Don’t miss Orioles players, John Means & Paul Fry, as they guest host at our Brews and O’s event!

EMPTY FEELING

The Baltimore Sun

TERRE HAUTE, Ind.-- --Today, just thinking about the prom photos makes Jimmy Smith laugh. His son and Greg Oden, all dressed up in white tuxedos with those handsome black hats, making exaggerated faces for the camera.

Even though Oden had moved away to Indianapolis before his eighth-grade year, he returned to town last May and attended senior prom at Terre Haute South High, where his best friend, Travis Smith, went to school.

The two had been friends since the fourth grade and in their final weeks of high school, they had a plan: Oden would someday soon become a professional basketball player and Smith a pro golfer.

"They had it all figured out," says Jimmy Smith.

Ten months later, Oden and his dream are all alone. Travis Smith, a freshman on the Ball State golf team, died in a car accident Jan. 27. Despite losing his close friend, Oden didn't miss a single one of his team's remaining games, pushing through the season - eventually carrying the Buckeyes to the Final Four - with the same calm, steady demeanor he had before. It was difficult for outsiders to tell how close he and Travis had been, or how profoundly Smith's death had affected the college superstar.

As the regular season progressed, Oden talked about Smith just once publicly, telling beat writers that "I keep a lot of stuff to myself."

"It's always been the two of them. Greg and Travis," says Jimmy Smith, who introduced Oden to basketball and coached him for four years. "You've got a 7-foot black kid and a 5-10 white kid. They're so different in appearance, but so alike inside, it's unbelievable."

The way Oden has quietly processed his best friend's death and the manner in which he has carried himself throughout his freshman campaign have made it impossible to view the basketball prodigy in the same lens as the blue-chippers before him.

Oden visits movie theaters alone. He deflects any credit and shies away from attention. Those closest to him say he barely talked about Smith's death.

"I don't know if he has a lot of what you'd call close friends," says Jimmy Smith. "The relationship him and Travis had, I'm not sure anyone really knows how Travis' death affected Greg. I don't know if Greg knows."

Man beyond his years

Person to person, from Terre Haute to Indianapolis to Columbus, Ohio, they all go to great lengths to describe how different Oden is - not just from other elite athletes, but from other people his age.

At Lawrence North High in Indianapolis, where Oden led his team to three state titles and twice won Indiana's Mr. Basketball award, Oden would spend his lunch hour eating in the athletics office with department secretary Joyce Einfalt and friends. Einfalt was eligible to retire after Oden's junior year, but for a couple of reasons, she delayed her retirement a year.

"I couldn't imagine missing his senior year," she says. "I wouldn't have done it, because we had too much fun. ... Most high school kids are so into impressing friends and peers. Not Greg. You always knew you had his attention."

Before the NBA instituted a rule restricting prep stars from skipping college, most of the basketball world assumed Oden would head straight to the pros. After all, what 18-year-old can't-miss prospect could resist the money and fame? Even though Oden told anyone who'd listen that he wanted to attend college, few seemed to understand and even fewer believed.

"He's so modest, he actually comes across as borderline dishonest," Seth Davis wrote on SI.com.

But that's just Oden, fitting into preconceived notions as well as he would size 6 sneakers. Mike Conley Sr. is Oden's former Amateur Athletic Union coach and the father of Ohio State's Mike Conley Jr., Oden's friend and teammate since the sixth grade. He says the increased attention and heightened expectations haven't changed Oden's personality a bit .

"It's easy as an elite athlete to walk around like the world owes you something. A lot of guys are like that," says Conley Sr., a two-time Olympic medalist in the triple jump. "Greg's always been humble and always seemed to appreciate the smaller things. I remember when he was 12 or 13, the team would stop and if we had a team meal or someone bought them dinner, he was always so appreciative of anything that's ever been done [for] him. Even if I'm just dropping him off at home it's 'Thank you, Mr. Conley.'"

Confidence is a delicate balancing act for young athletes and their coaches, but humility seems to have been a lesson instilled in Oden before he ever touched a basketball.

"I remember sitting him down," says Jack Keefer, Oden's coach at Lawrence North, "and I said, 'Greg, you can be one of those me-me-me guys.' You see them in the pros every day. 'Look at me, look at me.' Wear a headband, be different, braid your hair, anything that will make you stand out. Or you can be the guy that you are - because that's what I see - and deflect all the attention and throw it back in another way. That's the way he is. I didn't need to tell him because he's not naturally a me-me guy."

His selfless demeanor didn't always translate perfectly to basketball, though. By Oden's sophomore year, coaches had to institute a shot quota, threatening to bench him if he didn't attempt at least 15 field goals a game.

"We told him he was selfish for not shooting," says Jim Etherington, a Lawrence North assistant. "We'd be in practice and I'd started yelling. We never really yelled at him a lot because he always did what we wanted him to do. But I remember just screaming, 'You're selfish! You won't score! You aren't doing what you need to do to help this team!' The other guys were laughing, but Greg listened. We didn't have to say much after that."

A coach and his son

Oden was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and after his parents, Greg Sr. and Zoe Oden, divorced, he moved with his mother to Terre Haute. It was during this period that Jimmy Smith, a local police detective who'd played alongside Larry Bird at Indiana State two decades earlier, was putting together a summer basketball team for his son. He'd heard about a new kid in town - a 10-year-old - with pretty good size.

"At first, he was a couple of years behind the rest of these kids," Smith says. "It was like starting from scratch with a kindergartner or a first-grade kid. He didn't know how to dribble, didn't know the rules of the game. He'd get a rebound and decide he wanted to walk with it."

Over the next four years, Oden grew close with the Smith family and their son, Travis. He'd spend nights with the Smiths, the two boys crashing on cots set up in the basement.

"I always told Travis that the only time the basement was ever actually picked up was when Greg stayed there," says Jimmy Smith. "I always teased Travis that he needed to learn from Greg."

Even when Oden moved to Indianapolis and began playing for Conley's AAU team, he and the Smith family remained close. He'd visit frequently and talk with Travis on the phone almost daily. Travis continued playing basketball, but started really focusing on golf. He broke all of his high school's records and was named to the All-State team.

"Greg had told Travis that he was going to have to give him golf lessons because once he got to the NBA, he might have to go to one of these celebrity deals where he'd have to golf, like Charles Barkley and these guys," Jimmy Smith says. "So he'd need to know how to golf."

Last fall, Oden began school at Ohio State and Smith at Ball State. When Oden began playing his first college games, Travis was usually in the stands at the Schottenstein Center, making the 150-mile drive from Muncie.

"I remember the Indiana-Ohio State game, and I was up there talking to Zoe," Jimmy Smith says, "and I said, 'Are you happy in Indianapolis? If Greg goes to the NBA, are you going to stay?' She says, 'Ehh, I don't know. I might want to get out of Indianapolis, maybe go wherever Greg goes.' So I had a conversation with Greg a week or so later. 'I was talking to your mom and I think whenever you decide to go to the NBA, she might want to live wherever you are.' His first comment was, 'Well, she's not going to live with Travis and I.'"

Usually, Oden would leave tickets for Travis at will-call. But on Jan. 27, all four of Oden's tickets for the Michigan State-Ohio State game were spoken for by family members. Oden found out about 90 minutes before tip-off that his grandmother was ill and wouldn't be using her ticket. But it was too late to call Travis, whose school was 2 1/2 hours away.

It was about this same time that Travis had finished hitting some golf balls and was leaving the course. He and some friends were driving to watch the Ohio State game on television when a car coming in the opposite direction hit a curb and swerved into oncoming traffic. Travis was riding in the front passenger seat and the cars hit head-on. Travis was not wearing a seatbelt and died at the hospital. He was 19.

"Greg had told me that the reason they were such good friends is because he could tell Travis anything and they could talk about anything," Jimmy Smith says. "He couldn't do that with anyone else. That's the relationship they had."

Oden returned to Terre Haute and was a pallbearer at Travis' funeral. He played in a game that night for the Buckeyes, scoring nine points and pulling down six rebounds in Ohio State's win over Purdue. He didn't talk to reporters after the game, but the following day at practice he said Travis had been the one person who "cared about me the most."

"I know we were total opposites when you looked at us, but we both have big hearts," Oden was quoted as saying in the The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.

Rising with heavy heart

Oden has been driving his best friend's 2005 Chevrolet Avalanche ever since. He still calls and checks in on Smith's 16-year-old sister, Courtney, several times a week.

The subject has barely been broached since. Speaking yesterday in Atlanta, where the Buckeyes prepared for tonight's national semifinal game against Georgetown, Oden said losing his friend was difficult.

"It really bothered me because he was such a good friend to me," he said. "It was hard to think about. His parents just told me he would want me to go out there and keep on playing and do this in his honor."

Oden's play certainly hasn't suffered. As the season progressed, Ohio State kept climbing the rankings while its star player carefully guarded his emotions and dominated his opponents.

Teammate Jamar Butler was asked whether Oden ever gives hints that a big game might be coming. "I mean, you really can't tell from looking at him," he said. "He shows no expressions at all."

"Travis was the same way," says Jimmy Smith. "I remember Travis hitting a 65-foot shot to win a tournament when he was in seventh grade. Everyone else was jumping up and down and celebrating. You'd never know that Travis was the one who hit the shot. He was calm, cool and collected. That's Greg, too. If you can get him to clap his hands once in a while, well, that's something."

Oden wears the same face whether his team is winning or losing, his workmanlike attitude steady like a golfer's. Steady like Travis'. It has some NBA analysts questioning whether he has the drive to succeed at the next level, should he choose to leave school after one season.

Asked whether Oden has the same passion as other players, Keefer, who has coached high school basketball in Indiana for 34 years, said: "Probably not. But Greg has pride. He knows what he has to do and he knows his future is basketball, and that's important to him."

That might turn some teams off. But those who know Oden don't question his intellect, his ability or his future. That's for outsiders to do.

"I don't know if it's his aura or what, but there are some people who are just different, they're just destined for something great," says Einfalt, the retired athletics secretary at Lawrence North. "Greg is modest and would never admit this to himself and definitely not to anyone else, but that's him - he's destined for greatness."

This wasn't the way they'd planned it, the basketball player and the golfer. Oden moves forward alone now, living his part of a shared dream, protecting his emotions and safeguarding the memories of a best friend he lost too soon.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Heather A. Dinich, reporting from Atlanta, contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
52°