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August 11, 2013

Oden just wants to play basketball

Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod

INDIANAPOLIS - Greg Oden didn't even try to hide the smile.

Sitting between two trainers who were keys in his development as a high school star and have been the same in his lengthy rehabilitation after injuries derailed his basketball career and kept him out of the NBA the past three years, Oden sat in a black T-shirt and with both hands, pointed to the fact he was smiling.

The reason? He just heard Ralph Reiff, executive director of St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis say, "He is in full basketball mode."

Oden, who led Ohio State to the 2007 Final Four before being the No. 1 NBA draft pick, will report to the NBA champion Miami Heat on Monday. He signed a two-year contract for $2.2 million, with a player option for the second year.

The 7-foot center hasn't played since Dec. 5, 2009. He was 48 days shy of his 22nd birthday.

Now 25, Oden will be a reserve on a start-studded Heat team with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

"I want to play basketball," Oden said Saturday, his workouts at St. Vincent's complete. "After that last surgery in 2012, the doc said, 'Just be a regular person and go live life. If you're a regular person, you would be perfectly fine walking out of this place and not have to worry about any rehabilitation or anything.' I did and then two weeks later, I was stuck on NBA TV. That's what I watch every day.

"I just want to play basketball. That's my love. That's what I want to do."

That's where the journey began that led him to this point. Oden, who has played only 82 NBA games, doesn't know what to expect from his body. He feels good, but he knows his body has failed him before, leading to four knee surgeries.

"I'm 25 now. They don't want to say it, but I'll say it, I've got an old body," Oden said. "I understand. My body is not going to be where it was when I was 18 and able to run all day and jump over people. I can't do that now. It's just not going to happen. My knees, the wear and tear, the surgeries, I understand it now. But I'm going to play as hard as I can. I'm going to try to jump over people. I'm going to try to run all day if my body lets me."

Oden was back on the court playing games for the first time in a very long time on Thursday. He played four half-court, four-on-four games, first team to five baskets wins.

"I will never forget seeing Greg Thursday afternoon. It was the biggest smile I've ever seen on an athlete's face," said Reiff, whose center has trained Olympic gold medalists, NBA first-round draft picks, NFL players, Indianapolis 500 champions and a host of other high-level athletes.

When Oden gets on the court for Miami remains undetermined. He does expect to play, he just doesn't know when.

"It hasn't been talked about. They haven't said, 'We don't want you to play till April,' or anything like that," Oden said. "They say it on TV all the time. I listen just like everybody else. When I get there Monday and we start working, that's when it'll all come in."

After his second surgery in 2010, Oden wasn't sure where his life was going, much less his career. He slipped into self-admitted alcoholism. A player for whom NBA stardom had been projected since before he played a game at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis wasn't even playing basketball. And at that point, no one was certain if he ever would again.

"I'm going to lie. Two years ago when I was in Portland, it was some dark times for me. Then two weeks after my last surgery, before I started watching NBA TV all day, I was like, I just don't know what's going on," he said.

"What's going to happen? Which way is it going to go? Then two weeks later I was like, 'I'm coming back,'"

It was going to be another long road after a series of long roads - with no guarantee of success.

Before playing an NBA game, Oden had microfracture surgery on Sept. 14, 2007. More surgeries followed in November of 2010, Feb. 3, 2012 and Feb. 20, 2012.

After the final surgery - and his days of staring at NBA TV - Oden decided to get himself to a place where he felt comfortable, St. Vincent's. His time in Portland was marred by the injuries, constant comparisons to Sam Bowie and it was a situation that soured quickly.

At St. Vincent's, it was a different story.

"I've been working with them for so long, it was the best place for me," he said. "The past three years, when I felt the best, I was here. These are the people I trust. They've known me since I was little. I was always going to come back here and still am in the offseason."

Oden got to the point he had NBA options.

Miami, San Antonio, Dallas, New Orleans and others watched Oden work out in Indianapolis several times before he made his free agent decision.

"When coach Spoelstra was here from Miami and they did their evaluation and we saw Greg going through his movements, I said to myself, 'That's the Greg Oden we saw in 2007 when he was coming out of Ohio State and running up and down the floor," Reiff said. "He just looks great. He moves great. He's in full basketball mode. There is no more rehabilitation. We're beyond that and have been for quite some time."

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra and the Heat staff laid out the play Oden and his advisors felt was best for his health. And they're the defending champs. Oden and James traded texts before the decision.

"It was just a couple messages, 'I hope you come here,' and after it was, 'Congratulations. Be ready to work.' I am. That's why I'm going there Monday," Oden said.

He hasn't been able to play much, but his 82 games haven't been awful, especially considering he was injured before every hitting the court in the NBA. He's averaged 9.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and shot 58 percent over those 82 games.

"After three years of being out, I'm just going to go and do what I can and my body is going to do what it can," Oden said. "If somewhere along the line it says, 'No,' then it says, 'No.' But for me, I'm not even worried about that. It's just, go play and not even think about that. Think about playing basketball again.

"When I step on the court, if I play five minutes, and I step off the court and I'm healthy and I'm able to play the next game, that's what I'm worried about. For me, that would be the biggest smile on my face, be able to play a game, be able to finish a season."

Oden was in such a good mood Saturday, he wanted to tell the story of why he bought a house in Columbus, Ohio.

"I'm at the Marsh by my house, Miami is playing the Pacers, and everybody in there thought I was Roy Hibbert," Oden said. "That day I was like, 'I'm going to Columbus. I'm getting me a house.' I move that next week to Columbus, Ohio. You can't call me Roy Hibbert by my high school."

There was a point when things were still up in the air that St. Vincent's Reiff and Greg Moore, a strength and conditioning coach who has worked with Oden for years, flew to Portland. They offered support. And a plan.

The question was: Would Greg Oden buy into the plan?

"Greg had every reason to quit, every reason to stop doing what he wanted to do, but he didn't," Reiff said. "He had to do it himself. We were always encouraging. I know Thad Matta at Ohio State was always encouraging. He had a lot of people around him. But at the end of the day, in those lonely moments, you have to be the person who pulls your own bootstraps up and gets after it.

"It's a great human story. And it's not over."

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