this situation. I was always playing and winning. Now, I’m dealing with this loss, and I didn’t know how to handle my thoughts, so I was just numbing my mind up as well. It got to the point where I was trying to lose weight because I wasn’t playing. I became bulimic for at least eight months. I felt like there was nobody I could talk to. So all of these decisions that were made, I didn’t understand what I was doing. I was 19. I had no idea. I wasn’t listening to people, I wasn’t going to a therapist, and I thought I was hiding everything.
When did hit the point where you realized something needed to change?
After going through all of that, I got cut from Portland, so I was home for a whole year doing the same thing, but I was rehabbing. I finally got my body to where I could play again. I signed with the Miami Heat LeBron’s last year there. We made it to the finals. We lost to the Spurs, but I’m in the NBA now. I made it to the finals. I made it a couple wins away from the top of basketball. I thought I was there. I was ready. I was going to get my ring and fit it to my middle finger just in case anybody said anything to me. You play into June/July if you go to the finals, and you’re trying to get started at training camp in September/October. So I’ve got about a month to relax. I’m just partying, drinking, with multiple women. And I had a girlfriend at the time, and I remember we were at my mom’s house in Indianapolis, and I had like 10 boilermakers [a beer with a shot of whiskey]. Throughout the years, I had listened to nothing but negative stuff—negative rap music, disrespecting women. This is how I’m talking in my head when I’m by myself. When I was with the Heat, I didn’t want to mess that up. [I thought] if I just played the straight and narrow and kept to my own demons, I won’t mess it up on the court. [After the season,] two weeks went by where I’m just getting so messed up. My girlfriend and I got into this argument. I blacked out through the argument. I did what my mind went to, the negative thing. I got arrested, domestic violence, at my mom’s house, which makes it even worse. When I was in that jail cell, just standing up trying to stretch, and I knew that the TV that I could not see was on ESPN… and everybody’s eyes would just look at me. That’s when I knew that I had hit rock bottom.
You then had to shift your thinking from a reactionary thermometer mode to proactive thermostat mode. So what did you do to shift your mindset?
One day, I was having a tough day. I was crying, I was drinking. Coach Matta called me, randomly. We had a long conversation, about 20 minutes. And he was like, “Greg, just come to practice.” I came, and then I came the next day. Next thing I know, I was going to every practice. That summer came around, and some guy reached out to me about the degree completion program at Ohio State. I had nothing else going on, so I enrolled in that and started taking classes. Then I went full time. And then I was helping out the basketball team. Before, all I knew was you graduate high school, go to college, graduate college, get a job, start a family. But in college, I went somewhere else. But when I got back in that line, it gave me a schedule, it kept me around basketball, which I loved, which was the thing that made me feel sane, always. It gave me a purpose. And I’m the kind of guy where if I have to decide, I struggle a little bit. To have that schedule, classes and to be around basketball, it was something for me to look forward to, so I wasn’t going down that negative path anymore. I graduated college this past May.
I’ve observed this shift in you where you’re visioning for the life you want. Talk about the values you’re pursuing for that life.
I have a family now. I’ve been married two years, and our daughter is 3. I have to own my past because one day, and probably sooner than later, I’m going to have to have this conversation with my daughter about what happened to me, this domestic violence situation. And I mean, I’m scared of it, but it’s part of my life, and I did it. The one thing I’m starting to do is own my past. And by owning my past, I feel comfortable with not making the same mistakes that I used to do. Now, I think about what’s best for my family first. When something comes up, I’m not going to go back to hiding and just getting drunk and, you know, isolating myself from the problem. I’m going to deal with it head on. How am I going to make it positive? Instead of looking at everything as a negative, how can I look at it and say, Well, OK, this might hurt for second, but this is going to be good for me in the long run? I can’t hide, as much as I’ve tried my whole life, you see a 7-foot guy, everybody sees me. How can I make it a positive when you see me? I don’t want to come in bringing negative energy. I’m too big for all of that. I fill up a room anyway, so I might as well make it positive, put a smile on somebody’s face. And when I started thinking like that—put my family first, bring positivity to everybody—my decisions when things come up, because they always do, have been better.
Inspired by Oden’s story? Subscribe to The Thermostat to hear our full conversation in an episode coming soon!