TERRE HAUTE — Greg Oden hasn’t forgotten Terre Haute, even though he hasn’t lived here since the fall of 2001.
He remembers walking and riding a bicycle from houses on Gilbert Avenue and 14th Street around the city’s south side, often stopping at a convenience store near Poplar Street to buy 1-cent Tootsie Rolls, when he was a youngster.
He remembers the first time he met his lifelong friend Jimmy Smith, executive director of the Terre Haute Boys and Girls Club. It was at Fuqua Elementary School, where Smith persuaded the lanky fourth-grader to play on his AAU basketball team.
“I was outside [Fuqua] shooting by myself,” Oden recalled Thursday, “probably missing a whole bunch of layups.”
“He was terrible,” said Smith, who first noticed Oden because of his height and not his talent.
“He couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time,” Smith said.
Oden’s first youth tournament, Smith mentioned, took place inside the West Vigo Community Center.
Most importantly, Oden remembers the special friendship he enjoyed with Smith’s son, Travis Smith, whose life ended in a Jan. 27 auto accident in Muncie.
That’s why the 7-foot, 250-pound national phenomenon, picked No. 1 overall by the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2007 National Basketball Association draft after only one year of college at Ohio State, is spending a few days in Terre Haute this week.
Oden attended a barbecue at a southern Vigo County residence Thursday evening to promote today’s inaugural “Travis Smith Memorial Golf Classic Hosted By Greg Oden” at the Country Club of Terre Haute.
Jimmy Smith said most of the proceeds will go to the Boys and Girls Club, with the remainder going to Travis’ memorial trust. About 270-275 golfers, including former NBA player Quinn Buckner, are expected to participate.
The event previously was known as the Larry Bird Golf Classic for 19 years, then it became the Terre Haute Boys and Girls Club Golf Classic.
“Travis and Greg became friends because of the Terre Haute Boys and Girls Club,” Jimmy Smith said of the event’s name change before Thursday’s informal function. “That’s what the Boys and Girls Club is all about.”
Oden, who was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and moved with his family to Terre Haute when he was 9, emphasized how the Boys and Girls Club played a major role in shaping his life for the better.
“It was basically everything to me at the time,” he told the Tribune-Star. “When I was here in Terre Haute, my mom [Zoe] had to work a lot of jobs. She worked long hours.
“The main thing that me and my brother [Anthony] did to spend time, instead of being at home by ourselves, was go to the Boys Club, where I had a chance to be in the gym all the time and better my basketball skills. I met good friends and I also got to be around Jimmy because he was the director there. That’s how me and his relationship and me and Travis’ relationship developed — through the Boys Club.”
Oden agreed with Smith’s assessment of his basketball skills in the late 1990s.
“I was very uncoordinated when I first started,” Oden admitted. “But thanks to working hard at the Boys Club here in Terre Haute and also in Indianapolis, things started to look good for me.”
Oden, only 19 even though he looks 29, still seems as humble as he was a few years ago when he played for Lawrence North High School against Terre Haute South and Terre Haute North.
“I try to stay that way,” he said. “I’ve still got the same people around me, so everything’s still good. I’m just enjoying myself… Everything’s been a blessing. Right now, I’m just going to take some down time.
“I got my tonsils taken out about three weeks ago. I’m feeling good. I’m not saying I’m in the best of shape right now, but I’m working on it.”
That “down time” included a summer trip to the ESPY Awards Show, where NBA veteran Shaquille O’Neal good-naturedly — but probably half-seriously — called out Oden on stage.
“It was good,” Oden said of the experience. “I got to meet new people. I got to be around a lot of celebrities and it was fun.”
Oden said he’ll arrive in Portland on Aug. 25 for open gyms and “getting in shape.” He looks forward to tangling with the likes of O’Neal and San Antonio big-man Tim Duncan this fall and winter.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but, you know, I’m here for a reason,” he said confidently. “Obviously, I wouldn’t have been picked first if people didn’t think I could do it. All I gotta do is work for it.”
Oden’s regular-season debut with the Trail Blazers is scheduled for Oct. 30 at the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs.
According to espn.com, Oden’s two-year contract (with team options for the third and fourth seasons) calls for him to make $3.89 million as a rookie and $4.19 million in Year 2.
If the Trail Blazers pick up his option in the third year, his salary will jump to $4.48 million.
That would buy a lot of 1-cent Tootsie Rolls.
TERRE HAUTE — Greg Oden hasn’t forgotten Terre Haute, even though he hasn’t lived here since the fall of 2001.
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