ATLANTA – Beneath the brawn and the beard, Greg Oden, the hulking freshman of the Ohio State Buckeyes, had a little secret: He was terrified of a teammate two years older, and 10 inches and 70 pounds lighter. Jamar Butler barely needed to say "Boo," and he would've toppled Oden over.
"Butler had all these tattoos, I was so scared of him," he confessed Sunday.
Now, the smile started to creep across his lips, and that big laugh tumbled out of him. He doesn't need to tell you he's the goliath, the impenetrable force that's taken over the room. He's too cool, too confident. He can laugh at himself. He's this way at Ohio State at 19 years old, just like he would've been in the NBA this year.
As it turns out, Oden went the distance in his college basketball season with the Buckeyes, allowing America to see him until the final night of the season. It would've been wonderful for the world to get to see Oden in this tournament, but he's been on the bench with foul trouble, turning the tournament into a waste of time as far as his basketball development goes.
He is a smart, self-deprecating kid, a blend of self-assuredness and self-awareness. Oden didn't need college for college's sake. All these phonies on television telling you that the college experience molds character, matures them, is a selling of a fraudulent establishment line.
Oden is a good kid because of the way his mother and mentors raised him, not because he's a cog in Ohio State's $100 million athletic department machinery. He was an honors student in high school. When MTV and ESPN wanted to construct reality shows around him, his high school AD turned them down. Maxim wanted to do a sit down and officials wouldn't allow it.
For now, he did Ohio State a favor, graced campus, and brought along his childhood running buddies, Mike Conley, Jr. and Daquan Cook. He's done far more for Ohio State, than Ohio State will ever do for him. The Buckeyes get a shot at the national title Monday at the Georgia Dome, because NBA commissioner David Stern told Oden that he had to go to college for a year.
He doesn't need college to become a better person, or develop character. It is no coincidence that Dwight Howard is Oden's favorite player in the NBA. He had the opportunity that Oden never did, to go prom to the pros. Someone asked him whether he believed that Howard would be a better player now had he gone to college for a year and Oden refused to validate the premise.
"Does it really matter?" he said. "In three years, he's an NBA All-Star."
College basketball has turned into a restrictive place for Oden, especially in the tournament. Officials are constantly saddling him with foul trouble, unsure what to do with his immensity. He's been buried on the bench in the tournament, watching his teammates hold on for dear life with him out of the game.
"It just seems they call more ticky-tack fouls than they did in the regular season," Oden said.
Florida has a lot of length and size too, and Oden's hoping that it changes the perspective of the officials.
"They have a bunch of big guys who also like to bang around," he said. "They play tough and aggressive like us so I think this will be an evenly called game."
This has been a source of irritation for Oden. Because he is so much bigger, so much stronger, college basketball doesn't know what to do with him. After beating No. 16 seed Central Connecticut, Oden has averaged just under 19 minutes a game in the tournament. Perhaps there's a lesson to learn about perseverance and patience. But mostly, March had done far more for his legacy than his development. Yet this is April now and Oden has a chance to play for history.
He doesn't give you the false bravado that he wanted to play Florida again, because, "They have a chance of blowing us out," Oden said. He was brutally truthful, insisting that the challenge was "not just letting them punk you at every position."
However this ends, Oden leaves behind a brief, distinguished legacy in college basketball. He is nobody's clown on the court, confessing that he has little use for Joakim Noah's foolery on the floor.
"I think my mom wouldn't like me acting like that," he said. "I was always taught that you don't need to be showy and flashy."
Before he ever arrived at Ohio State, Greg Oden had learned the lessons of humility and grace that college never would've taught him. So far in the tournament, the officials haven't known what to do with him. Ohio State's coach Thad Matta doesn't always use him the way he should on offense. One more game and Oden's gone, anyway. Here today, gone tomorrow. He did his time.
- Greg Oden