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Greg Oden’s Long Walk Home

Basketball gave Greg Oden everything. Then took it all away. No one would blame the former no. 1 pick for walking away from a game that brought him so much pain, but Oden simply can’t quit basketball. He still, miraculously, loves it. Now he’s back home again in Indiana, searching for purpose on the sidelines at Butler.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Greg Oden is early. Earlier than most of the players he’s about to coach. He steps out of his Denali on this bright, windy February morning in Indianapolis and lumbers into Hinkle Fieldhouse.

Shootaround at Butler University’s historic basketball arena doesn’t start for another 45 minutes, but Oden isn’t wasting a second. He takes a seat at the edge of the scorer’s table and studies the practice plan, jotting down notes. Soon, players file in, and Oden breaks out into a giant, jubilant smile, almost humming with excitement, as if the game in five hours is nearing tipoff.

He slips a tiny red mesh jersey over his gray hoodie, which looks like a baby’s bib on his 7-foot frame, barely covering the top of his chest. But he isn’t the least bit bothered; he’s in his element. He joins the scout team on the court, whispering bits of advice to players between sets. He throws down a dunk, soft and clean, offering up a glorious glimmer of the player everyone in this gym, in this city, remembers him to be.

Back then, when he starred at Lawrence North High School, just 20 minutes from Butler’s campus, he was seen as the NBA’s next great big man. He led Lawrence North to a 103-7 record over four years and three consecutive Class 4A state titles. He was the Gatorade National Player of the Year in 2005 and 2006. And in a state like Indiana, where basketball transforms mortals into gods, Oden became a massive celebrity. The New York Times called him a “once-in-a-basketball-generation center,” mentioning his name next to Bill Russell’s. He went on to lead Ohio State to the national championship game as a freshman, 16 years ago this month.

But Oden is mostly known for what came next: After being selected no. 1 overall in the 2007 NBA draft over Kevin Durant, he suffered debilitating knee injuries that prevented him from living up to the Herculean expectations set for him. For years, he carried a burden so heavy it nearly crushed him. Cruel, dehumanizing comments have followed him since: namely that he’s the biggest bust in NBA history.

That narrative, that four-letter word, haunted him for a long time. It hurt to hear. It hurt to explain. But that word doesn’t capture the spirit of his struggle, his journey, his resilience, his joy, and, most importantly, where his path has taken him today: He’s finding new purpose as a coach. He’s wrapping up his first season as Butler’s director of basketball operations. And he’s doing it alongside his former Ohio State coach, Thad Matta, who is now at the helm of Butler’s program: a man who never gave up on Oden, even when many did.

Oden could have given up basketball. He could have gotten a regular job that had nothing to do with the game. But that peach-dotted leather ball kept tugging at him, kept reminding him of the deepest love he’s ever known, even as it tried to break his heart again and again. Because as long as he can remember, basketball wasn’t just something he did. It was him.

Hired last April, Oden now dreams of becoming a head coach someday. “It’s fun. It’s hard. But I really do enjoy it,” he says. He beams when thinking about the future: how excited he is for this summer, when he’ll get to spend more individual time working out with players. He thinks about what it would be like to run his own program one day, what his own coaching philosophy will ultimately be. “I really think I can do this.”

In a way, he’s a rookie all over again, paying his dues. Admittedly, with slightly less pressure and in more anonymity. Without the cameras, without the hype, he is left with the untarnished love he has had for basketball since he was a kid, scoring his first bucket by grabbing the opponent’s rebound out of the air and putting it right back up in their basket.

He spends hours breaking down game film and pulling clips of opponents for Butler’s other coaches. He embraces the grind. “I know I’ve got a lot to learn, and I’m going to keep working at it,” Oden says.

He is constantly soaking up as much wisdom as possible. He often asks the other coaches about strategies and schemes or how they handle certain situations. And, most often, Oden says: “Is there anything anyone needs help with? How can I do more?”

Oden picks things up quickly and often points things out in film that the other coaches without his athletic pedigree might miss. “When I coached him, he had a great mind for the game of basketball,” Matta says. “It wasn’t only his physical characteristics. His understanding [of the game] is what made him special.

“Now, he’s in that position where he is studying and he has to teach more because the guys that we’re dealing with aren’t as talented as he was, and they don’t have the characteristics that he had,” Matta says. “I think that in the end’s going to make him a lot better basketball coach.

Some of Oden’s most dominant high school games were actually played at Hinkle. He never expected to return. Anyone who has gone through the injuries and setbacks and disappointments Oden has might never want to look at a basketball again. But Oden kept gravitating toward it. He never lost his love for the game.

He still needs it.

And maybe part of him needed to come back here. To Indianapolis. To the very house he had lived in back when he bought the place in 2012. He had just been released from Portland after playing just 82 games over five seasons, missing three campaigns entirely, and then sitting out another season before joining the Heat. He left the house to pursue an NBA comeback with the Heat in 2013, but various family members occupied it in the years since.

The home, painted blue and gray, is every bit the sight Oden remembered. It’s surrounded by trees, near the woods, a bit nestled away from the surrounding old-time neighborhood. That was one of the reasons he bought it after his tenure with Portland ended. He needed his space. He was devastated.

“I just secluded myself from everybody,” he says.

Sometimes, he stayed in the house for two weeks straight. He felt too ashamed to go outside. He feared running into anyone from high school. “I felt like a loser,” he says.

On the rare times he did venture out, he’d put his hood up far over his head, hoping to shield his face, his eyes, and, quite impossibly, his 7-foot frame. “I just felt like a failure. I felt like I let a lot of people down,” he says. “Letting Portland down, letting the whole entire staff and organization down. I felt like I let my family down and everybody who coached me and believed in me.”

Oden often thinks about how much life has changed since then, how much he has changed since then. He has a family now. He and his wife, Sabrina, have a young daughter, Londyn. Rooms in the house that were once empty are now filled with love.

But there are rooms he can’t bring himself to go in, like the theater room. That was where he used to sit and drink until he passed out, until he temporarily numbed the pain and the shame of his basketball dreams slipping away.

Butler v Seton Hall
Oden watches a play during the second half of a Butler game against the Seton Hall Pirates at Prudential Center on January 7, 2023 in Newark, New Jersey.
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

He became addicted to painkillers during his time with the Blazers. And as the years wore on, he grew more frustrated at his inability to will his body to perform the way he needed to. In the way he expected it to.

Oden has spent years unpacking off-the-court issues that led to his darkest moments. He has been working to heal, to move forward with his life. Coaching has given him a new joy. He feels buoyed by possibility.

He has finally found … peace.

But he is human. He still struggles. It still hurts sometimes when someone calls him a “bust.” He sometimes watches his old highlights on YouTube, especially the ’07 national championship game against Florida, where he notched 25 points, 12 rebounds, and four blocks. Some part of him still needs to see those clips. To remember what he could do then. Who he was then.

But Oden doesn’t necessarily see himself as another person these days. He doesn’t view coaching as a second act either. He’s come to accept all parts of his journey: the things he wished would have happened and the things he wished never would have happened. It’s all one long, continuous road. “I’ve been on this ride for 35 years now,” he says.

Oden’s journey has now brought him back home, back to the place where it all started. It’s been a long road back: a long road that began just a short drive away.

Dozens of spindly, leafless trees line the streets leading to Lawrence North. It’s only 8 miles from Butler, and on this February morning, the roads are nearly empty. A cluster of suburban brick houses sits across from the high school. Every other driveway has a hoop. After all, it’s Indiana.

Inside the school’s gym is a prominent Hall of Fame wall. There’s a photo of a baby-faced, much slimmer Oden in the right corner, flashing both rows of teeth and spinning a ball on his finger. His National Player of the Year trophies sit in a glass case nearby.

Back then, no one could contain him on the court. The lane was his. It seemed like he could block a shot from anywhere, anytime. But Oden seemed almost oblivious to his own talent. “It was almost like he didn’t understand why they thought he was the next big thing,” says Jimmy Smith, whom Oden considers a kind of adopted father. He and his wife, Tami, consider Oden family, a son. Their biological son, Travis, was Oden’s best friend since age 9, and Jimmy coached the boys team.

Alongside Oden’s mother, Zoe, Jimmy and Tami helped Oden navigate his budding fame, as his teenage face would grace the cover of seemingly every hoops magazine. He would become anointed as the next great American prospect, as LeBron James had been just four years earlier. Tami remembers how much pressure followed Oden. “It was absolutely huge,” Tami says. “But he was also just so humble. … He would always be like, ‘I’ve got to work.’”

The spotlight only intensified at Ohio State as he dominated the competition, despite playing with a surgically repaired wrist all season. Cameras followed him everywhere. He’d kindly sign every autograph, every picture, but the attention was overwhelming. “You could just see in his eyes sometimes, you’d just want him to hide,” Matta says.

But the hype, the promise of what Oden might bring to the NBA, hung in the balance when he arrived in Portland. Before the season, Oden knew something was wrong with his right knee. He tried to stay optimistic even as doctors told him: There’s a possible chance you may have season-ending surgery. We need to go in there and look.

Shortly thereafter, Oden woke up to the devastating news: You’re out for the year. He soon had microfracture surgery, a now infamous procedure. Sitting out the entire season as the top pick and watching sports pundits talk about his absence on TV was painful. He was supposed to be the savior to rescue Portland from its Jail Blazers era, coined for its players’ legal troubles. Meanwhile, Durant was proving to be an immediate superstar in Seattle.

Oden burned to get back on the court but was stuck inside his home, eight hours a day, with his leg wrapped inside a machine that would continuously stretch his leg. He continued working hard in rehab but felt lonely off the court. He felt like he was letting so many people down.

He didn’t feel like a part of the Blazers organization either, spending so much time away from the team. He was 19 and living in a new city. Everyone seemed to know him, but he hardly knew anyone, making him feel even more isolated. “I was kind of depressed,” he says.

He began drinking more and more, especially when the team would go on weeklong road trips. Time would pass, but the relief never lasted. “It got pretty bad when I got to Portland,” he says. “I was always injured, and I was always at home, and it was just an everyday thing.”

Few knew he was also grieving. Travis, the only true friend he felt he ever had, the one who never wanted anything from him but friendship and love, died in a car accident about five months before Oden was drafted.

Oden would usually give Travis a ticket to his Ohio State games. But this time, ahead of a late January contest against Michigan State, Oden told Travis that his mom and grandmother were in town, and he was going to give them his two tickets. Hours before the game, Oden’s mom and grandmother told him they were no longer able to come. Oden talked with Travis about 30 minutes before tipoff, but didn’t tell him about the now-available ticket because he feared Travis would speed to Columbus to try to make it in time.

But something did happen that night, albeit unrelated to Greg’s game. Travis died in a car accident. For months, Oden blamed himself for his friend’s death. If he had just told Travis his grandmother and mother were no longer coming, Oden reasoned, if he had just given him that spare ticket, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.

Matta broke the news to Oden after the game. Oden walked out of the locker room, got in his car, and drove around Columbus all night, sobbing until he couldn’t anymore.

Oden tried to cope as best as he could, but injuries kept haunting him as he returned to the court for his first true season in 2008-09.

He left his NBA debut with a foot injury after just 13 minutes of play. He played off and on the rest of the year, recording several double-doubles, but later missed extended time with an injured kneecap. In the following 2009-10 season, he had stellar stretches of play, showing flashes of his massive potential. But 21 games in, he suffered a fractured patella in his left knee, prematurely ending his season.

It was agonizing: continuously getting injured, working so hard in rehab, trying to get himself back, only to get hurt again and again. He wouldn’t give up on the player he knew he was, but he wished his body could just do what his mind instructed.

Then, Oden suffered yet another loss. Trail Blazers assistant coach Maurice Lucas, who had empathized with him and always had him over to his family’s home for Thanksgiving so he wouldn’t feel alone, passed away of cancer. And Oden’s cousin, who had come to live with him his second season, was suddenly diagnosed with cancer and soon passed away.

So many people he cared about were disappearing. And the surgeries kept mounting: He had another microfracture surgery, this time on his left knee, in November 2010, causing him to sit out for another full season.

Some wouldn’t want anything to do with basketball after going through what Oden experienced, but Greg was drawn closer to it. His passion for it wouldn’t allow him to even consider the possibility of letting it go. He’d watch his highlights on YouTube, see himself dunk over people, and think about how he could get back to that.

This is what I used to be able to do, he’d think.

And, perhaps, a more fragile thought lay underneath:

This is who I used to be.

The identity he had clung to since he was a teenage basketball prodigy was becoming blurry. He didn’t even feel like a basketball player anymore. His sense of self-worth had long been conflated with his achievements. Who was he if not a basketball player?

To make matters worse, it hurt when people would walk up to him and say: “That’s Greg Oden! You were a bust!” before snapping a photo of him, as if he weren’t a real person deserving of dignity and respect.

All his life, Oden truly just wanted to be liked. He was a sweet, goofy kid who just happened to be much taller and bigger than his peers. When he was younger, he initially worried about not fitting in, not just because of his size, but because he was one of the few Black players in the area. As beloved as he would become on all of his teams throughout high school—he was able to make anyone laugh with a funny face or joke and was incredibly talented and a good teammate—he still worried about being accepted.

Heading into his freshman year at Ohio State, after he had won every national award imaginable, he called Matta one day: “Coach, I’m worried that the guys may not like me when I get there.”

There was an innocence to him: a bit of naivete. Ahead of the 2007 NBA draft, he walked the streets of New York for the first time. He was astounded by how aggressive people were, pushing him every which way. He felt so overwhelmed that he had to duck inside a pizza shop just to catch his breath.

He liked cartoons and movies, referencing Shrek in a predraft interview. “He’s a kid at heart,” Tami says. A kid who was praised from such a young age, placed on such a high pedestal, only to be thrown back down as an adult once his body couldn’t function the way it had in the past. It left him with a jarring dissonance that was difficult to reconcile.

Years later, as he tried to cope with the disappointment of his injuries and the isolation of working through them by himself, he would turn to other methods. Jimmy says the Blazers’ front office would call him, concerned about the company Oden was keeping in Portland and his partying. He had partied in college, too, but this seemed different. And the truth was, as he entered the pros, when the parties ended, when everyone left, when he was finally alone, he felt profoundly sad.

He had been taking painkillers since his first surgery his rookie year. He couldn’t sleep without them. He says he needed Percocet, Vicodin, Tylenol P.M., Benadryl, and a drink just to get five hours of sleep. And for a period of time, he kept scratching his body, not understanding why. “I felt like a crackhead,” he says. Later, he learned he was allergic to Percocet but kept taking whatever he could.

“I was kind of numb to it,” he says. “It’s just at a point where you get used to them and to get some type of relief. And then at one point, I was taking them just to take them.”

There wasn’t much relief. He wasn’t thinking deeply about it either, trapped in his habit. This is what I do, he’d think to himself.

One day, he ran out of pills. “I ransacked my house looking for any more,” he says. In the bathroom. In old bags. In every room. He frantically tried to remember where he last put them, what each pill individually looked like. Maybe it could be here?! Maybe I dropped one there?! “That was pretty eye-opening,” he says.

That’s when he realized he might need help. He had tried to confide in therapists over the years in Portland but didn’t feel the mostly white therapists could relate to his experience as a 7-foot-tall Black man. He wasn’t sure he could trust them either, because they were hired by the team.

He started drinking more. Drinking in the club turned into drinking at the house, which turned into drinking beer, wine, and hard liquor in the same day: “Whatever will get you there until it’s just time to pass out.” As much as he tried to shut the door to the theater room and drink, hoping to hide his habits, he soon learned that he didn’t have to tell anyone for them to know. “They can smell it on you,” he says.

That only added to his shame.

A month after having two additional surgeries in February 2012—a third microfracture surgery on his left knee and arthroscopic surgery on his right knee—he was released by Portland

Only 24, he felt so far from Greg Oden, the no. 1 pick. “Now, I’m the party guy,” he says. “I’m the drinking guy.”

He returned to Indiana. And as much as he tried to stay in his house, he would inevitably run into old classmates. It surprised him how genuinely nice they were. “Greg! Man, it’s good to see you. I’m sorry for everything that’s happened to you.”

It tore him up. The shame inside him, the part of him that felt like a failure, struggled to process kindness. The part of him who feared he wouldn’t be liked, who always feared disappointing others, wasn’t sure how to move forward.

Still, he wouldn’t quit. Basketball was something he loved with every fiber of his being, so he kept pushing to return to the court, eventually signing with the two-time defending champion Heat in August 2013, more than three years after his last NBA action. He played 23 games with Miami, helping the Heat make it all the way to the 2014 NBA Finals, where they lost in five games to the Spurs. But none of it would matter after that summer.

On August 7, 2014, around 3:30 a.m., police were called to Oden’s home. Court documents state that Oden had punched his ex-girlfriend, whom an officer described as having “blood [and] swelling to the nose.” His mother, who’d been awoken by the commotion, had to pull Oden off the woman, according to the documents. Oden was arrested and charged with two felony counts of battery and two misdemeanor counts of battery. According to the police’s incident report, Oden told responding officers: “I was wrong, and I know what has to happen.” Oden eventually pleaded guilty to one felony count, while the other three charges were dismissed. He received 909 days of probation and was ordered to complete 26 weeks of domestic violence counseling and alcohol counseling. A no-contact order was also put in place.

Oden has since expressed remorse for his actions but has said he cannot legally comment on the situation, per the no-contact order. Tami, who spoke to Oden in the immediate aftermath of the arrest, recalls him telling her: “I know what I did was wrong. It could never happen again. Women can’t be treated like that.” She also recalls him saying that he had been drinking but reiterated that his actions were inexcusable. Indefensible.

“Talk is cheap,” she told him. “Until you practice what you preach, nobody is going to believe anything you say.” He knew she was right. And he knew he needed help getting sober. “We told him he had no option but to go to rehab,” Jimmy says.

Oden headed to rehab in Minnesota for the next month. He also attended therapy. He stayed completely sober for about half a year. “I went through a process of trying to clean my body out of where I was at,” he says.

He was able to wean himself off of the strongest painkillers. He was beginning to piece his life back together. “He took immediate accountability for his actions,” says Tami, who was often his contact in Alcoholics Anonymous and would receive regular reports from his counselors about his progress.

She could sense in his voice that he was improving, starting to sound like himself again, but he knew the work was ongoing. “Therapy didn’t stop in Minnesota,” she says. “Minnesota was just the very tip of it. This is just an eight-plus year ongoing recovery. … And it still has to continue every day.”

Meanwhile, he was still drawn to basketball, still unwilling to accept that he was past his prime and that he could not do the thing he enjoyed most. He worked to make a comeback, and he was ultimately willing to go all the way to China to prove that he could still do it.

He played for the Jiangsu Dragons in 2015-16, but as fate would have it, he broke his right thumb in the preseason. He had to rehab for a month over there before even getting onto the court. His back was hurting too. He started enjoying himself more though, finally playing, finally in his element. But the team missed the playoffs, and he was soon cut from the team.

Throughout his comeback, he feared reinjury: the cycle repeating again.

Before leaving for China, Oden called Matta late one night. “I’m scared. I’m afraid it’s going to happen again,” Matta remembers Oden saying. “I just don’t know if I can keep doing this.”

“G,” Matta said, “just come to practice.”

Matta invited Oden to return to Ohio State as a student manager for the 2016-17 season, which would allow him to simultaneously complete his undergraduate degree. It wasn’t a paid position, but Matta understood that Oden needed something more than money, more than a job: He needed support, someone to affirm to him:

You still belong.

Oden returned to his alma mater and began coaching, seeing another therapist, and attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He also juggled a full-time course load as a student.

“It takes a lot of humility to do that, to go back to school, to walk to class every day, for, again, a guy who was the no. 1 pick,” says Jon Diebler, Butler’s director of recruiting and a fellow former Ohio State star.

Being around college students made Oden feel younger. He was able to slip back into Greg Oden who led Ohio State to the national championship game. He needed people to see him in that way: “I really did,” he says. “That [I] wasn’t no. 1 draft pick that didn’t turn out to nothing Greg.”

Oden didn’t realize how much he truly loved basketball until he returned to his alma mater. As a kid, basketball was just something he fell into. He enjoyed playing with his friends. He had been a fan of the NBA. But when he could no longer play as an adult, he found himself watching more basketball than ever, falling in love with the game on his own terms.

He felt valued again. Ohio State’s players were asking him questions. Counting on him to explain concepts.

For so long, he was labeled as past his prime, as having unfulfilled potential because of his injuries. But when he was on the court with OSU’s players, he had access to a different view of himself.

People still like me, he thought.

But he was realizing that he needed to like himself. He had to face his shame, his feelings of inadequacy, his guilt. The parts he wanted to see and the parts he may not have wanted to see. Those surgeries in Portland. That night in Indiana at 3:30 a.m. The pills. The bottles. The people he hurt. His fears. His remorse. His resilience.

“It’s all still me, struggling to be the best person I can be,” Oden says.

“There was a lot of ups and downs in my life. I did a lot of things I’m not proud of,” he says. He realized he had to own it. “This is my path. … I made these decisions. I’ve got to live with it, and I’ve got to move forward with it. I just got to be able to look at myself in the mirror.”

In really seeing himself, he had to try to let go of how others perceived him. He wasn’t a bust. He wasn’t a failure. He was simply a flawed human being trying to find his way.

“He had to learn to forgive himself,” Jimmy says. “Everyone deserves a second chance, but it is ultimately your own decision what you choose to do with that.”

Greg and Sabrina, who had been friends for some time, reconnected while he was in China. She had long been one of his closest confidants, the only person besides Travis who could get him on the phone for longer than 10, 20 minutes. She understood his struggle and was there for him as he tried to rebuild his life, and they became serious. She helped him step outside of his comfort zone. “He was in a bubble, a shell,” Sabrina says. She’d say, “Let’s go see a movie. Let’s just hang out.” She isn’t a person to sit in sorrow, and she wouldn’t let Oden wallow. “Life will life,” she’d say. “No matter what yesterday was, just go. Chin up.

“You have to just put your best foot forward,” Sabrina says, “and do the work on yourself to improve. … You’re not going to be able to do that if you’re stuck staggering in just one spot.”

The two had Londyn in 2016 and married in 2017. Oden graduated in 2019, almost 13 years since he first stepped foot on campus, with a degree in sport industry.

Right before Oden joined Butler’s staff in 2022, he took his family to Miami on vacation. The Heat were playing the Nets, and Oden wanted to watch Kevin Durant, the player he’ll forever be tied to for surpassing as the no. 1 pick in ’07.

Oden never forgot how Durant, the no. 2 pick, responded in 2016 when asked on ESPN if he thought Oden was a bust. “Nonsense,” Durant said. “He didn’t get a chance. He was injured. … When he did play, he was a force. Protecting the paint.” It meant a lot to Oden to hear Durant dignify him in that way.

And, during halftime of the Heat-Nets game, Durant came over to chat with Oden. Oden pointed out Sabrina and Londyn, and Durant waved to them. Then, the two top picks embraced. The small gesture meant more to Oden than he had words for. “That was big time,” Oden says. “I’m a KD fan for life.”

He realized, being in the arena, how much he was enjoying being present. It didn’t matter that he was in the stands, that his life turned out so differently than Durant’s.

“I can look in the mirror and just realize that in this moment, I’m happy,” he says.

Happiness, Oden was learning, was about having gratitude for his own path. “It’s accepting what you’ve been through,” he says. “Being able to keep your head high.”

He’s been sharing some of those insights with Butler’s players since taking the role last April. “What we’re trying to go through, he’s already been through,” says guard Jayden Taylor. “So I feel like anybody could come and learn from him.”

He often tells Butler’s 6-foot-10 senior center Jalen Thomas, “Take your time in the post.”

“Just being able to pick his brain, asking him how it was going against other guys, bigger guys, being able to ask him those questions is great,” says Thomas, who transferred to Butler this season after spending the past three years at Georgia State. Finding out Oden was coming to coach helped seal the deal. “Definitely a big part of why I came,” Thomas says.

One practice, Oden noticed center Manny Bates kept missing easy shots because he was off balance. He pulled Bates aside. “He showed me film when I was on balance,” Bates says. Bates has become more efficient than ever this season, shooting 62 percent from the field.

Sometimes, when Oden is asked to fill in during practice, the former Ohio State star will resurface, and he’ll become ultracompetitive, dunking on anyone in his way: even student managers. One of them, Tommy Niederpruem, remembers Oden giving everyone a look after stuffing a spectacular one down. “It’s just really fun to see that come out,” Niederpruem says.

Another time, the post players were doing a pick-and-roll drill. Players scored on Oden five times in a row. “All right, bet,” Oden said. The next four trips, nobody scored. He blocked everything in sight.

“That energy, that enthusiasm, that passion is infectious,” says Mike Pegues, Butler’s assistant coach. “It circulates throughout this building.” Oden often asks Pegues how to develop solid relationships with players and how to hold them accountable. Pegues can tell how badly Oden wants to succeed as a coach: “[He’s] really, really intrigued by longevity and how you go about extending your career in this business.”

He doesn’t act entitled because of his name. He was surprised to learn that the assistant coaches share rooms on the road—very different from the perks he used to have as an NBA player. “I haven’t shared a room since college,” he says. But, he nodded his head and accepted it.

There’s a door inside Pegues’s office, right behind his desk, that leads into the tunnel to the gym. Every member of the staff parades right through.

Not Oden though. He’ll ask: “Mike, can I come through?”

Every home game, Oden sits in the same spot on the bench: last coach, with nearly all the players to the right of him. He is quiet but impactful whenever he speaks up, busy tracking fouls, timeouts, and the possession arrow. And no matter how the game is going, he always turns around, finding Sabrina and Londyn in the same spot in Hinkle.

Maybe Oden’s calling will prove to be at the end of the bench, not the paint. Maybe his potential can be reincarnated. He’s realized that it’s okay to change course, change careers. Sometimes, he thinks about former child actors and how it disheartens him when he sees that people shame them for doing something different as adults. “What did you expect them to do? Sit in the house and live off the one thing that you know them from?” Oden says.

Things aren’t perfect. He still feels pain in his left knee. He still watches his old highlights. And he still has to be mindful of alcohol, though he knows his limits now. “I’m not going to say I’m a recovered alcoholic and I don’t have a drink,” he says, “because I do have a drink every now and then.”

For managing pain, he tries not to go near anything strong, as he used to. “That’s something I really try to stay away from, knowing how bad it got.”

He’s still recognized wherever he goes. These days, though, he actually enjoys running into old classmates, no longer hiding in his hoodie. Well, only a little, for other reasons. “My hair is bald a little bit,” he says, laughing.

Somehow, his mind circles back to his house, as it often does. He says the place is aging too, creaking in certain spots. “There’s a lot of work to be done in the house,” he says. The carpet has to be changed. The driveway needs to be redone. The outside could use a fresh paint job. The pool needs attention. He makes a mental note to follow up with the repairman. Then there’s the theater room, a demon he has yet to conquer.

But after a long day of practice and compiling video clips for Butler’s coaches, he returns home to rest. The night is dark, but he can see the beauty of the house: how perfectly imperfect it is. There’s still time to tend to it.

What a gift, he realizes. A chance to wake up tomorrow and take a closer look. A chance to rebuild.

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