This is a story from ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue 2017, on newsstands on July 7. Subscribe today!
GREG ODEN HAS a recurring dream. He’s playing defense for the Trail Blazers. He blocks a shot and passes to the outlet and sprints downcourt, light and fast and strong. He’s three years removed from his last NBA appearance now, trying to build a new life out of the lows of his last one, but in the dream he can still play. He can still run. He glides to the paint, catches a return pass and dunks. Coast-to-coast. The crowd explodes. He feels a sweet rush of adrenaline. Fans love him, and he loves himself — all joy and no shame.
ODEN IS IN the lobby of the academic support center on the Ohio State campus on a late-May morning, registering for classes to finish the degree he started a decade ago. He lived in a dorm a block away at the time. He remembers returning to Columbus after a Final Four run ended in a national championship loss to Florida in 2007. Most assumed he would leave for the NBA, but he came back to go to class. “I never planned on leaving,” he says. Students waited for him outside his dorm. Cars stopped on the street to stare. It took him 45 minutes to walk one block. Oden called his coach, Thad Matta, and said, “I can’t get to class.” A few weeks later, Oden announced that he would leave for the draft, one of many decisions in his life that wasn’t really his to make. Now, 10 years, three major knee surgeries and a failed career later, Oden arrives at the academic support center unnoticed and unbothered, his burden no longer walking to this building but rather walking up it.
THREE FLIGHTS OF stairs. That’s what he’s looking at to reach his adviser’s office. At 29, Oden can’t jump like he used to — he can’t leap at all off his right leg — but he swallows half a flight of stairs in his first step. He gently grunts. His body is hurting and scarred, but he actually looks young. It used to be the opposite. In high school, the deep creases near his eyes led some to suspect he was older than his verified age. Even then, with a seemingly limitless future, he struggled under the pressure placed upon him by his body, by what it seemed capable of, by the way it dictated to him. He was going to play basketball. He was going to be a superstar. He was going to take care of his family. He was going to be a Hall of Famer.
The pressures grew when his body failed him. Over the course of a decade, he developed a dependence on painkillers and alcohol to sleep, and he was arrested on domestic violence charges. Oden is now a student again, with a fiancée and 9-month-old daughter, still processing being at the center of a mania and disappointment to which few American athletes can relate. He reaches the top of the first flight of stairs at the academic support center, breathing too hard for the distance, and says, “Dead lifts are catching up to me!”
THE DAY BEFORE registering for classes, Oden is in the weight room at the Jerome Schottenstein Center on campus, where he once played and now helps the basketball team as a student assistant coach. He places just two 45-pound weights on a bar — “I’ve got nothing to prove,” he jokes with a shrug — and deadlifts it, bending and straightening his fragile knees. In between sets, he describes himself as the “biggest bust in NBA history,” as if saying it out loud will give him some kind of dominion over the pain of it. Before the NBA, Oden never had a serious knee injury. Not at Sarah Scott Middle School in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he first worked hard at basketball. Not at Lawrence North in Indianapolis, where he won three consecutive championships and was a two-time Parade All-American. And not during his single season at Ohio State, where he was a first-team All-American.
Two lifts into another set, something is off.
“Coach!” Oden hollers, dropping the bar and easing himself to the ground until he lies flat on his back. Dave Richardson, Ohio State basketball’s longtime strength coach, runs out of his gym office. He crouches down and lifts Oden’s right leg, gently shaking his foot, then pulling hard as if he were tugging a rope, his face reddening, Oden wincing for almost a minute before they both feel a pop of relief.
Still sweating, Oden explains that when he was in sixth grade, he grew so volcanically — 6 inches in less than a year — that his right hip detached from its socket. After surgery to place two pins in the joint, Oden enjoyed swinging his gangly legs on crutches down the hallways at school. But though the procedure worked, it left his right leg 8 millimeters shorter than his left. He walked with a bit of a dip, leaving people to assume that he was strutting, acting hard. Over time, his body adjusted, but the hip required the occasional heavy tug when it jammed.
After Oden was drafted first overall by the Trail Blazers in 2007, one pick ahead of Kevin Durant, the team outfitted him with a special orthotic insert to even his legs. “Three weeks later, I’m in surgery,” he says. Oden can’t prove that the orthotic is the sole reason his body collapsed in the NBA. The wheels were in motion for his body to fall apart the moment he hit his first growth spurt on the way to 7 feet. Everything in his life since has been governed by it.
“And now I’m back here,” he says at the gym, “trying to figure it all out.”