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Uncaged
by David Krider, JR Shelt and Scott Freeman / September 14, 2006

This excerpt is taken from the new book, Uncaged: The Rise of Greg Oden, Mike Conley, and the National Champion Lawrence North Wildcats (Sports Publishing L.L.C.), written by David Krider, JR Shelt and Scott Freeman. The book can be found in bookstores everywhere this October. It will be available for $22.95 in bookstores everywhere and can also be pre-ordered directly from the publisher anytime by calling toll-free, 1-877-424-BOOK (2665), or online at SportsPublishingLLC.com.

Greg Oden was not a particularly large baby at eight pounds, nine ounces, and 19 inches long. However, he definitely had growth potential. His father, Greg Sr., stood 6-foot-3; his mother, Zoe, was 6-foot-1; and he had an uncle who was 6-foot-8. Greg didn’t waste much time as a youth, progressing through growth spurts that surely caused his parents some pause when it came to purchasing clothes for their son.

Zoe recalls that her son was always taller than the other kids his age. “In fourth grade, he grew a lot,” she says. “He got a little embarrassed about [his height].” Greg Sr., who operated a plumbing and heating business in Buffalo, New York, never projected his son to be a basketball star despite his height as a youth, but does recall that Greg ran like a deer thanks to his long legs. Up through age eight, Greg had developed no affinity for basketball. Height or no height, his family had never attempted to peak his interest.

The Odens divorced after 10 years of marriage when Greg was nine years old. Zoe packed up her belongings and drove Greg and his younger brother, Anthony, from Buffalo to Terre Haute, Indiana, where she had relatives. Attending fourth grade at Fuqua Elementary School in Terre Haute, Greg was a typical – though rather tall – kid. His parents both remember him as a quiet, pleasant child. He absolutely devoured Saturday morning cartoons on television, which soon sparked a love affair with movies. Like many youth, Greg was developing an addiction to TV. He would soon be blindsided by an unforeseen intervention.

During fourth grade, Greg was approached by a pair of coaches of a fourth-grade Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball team, the Terre Haute Stars. John Gilmore and Jimmy Smith had been given a tip about a tall fourth-grader at Fuqua Elementary, so they sought out the school principal in the hope that she would speak with Greg on their behalf. That night, Greg took a business card home to his mother. He was interested in playing, but there was a catch: Saturday morning would have to be reserved for practice and games. He eventually chose wisely: basketball over television.

At his first practice with the Stars, Greg confessed to his new coaches that he had never played organized basketball. Coach Smith could tell after a few drills that Greg was telling the truth. He was a gangly 5-foot-8 and towered over other players, but on the court Greg was obviously lacking the skills of his experienced, hand-picked teammates.

“He really didn’t understand the game,” recalls Smith. “He did not know how to shoot and couldn’t dribble. When he got a rebound, he would travel. He would stand in the lane and be whistled for three seconds.”

Greg was, as they say, a work in progress. Footwork provided him with possibly his biggest challenge. Greg recalls – only half-jokingly – that the hardest thing for him was learning how to walk.

“I was very awkward,” he says. “I couldn’t run and I had a lot of trouble with layups.”

At first, Greg even had a problem scoring in the correct basket. His first two points in organized basketball counted for the opposing team. Consequently, the lanky youngster didn’t see much game action. He spent most of his time on the pine as a fourth and fifth grader.

What transpired during those first two years, however, showcased Greg’s remarkable attitude, a trait he possessed even as a youngster. He never complained about his lack of playing time, and instead spent as much time in the gym as possible, working tirelessly to improve his game – layup after layup.

“I really didn’t look at it like work,” Greg recalls. “Jimmy Smith worked tremendously with me. I probably wouldn’t be as dedicated today if it wasn’t for him.”

A little bribe here and there didn’t hurt, either. Greg’s mother always promised to buy him fish sticks or chocolate milk if he scored in the game. In the classroom, Greg didn’t need any incentive to make good marks. He took great pride in his report card at each grading period, always making sure to show it to his coaches, who were impressed with Greg’s intelligence and desire to be a success off the court. Likewise, it would have been easy for a kid who found success away from the court to become disinterested with a sport he couldn’t master. But for Greg, the challenge was worth the wait.

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Mike Conley might as well have been born with high tops on. Basketball was a part of his life from the tender age of 14 months, when he was given a Nerf basketball and a miniature goal as a Christmas gift. His parents – Mike Sr. and René – didn’t have a clue at the time that they had just launched their son’s life-long pursuit of basketball excellence. From that day on, the family rec room was the toddler’s basketball court. As soon as his legs could support him – let alone keep up with him – he shot baskets every day, all day, neglecting his other toys and neighborhood friends in favor of that little Nerf ball.

Mike fed off his family’s support, and his family’s support grew out of his enthusiasm for basketball. His parents never forced basketball on their son, but the sport found him. And once it did, it would not let go of young Mike’s imagination. His uncle, Steve Conley, who played linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers and was no slouch as an athlete, recalls his nephew, then just six years old, embarrassing him in a game of H-O-R-S-E in the driveway – with the rest of the family watching.

“He beat me with pure jump shots,” recalls Steve Conley. “The competitor in me came out. I missed a layup and that really got me upset. Several adults were there and they laughed at me.”

Another uncle recalls the ease with which young Mike would win prize after prize at the county fair, sinking shots at the basketball game while sitting on the counter. The poor carnie who roped little Mike into playing a game was transformed from town crier to speechless sucker.

Like so many kids growing up in the early-’90s, Mike wanted to be like Mike. And luckily for him, he had two Mikes to idolize: Michael Jordan and his own father. The elder Mike Conley was a former standout on the University of Arkansas track program who had earned a gold in triple jump in the 1992 Olympics. His success would shadow his son as he grew older, but as a youngster Mike found his dad’s track career anything but impressive. Mike Sr. showed his son a videotape of him – as a collegian – finishing second in a 200-meter race against 1984 Olympic silver medalist Kirk Baptiste. Mike’s reaction: tears. He was stunned that his father had lost, crying, “Daddy you lost!” over and over. Possibly little Mike picked up that desire to win from watching Michael Jordan. When he wasn’t on the rec room court, he was often watching highlight tapes of his Airness.

Folks outside of the Conley family were also quick to notice something unique in young Mike. His mother, René, recalls the time a writer and photographer from Sports Illustrated visited the family at their home in Fayetteville, Arkansas, to interview Mike Sr. The four-year-old paid the visitors no mind; he was too busy shooting hoops by himself.

“Mike came out of the game room just sweating,” his mother remembers. “[The folks from Sports Illustrated] were just so shocked at Mike’s ability – how he could dribble and shoot a [regulation-size] ball.”

Father and son started to develop a unique closeness when Mike was a second-grader. His father was asked to help coach the Arkansas Kings, an AAU team consisting of fourth graders. Mike Jr. was extended an invitation to play on the team – even though the other kids were two years older. The age gap was no matter; Mike was already more advanced than many of them. Playing for a private elementary school as a third-grader on nine-foot baskets, Mike exploded for an incredible 52 points in the Fayetteville city championship game.

“As a kid he didn’t really care about scoring that much,” Mike Sr. stresses, “but he wanted his team to win that championship so much.”

Mike Sr. wasn’t the only guide in young Mike’s development. University of Arkansas head coach Nolan Richardson had a hand in shaping Mike as well at his summer basketball camp. Mike brought home lots of hardware in his four summers at Richardson’s camp: MVP trophies and plaques for three-point accuracy and other offensive feats. The rec room was quickly turning into a trophy case.

Again, Mike was taking advantage of kids two years older than him. At camp, he reached the quarterfinals of a one-on-one contest, never allowing his lack of size or strength to deter him against older opponents. That boosted his confidence, and earned him a spot on Richardson’s staff as a ballboy for Arkansas’ home games.

“Little Michael was very active all the time – always on the move,” Richardson remembers. “I watched him grow up, playing on outside courts. I could tell he was going to be a good player.”

Mike knew what he wanted to do with a ball in his hands, and he made certain that it happened. He had all the intangibles – decision-making, instincts, IQ – readily apparent from a young age. He received his first nation-wide exposure at age nine as the leading scorer for his father’s Arkansas Hawks, an AAU team that won the national 10-and-under crown. As a fifth grader, Mike won a citywide three-point shooting contest against a field that included kids several years older – and many adults. Because he won, he was allowed to shoot to win a car. All he had to do was sink a three-pointer – while blindfolded. Unfazed, Mike fired away. His shot bounced once on the rim, then twice, before falling to the ground. The older competition was saved further embarrassment.

Mike remained focused on the game as his father groomed him to be a gym rat.

“I’d like to say I worked on specific things,” says Mike, “but for some reason I already had mastered dribbling, passing – things like that. It just all seemed to come naturally. I was just blessed to be given that talent.”

Basketball came so easily to Mike that he could score at will, as if the ability to shoot a jumper came as easily as flipping on a light switch. Possibly, that led to boredom on the court, because as he aged Mike became less interested in scoring, and more interested in seeing the play of his teammates improve. He would routinely pass up scoring opportunities in order to get others involved on offense. The results were spectacular, as father and son led the Hawks to the 11-and-under national crown – their second championship in a row. But dad didn’t let his son grow too big for his britches. He preached humility, and Mike followed his lead just as he followed his dad to Indianapolis, Indiana, where the family relocated to start Mike’s sixth-grade year. A whole new scene – with unknown players and first-time spectators waiting to have their minds blown – awaited Mike in the Hoosier state. For someone who breathed basketball and had a legendary competitive streak, this was like winning the lottery.

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Entering sixth grade, Greg Oden had sprouted to 6-foot-2, added some weight, and began to advance rapidly through the “work in progress” stage. His understanding of the game was improving thanks to plenty of 5-on-5 practice sessions, and his natural athletic abilities were shaping him into a defensive force capable of altering the opponent’s offensive game plan. All of a sudden, coach Jimmy Smith had a new weapon at his disposal. Greg was no longer a benchwarmer; he was quickly becoming the team’s No. 1 option.

Basketball was providing young Greg with plenty of eye-opening opportunities, both on and off the court. Traveling with his AAU team to a tournament in Dallas, Texas, allowed Greg to check off a notable first – an airplane flight. As the plane took off, several girls screamed. Greg, meanwhile, grabbed his coach’s arm as his eyes widened.

“I’m sure he was scared to death,” recalls Smith.

Greg’s first look at an ocean came during another basketball trip to Cocoa Beach, Florida.

“He was like a big stork out there in the water,” Smith laughs.

At the same time Greg was slowly becoming a force to be reckoned with, Mike Conley Sr. was taking over the AAU Riverside Oddbreakers, an Indianapolis team his former AAU club had beaten in the national finals the previous summer. Fresh off a move from Arkansas to the Mecca of basketball that winter, Conley was desperate to add some height to his new team. He had all the ingredients of a great nucleus, except for a tall center. Greg was just the sort of rising sixth grader he was after. Other coaches warned him against pursuing Greg, however, telling him, “You don’t want him. He limps up the floor and he barely plays for his own team.”

But Conley really was desperate, so he worked out a deal with Coach Smith to add the developing center to his roster for area and national tournaments. During their first meeting, Conley asked Greg what he wanted to be when he grew up. Greg’s response was hardly typical for an 11-year-old: a dentist. Conley looked at Greg’s huge hands and exclaimed, “You’re not going to put those hands in my mouth!”

While he had the body of a dominating center, Greg still had much to learn, especially now that he was playing with an even better AAU club. It was back to the bench when he played with his new team, which thrived thanks to their new point guard, Mike Conley. Mike Jr. was a perfect fit on a team whose roster pulled primarily from the Pike High School district. The result was hardly surprising: a 12-and-under National AAU crown. As seventh-graders, Greg and Mike continued to play together on Conley Sr.’s new AAU team, Spiece Indy Heat, which won the 13-and-under National AAU title, marking the fourth straight year that the Conleys had taken the nation’s top prize.

For two years, coaches Smith and Conley shared their budding big man. Smith is still grateful to the Conley family for picking up where he left off in making sure that Greg’s development both on and off the court met high standards. Conley stressed many similar goals as Smith: work hard, build confidence, and improve offensively. The offensive side of Greg’s game was lagging behind. He often subbed for Greg during games just so he could lay into him for passing up a good, open shot. Greg’s confidence was still playing catch up to his actual skills.

oupled with his unselfish nature, his lack of faith in his shot caused further growing pains. He refused to take open 10-foot jump shots in games – even though he made those shots in practice. Greg chalks those former confidence issues in part up to poor vision.

“I’m practically blind without my glasses or contacts,” he says.

As a 6-foot-6 seventh grader, Greg was yanked from an AAU tournament game by Coach Conley for not putting forth his best effort. The next day, the team played its toughest opponent of the season, and Greg played the best game of his young career. He brought the crowd to its feet, in fact, by catching a pass at full speed and dunking with two hands. These were lessons learned for Greg.

The Oden family, which had become very close to the Conleys, moved 70 miles north to Indianapolis as Mike and Greg entered eighth grade. Greg’s mother yearned to live in a larger city and was able to secure a good job at St. Vincent Hospital. It seemed only natural for the Odens to choose to live in the Lawrence North High School district, because that’s where the Conleys resided. The move was controversial for basketball reasons: Greg would have attended Terre Haute South High School, at the time coached by veteran Pat Rady, if not for the move. Terre Haute fans were ultimately disappointed in their loss. But Coach Smith – who was glad that Greg’s family decided to move to Indianapolis – claims that the Terre Haute high school coaches failed to pay enough attention to Greg, so the move made sense.

It obviously was a matter of too little, too late, but Mike Saylor, who now is South’s head coach, pleaded with Greg’s mother for the family to remain in Terre Haute.

“I don’t think any of us knew much about him until he was a sixth grader,” says Saylor. “We were really paying a lot of attention at that time. You could see he had very lively legs and feet and was going to be extraordinarily tall. I was telling everybody, ‘This guy is going to be an NBA player.’ I sure wish we’d paid more attention to him [earlier].”

The Oden-Conley Show was an instant hit at Indianapolis’ Craig Middle School. Word spread quickly that something magical was happening on the basketball court, thanks in part to the new 6-foot-8 kid in school. Fans came out in droves to watch Mike lob passes to Greg for rim-rattling, fast-break dunks. After playing together for two summers, the duo shared a sort of telepathy on the court.

“It’s just Mike telling me what to do with his eyes,” Greg explains. But just a year prior, Greg may have dropped those same alley-oop passes. This was a new and improved Greg Oden; he had finally arrived.

With their reactions in sync, Greg and Mike produced results that were at times astounding. Their eighth-grade team went undefeated, and often played before packed houses of 2,000 fans.

“We were the talk of the town,” Mike says proudly. “We were just dominating people.”

The Oden-Conley chemistry really began to blossom at the end of their eighth-grade year, when they were invited to participate in various summer camps and tournaments.

“We always stayed in the same room on the road and we bonded,” Mike explains. “Our chemistry feeds on the off-court things.”

Greg was on a fast track to becoming one of the Hoosier state’s most heralded big men. Soon, the nation would learn why oldtimers had taken to calling him a “young Bill Russell.” Both Greg and Mike were invited to the prestigious Nike Jamboree Camp in St. Louis the summer before their freshman year. There was just one minor problem: Greg wasn’t confident that he belonged there. Feeling that his offensive game wasn’t ready for the national spotlight, Greg only reluctantly agreed to attend. Once there, however, his nerves settled as he quickly became the talk of the camp. Greg was close to nudging his name on the list of Indiana immortals that included Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird. Only time would tell.

David Krider has covered high school basketball in Indiana for more than 40 years as a sportswriter for the Elkhart Truth, the LaPorte Herald-Argus, and USA Today. He is a member of the Indiana Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame and the Indiana High School Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame. Reginald "J.R." Shelt is an assistant basketball coach and English teacher at Lawrence North High School. Scott Freeman is a freelance writer and editor of Indianapolis Monthly

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