TERRE HAUTE —
At 7 feet tall, former Terre Haute resident Greg Oden stands out in almost any crowd.
So to persuade the increasingly healthy Oden to play during the 2013-14 NBA season — for the first time since Dec. 5, 2009 — a team needed to offer something unique to stand out.
Like, say, a chance at a ring.
Enter the Miami Heat, who have won the last two NBA championships behind the “Big Three” of four-time NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Is that persuasive enough?
For Oden, it was.
On Wednesday morning, he made it official by signing a two-year contract, reported by national media outlets to be worth about $1 million for the first year with a player option on the second year. Then he showed up in Terre Haute on Thursday to promote the seventh annual “Travis Smith Memorial Golf Classic Hosted By Greg Oden,” a private fundraiser which will take place today at the Country Club of Terre Haute.
“I’m ready to get [to Miami] and play,” Oden told me during Thursday’s annual pre-tournament cookout at a southern Vigo County residence. “I think that’s the best place for me to get me back on the court. So I’m excited to be there.”
Miami was not the only team seeking the services of Oden, who has undergone three microfracture surgeries on his knee, the latest occurring in 2012. A veteran of only 82 regular-season games (the exact length of one NBA season) since 2007, the former Lawrence North High School and Ohio State University standout named the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and New Orleans Pelicans as others who expressed interest.
“I just feel [Miami] is the best place for me to get back on the court,” Oden explained. “Those guys are really good. They’re a family and I love the organization.”
Physically, Oden mentioned that he feels “real good” about being ready for the upcoming season, which opens Oct. 29 at home against the Chicago Bulls.
“It’s still a work in progress,” he continued. “This is going to take some time, but I feel good. I’m excited. Finally, it’s going to happen. It hasn’t happened yet, but it will soon.”
Oden said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and team president Pat Riley have indicated they want him for “defense and rebounding.”
Sooooo, I guess that means Oden won’t be switching to point guard.
On a more serious note, Oden admitted he doesn’t know James, Wade or Bosh well— only in passing from playing against them with the Portland Trail Blazers — but he did receive welcome-to-the-team texts from James this week.
“They’re the champs,” Oden reminded us. “They won. They really don’t need me. I’m just happy to be there and hope that I can bring something to the team.
“I feel like they’ll bring me back slowly. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of pressure on me at all. And I don’t think they’re going to put pressure on me. That was kind of another reason I made the decision to go there.”
With all that’s going on in Oden’s life — he’ll be returning to Miami on Monday — Thursday might not have been the most convenient day to travel to Terre Haute. But Travis Smith, a Terre Haute South High School graduate and Ball State golfer who died from injuries suffered in an auto accident in January 2007, was a childhood friend of Oden.
So missing these functions — organized by Terre Haute Boys & Girls Club executive director Jimmy Smith, father of Travis and a longtime friend of Oden — was not an option.
“You know, I’ll always make time to come here,” Oden emphasized. “The Smiths are my family too. I just want to be here to support the cause and do what I can.”
Smith said Oden’s efforts to get here were greatly appreciated, adding that proceeds from the golf outing will go to the Boys & Girls Club.
“What’s exciting for me is the fact that I’ve seen Greg go through the last three years of putting himself through rehab and doing the things he’s had to do to get back to where he can play,” Jimmy Smith said.
“He’s not needing for money because of the contract he got as a rookie [almost $23.3 million in salary after signing with the Trail Blazers as the NBA’s top overall draft pick in 2007]. And when you see someone put forth the kind of effort he’s put forth to get back to playing, it’s amazing. Like I said, he could have given up a long time ago, but he didn’t.”
So does this mean Smith will start rooting for the Heat?
For now, yes.