HENDERSON, Nev. – There is this kid named Bill Walker, who stands 6-foot-6 and seemingly can jump over the Las Vegas Hilton. You'll know his name in a few years when he wins the NBA Slam Dunk contest as a rookie.
Right now, Walker is a junior-to-be in a Cincinnati high school, where his chief hobby seems to be throwing down violent dunks on some poor teenager who dares to guard him. He had been doing it all week here at the Reebok Big Time basketball tournament in suburban Vegas.
On Tuesday evening, in the championship game of the entire event, Walker got loose in the lane, flew three, four or more feet off the ground and was about to mesmerize a packed house with one of his patented highlight-reel slams.
But then Walker remembered who he was playing against, 7-1 Greg Oden, whom you would call the next Patrick Ewing except everyone who saw both play in high school says that it might be an insult … to Greg Oden.
Walker had a clear jam to the hoop, had the fans ready to erupt, had Oden so far out of the play he was unable to stretch one of his long, strong arms out and block the dunk, but he couldn't shake Oden's abilities from his memory. So he switched hands and, in boring fashion, laid the ball in, which in AAU ball means the basket hardly counts.
This story may not make complete sense until all these guys are in the NBA, but if you want to know how good Greg Oden really is, just remember that one day he made Bill Walker shy away from a dunk and shoot a safe, uncontested layup.
"If Greg Oden had come out [for the NBA draft], he would have gone before Andrew Bogut," said a Central Division player personnel director who can't officially comment due to NBA rules. "He would have gone No. 1 overall after his junior year."
Of high school.
Oden was named the MVP of the Big Time tournament, the most prestigious AAU-style event of the summer, for leading his Spiece Indy Heat team to consecutive championships for the first time in the tourney's history.
Oden simply is an incredible defensive player for his age. He blocks shots, grabs rebounds, intimidates around the basket and absolutely changes the way the game is played. Offensively, he scores mostly off dunks and easy post moves, but the reality is that there is no one in high school basketball who can physically guard him.
And there may not be anyone at the college level who can. For the first time since Kevin Garnett opted to jump straight to the pros, we are going to find out. Due to new NBA age limits, Oden will make Ohio State an instant national-title contender in 2006-07.
Due to his strong academics, strong maturity and even stronger family support system, Oden hardly seems to mind that he has to wait for an estimated $50 million in salary and endorsement money.
He certainly isn't plotting a lawsuit against the NBA or cursing the fact that if his natural talent was in music or acting or golf or just about any pursuit other than basketball, in which America holds its young phenoms to a different educational standard, he could be living the life of Vincent Chase and his entourage.
"You can't miss what you don't have," said Oden's mother, Zoe. "And we don't have anything."
But outside of money, there really isn't anything Oden doesn't have. A reasonable mean streak on the court is belied by a soft personality off it. His physical gifts are complemented by an interest in math. His budding stardom – he attended the ESPYs earlier this summer – is couched by his interest on the team.
The only person who doesn't think Oden is the No. 1 player in America is Greg Oden.
"I guess it is nice to hear, but I just go out and play. I don't think about it," Oden said. "I just want to make it in college."
Here is what Oden seems to think about: Hanging out with his friends – most notably fellow Ohio State signee Mike Conley Jr. – taking naps and watching movies. "Even here in Vegas, all he wants to do is watch movies in his room," Indy Heat coach Mike Conley Sr. said.
Oden basically is holding onto 17 as long as he can.
Here in Sin City, how did Oden celebrate capping a remarkable traveling basketball career that saw him win a national title every year but one since the sixth grade?
"Hopefully I get to ride [the roller coaster] at New York, New York," he smiled.
His coach just smiled at the request. If he can fit into the seat, Conley Sr. said, Oden could ride it all night.
"It is going to be nice for America to have Greg Oden," Conley Sr. said. "At the end of the day Greg Oden is going to help a lot of people in this country. He will be an icon you will want your kids to look up to."
Way, way up to.
- Greg Oden
- Bill Walker