Empty Feeling

As Ohio State nears the pinnacle of college basketball, Greg Oden is weighed down by the death this season of his best friend

Ncaa Tournament

Men's Final Four

March 31, 2007|By RICK MAESE

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — 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.

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