Greg Oden & The Reebok Big Time Tournament

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This is one of those stories that might only be interesting to me. It happened almost nine years ago now, which is a strange thing to read myself type. That number seems too big in my head until I go to the mirror and see my rapidly depleting hairline and realize that, despite my relative youth — I’m only in my mid 20’s — time has lassoed me and it’s not letting me go anywhere without showing the world that it got me too.

Getting older is weird, which is really a played out way to begin a paragraph. I’ve not really done much to take on a ton of responsibility up to this point in my life. I chose to pursue improv when I got out of college and I’ve been in Chicago ever since attempting to get good at this thing that people will never pay a person to do professionally. No matter, though. I’m venting about things that aren’t crucial to the story I’m wanting to tell. Or, maybe they are, I’m just tired of talking about my feelings. First person feelings are for journals and diaries. This section might have been pointless and I’m sure I’m about to prove myself a hypocrite for that second to last sentence.

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It’s the summer of 2005 and I’m in Vegas at an AAU tournament on UNLV’s campus — The Reebok Big Time Tournament. It was one of those NCAA sanctioned joints that take place all over the country. AAU teams flood a metroplex and with them so to do college coaches. They’re horribly important for any kid wanting to go play college ball, especially if that kid is an undersized, wiry four-man from a tiny town in Oklahoma that nobody’s ever heard of, save big civil war buffs and Teddy Lehman fans.

I was on a team sponsored by the Williams Energy Corporation. We were the older team, the Gold squad. There was a group of younger dudes, mainly high school sophomores and juniors, that made up the Silver squad. The teams were made up of pretty decent high school players from the Tulsa area. Our coach was named Jay Juby, a man whose personality was undoubtedly directly affected by having to deal with that being his name for his entire life. He was no nonsense, fancied himself more prepared than other coaches, and his Jesse Thorn-esque mustache begged for respect where his crusty, off white Nike Shox failed. Juby was awesome.

Coach took stuff seriously. I’d imagine we practiced more than half the teams in that tournament combined. I’d have to drive my truck the 45 minutes up to Broken Arrow’s practice gym twice a week for these three hour hell sessions. We had an offense that relied heavily on athletic guards and mobile bigs. Lots of 2-man stuff. PnR on a wing with some weak side action on the backside, trying to catch someone napping. We had tons of shooters and looking back on it I’d imagine that Juby was greatly influenced by those great San Antonio teams of the early-mid 2000’s that destroyed people with corner threes. We’d go four flat a ton and I’d shoot up there to screen for our PG and then roll to the rim while the other big popped up for a 17 footer and the two guards set up shop in the corners waiting for a dime. Juby was trying to get his playmakers in space and show the college coaches that were watching that all us kids could run the type of action that we’d have to run once we got under their tutelage.

We were a fine team and we won more than we lost, but we certainly weren’t any type of elite. Our games the majority of that week were held at some high school gym in the suburbs with faulty air conditioning and super high priced Snickers bars. It was something like $2 for one and they weren’t even King Size.

Thing about these AAU tournaments, though, is there’s always a presentation at the tournament that deals directly with what is okay and what is not okay with regard to the recruitment process. It’s basically the NCAA popping in a DVD of them pimping out Dick Vitale to tell all the kids to not talk to any college coaches while they’re at the tournament. That’s a violation and it’s not allowed. The presentation at the Big Time tournament was held in some super vanilla looking UNLV auditorium. Might’ve been a big classroom, I’m not sure. I remember the majority of the time I was concerned with getting text messages out to girls who would inevitably never respond.

On my way into the auditorium I was walking with my buddy, Vinita Hornet and future Oklahoma All-Stater Chris Francis. We were chopping it up about the possibility of going to New York, New York to ride the roller coaster on the roof on our night off. We only got one free night during the Vegas trip, coach wanting to keep us within the walls of the Excalibur so that we didn’t get into too much trouble. Dude would play the slot machine closest to the elevators so he could keep tabs on us and there would be room checks twice nightly by the assistant coach, a chihuahua of a man whose first name I never learned. I only ever knew him as Coach Cooper. He actually wore coaches shorts. Legends never die.

But me and Chris are walking and talking and suddenly there’s then Georgia Tech head coach Paul Hewitt striding by us. He was taller than I expected and walked like he didn’t want to be there. Some ten feet beyond him in what looked like a pair of white linen pants and some aggressively strappy sandals was then Missouri head coach and current Hawks assistant Quin Snyder. He wore just as much hair gel as I’d imagined. How that hair shone in the Nevada sun.

We all get funneled into the auditorium and all the teams sit together. Me and Chris and the rest of the Williams Energy Corporation Gold Team pop a squat somewhere on the right side about halfway to the front and begin to size up the rest of the room. It’s just this rainbow of colors, most every other team in there sponsored by some big shoe company entity that hooked them up with travel sweatsuits and whatever else. We looked rag tag, but that’s because we were.

As we’re looking around, a team filled with some big dudes sat down right in front of us and one of them looked familiar. He was huge and he was wearing a backwards Ohio State hat. It was Greg Oden. I’d seen highlights of him and knew of his existence because if you involve yourself in any recruiting world for any period of time, you’re going to be made well aware of who the number one ranked dude or gal is.

I remember sitting during the presentation thinking that all those rules applied to Oden, but not me. Even then, when my dreams were many, I knew, if I was destined for any kind of post high school ball, it was going to be of the small college variety. I had no D-1 to my game.

I got a call once from a coach at the Air Force Academy. It was the only call I ever got from a D-1 school. Some fast talking dude who called himself “DC”. He explained they tiered their recruiting and would place guys within three separate levels: A, B, and C. A’s were the guys they wanted first, the big time dudes that had offers from other D-1 schools. B’s were the guys they’d go after if they didn’t get the A’s they wanted. C’s were the low men on the totem pole and the ones they’d usually try to put in their Prep School to develop for a year. They told me I was about halfway down their list of “B’s”. I appreciated the candor. Too many people tell you you’re amazing when you’re not. I got a letter from their head coach, former Nuggets leader and current Wake Forest head man Jeff Bzdelik. It was one of those plug-in-the-recruit’s-name and tell him you’re interested type of things. Made me feel good at the time, but I knew it wasn’t in the cards for me. I wasn’t fast enough or tall enough or strong enough, and that was just fine. Your skill set is your set. I was a poor man’s NBA era Nick Collison and I embraced that role as much as my pride would allow.

I remember thinking that I’d remember that presentation. I’d remember sitting behind a guy some people were saying could become the most dominant defensive center since Russell. I’d remember being excited to tell the story when his high school team would inevitably play on ESPN 2 during our senior year and I’d be over at my buddy Jerrad’s house eating Little Caesar’s Hot N Readys, playing Madden at halftime. If you can’t be famous at least you can tell stories about seeing famous people.

I was like everyone else in that Oden’s injuries bothered me. Unreached potential is a sad thing, especially when it’s not reached through no fault of the person possessing it. Bodies are stupid and they break down sometimes. But I watched that Heat-Lakers game last night and had a smile on my face because while Oden may be a shadow of what we thought he’d become, at least he’s playing now, at least he’s still playing hard. 5 points and 5 boards in 11 minutes of play aren’t hero numbers, but it’s not chump stuff either. Cole Aldrich would probably murder your whole family for that kind of line.

I’m generally a hater and don’t root for the Heat in any scenario, but Oden changes that some. Resiliency is always impressive.

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