NEW YORK – This wasn’t supposed to be him. The accolades and the awards, the nine-figure contract. Oh, sure, Mike Conley always had the potential to rank among the NBA’s elite. But if anyone was earmarked for it, it was Greg Oden, Conley’s AAU teammate, his high school teammate, his college teammate, a heavily hyped center prospect whose career was derailed because of injuries.
“It definitely wasn’t planned this way,” Conley told The Vertical. “Everyone will tell you, he is the guy who should be on the All-NBA teams, the All-Star appearances. I think he would have gone down as one of the best bigs of all time if he stayed healthy. It’s weird how things shaped out.”
Oden has resurfaced in recent weeks, on Ohio State’s campus, a 7-foot sophomore helping out Thad Matta’s staff as a student assistant on the side. At 28, he said last week that his playing days are over. He battled through a couple of stints in China last season but his injury-ravaged body never fully healed. Last summer, Oden called Conley; his body failing him and a child on the way, it was time to put basketball behind him.
“He understood his body and he understands his situation,” Conley said. “I think having a child opened his eyes. It made him understand that his main thing was his family. I don’t think he wants to risk not being able to be with his children, get down on his knees to play with them, walk around and run with them. It was the right time for all this to happen. I told him, ‘Do what you believe is best.’ I’m with him regardless.”
The incredulity of Oden’s downfall is still evident in Conley’s voice. This was Greg Oden. In middle school, Conley watched Oden overwhelm opponents on the AAU circuit. In high school in Indianapolis, Oden was the backbone of Lawrence North’s three straight state championship teams. At Ohio State, Oden emerged as the best pivot prospect since Shaquille O’Neal, a dominant defender likened to Bill Russell. He was drafted first overall in 2007 by Portland, but missed the 2007-08 season because of injury.
Together, they dreamed of the NBA — and the toys playing professionally would allow them to afford. For Conley, it was a suped-up Range Rover; for Oden, it was, Conley says, the world’s largest DVD collection. After a career-best season, the Grizzlies rewarded Conley with an NBA-record five-year, $153 million contract; Oden, meanwhile, is beginning the next phase of what has been a complicated life.
“It was tough seeing him go through all he did,” Conley said. “He’s a fighter though. He always stays motivated. He always tries to better himself. As his friend, I was trying to be with him along the way. It was always great to see him supporting me as well. He was always calling, texting, always trying to come to games. We always tried to stay as close as we could while he was going through that transition.”
Conley insists Oden is in a good place. His decision to stop playing has given him some peace. “He’s finally found some level ground,” Conley said. “A lot has changed for him and his outlook on things. He’s excited for his opportunities at Ohio State.”
Like many, Conley often wonders what could have been. Recently, Shane Battier recalled a Heat practice in 2014, when Oden, making what would be his final NBA comeback, went up against LeBron James in a four-on-four drill. For one day, Oden was the athletic, menacing Oden of old. Said Battier: “It was like this meeting of basketball gods at the rim. It was a clash of the titans. I’d never seen anything like it.”
In the preseason, Memphis played Philadelphia. It was Conley’s first look at Joel Embiid, the Sixers’ oft-injured center. Conley marveled at how fluidly Embiid moved, at how instinctively he played defensively. He could only come up with one comparison. “I just thought, ‘That looks like Greg,’ ” Conley said. “It’s an identical person. It was like watching what Greg was. You just know if he stayed in the league, he would have been a heck of a player.”
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