While in Chicago for NBA All-Star Weekend, HoopsHype had the chance to sit down with former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden. We discussed the “bust” label, his battle with depression and substance abuse, life after basketball, his advice for Zion Williamson, returning to Ohio State to get his degree, his off-court endeavors and more. You can listen to the full interview above or read the transcription below.
Last year, you graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in Sports Industry. First of all, congratulations! Why did you decide to return to school and what did it mean to you to earn your degree?
Greg Oden: Thank you! It meant a lot. It was a promise that I made to my mom and now, I’m a college graduate! That always feels good to say. Honestly, what originally made me go back is because, at the time, I was thinking about getting into coaching at the college level and you need a college degree, so that’s what got me there. Once I got my degree, I felt like I could do a lot more.
Do you still want to get into coaching at some point or have you moved on from that entirely?
GO: Right now, in this moment, I’ve started doing other things. But I think coaching is always going to be something that’s in the back of my head, just because I love teaching and being around basketball. Since I can’t play now, the best way for me to be around the game is on the coaching side. It will happen in the future. But for right now, I’m the athlete adviser for a financial education company called Edyoucore. We talk to athletes about taking advantage of what they have now, being more engaged in their finances, looking into investments and being more conscious of their spending because you never know when your career could be over. You might want to save and make sure you have as much money put aside as you possibly can.
I’d imagine it’s rewarding to positively impact so many players and help them avoid going broke.
GO: It feels good. Hopefully they listen! Nobody wants to be that cautionary tale. It’s funny, I remember watching the 30 for 30 film “Broke” and they didn’t do a story on me, but they talked about me and how injuries can end a career early. I was sitting there watching it with my friends, like everybody else, and I hear “Greg Oden” and everyone is looking at me. I was like, “What the fu**?! Do I get residuals for this?! What’s going on?!” (laughs)
You’ve talked about how your self-worth was completely tied to basketball so when the game was taken away from you due to injuries, that was very hard for you. What was that like and how were you able to come to the realization that there’s more to life than basketball?
GO: When I was away from the game. It wasn’t until I wasn’t playing anymore and my life didn’t revolve around basketball anymore. Yeah, that’s one of the toughest things that you can do. When basketball was taken away from me, I looked up and was like, “Who am I? What do I want to do? What do I enjoy doing?” I felt like every other college student just this past year when I graduated and I was like, “Alright, there goes the excuse that I’m going to school. What the hell do I want to do? What do I enjoy doing?” Being able to find out who you are, what you enjoy doing and how you can make an impact in this world, it’s tough.
But, for me, I have a little daughter and a family, so the one thing that I knew I wanted to be is a great dad; I wanted to take care of my family. I was blessed to play the game of basketball, which gives me a little cushion to figure out what’s next and try new things and learn what it is that I enjoy doing. I wanted to find something that gives me the most time at home with my family, which is what I love the most. They’re my main priority.
What are some of the hobbies and interests that you discovered?
GO: I still love going to the movies. I am probably the biggest fan of basketball because all I do is watch games all day, every day. I play a little bit of golf. I’m not good yet, but I play a little bit. I work out a lot, just trying to not get fat. (laughs) And I spend a lot of time with my daughter.
What’s your favorite movie?
GO: Okay, so my favorite movie of last year was “Knives Out.” I loved “Bad Boys For Life.” I’m excited to see “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey.” Since it’s Valentine’s Day weekend, my wife and I are going to see “The Photograph.” I’m a big Marvel guy too. I can’t wait for the spin-off shows like “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and “Loki” to come to Disney+.
I don’t think fans realize how isolating and depressing the injury-recovery process can be. I’ve talked to players like Derrick Rose about how having injury after injury and not being able to do the thing you love takes a toll on a person (physically and mentally). How tough was that, especially when there are a lot of setbacks?
GO: Yeah, trying to get yourself back to where you were is tough, especially when it’s someone like Derrick Rose because the dude was MVP. When you’re trying to get back to that level, back to the No. 1 player in the country, that’s really tough. But he’s doing an amazing job and he’s become an amazing pro. I applaud his heart to even be out there, and I love watching it as a fan. But you’re right, you’re lonely and you want to be out there with your guys. You want to be able to do the things that the team and the city you play for brought you in to do. You want to bring a championship and do great things on the court, but you just physically can’t. That’s tough. Mentally, you’re trying to deal with that. Sometimes, if you’re at a young age, you don’t even know how to deal with yourself and your own thoughts, and now you’re all by yourself. How are you handling that? How are you going to get up every day knowing that it hurts? It’s really tough mentally.
I think it’s very brave that you’re so candid about those dark times in your life and it may help others who are going through their own struggles. You’ve said that when you returned from playing in China in 2016, you were depressed and drinking daily. What was going through your mind then and how did you get out of that funk?
GO: Well, when you’re by yourself, you need to cope. I had to think about this: I used to drink a lot and I never thought about this, but it used to numb my body. So I never thought about all of the pain that I was in. And one thing that’s big in Ohio is opiate abuse. I had an abundance of pills and I was drinking and taking them. I had to deal with that stuff. I remember calling Coach [Thad] Matta and just feeling like I didn’t even know who I was and I couldn’t sit by myself and be quiet. He was like, “Just come to the gym, come to practice.” I started going back to practice and, honestly, getting basketball back in my life and having something to do every day was something that was huge in helping me get out of that funk. Then, once I was there, he told me, “You know, there’s this degree-completion program…” I was like, “Hmm, alright.” Then, when I was going back to school, I actually had to concentrate and I couldn’t be hungover every day. It gave me a path. And once I went down that road, I realized, “You don’t have to drink every day to feel okay or feel something. You’re just numbing yourself.” Then, I had a family. My daughter made me want to live a better life and do things right for her because, eventually, she’s going to hear these things about me. I’m going to have to talk to her about some of the things that I’ve done in my life, but I want to help her be a better young woman and make better decisions in her life.
How important was your support system? It sounds like Coach Matta and your family have played a crucial role in helping you get your life back on track,
GO: It’s amazing. I’m married now, so it’s great to have my wife there to tell me when I’m doing terrible and when I can do better. And my daughter, just to see the smile on that girl’s face… She doesn’t care what you’re going through, I have to be Daddy every day. That’s something that everybody needs. We try to act like we don’t need people who are there for us, but it helps to have somebody you can talk to, to run things by, to trust and to share your life with. For me, those people are my family.
Fans and some media members throw around terms like “bust.” You had no control over your injuries, but I’m sure some people still said awful things and criticized you. Did you get a lot of mean comments and what was it like dealing with those?
GO: You read those?! First off, I don’t read comments at all. I may read the first three comments, which are usually people you know, but I don’t scroll down and care about that stuff. Honestly, with the word “bust,” I used to throw it around when talking about myself. I kind of took the power away from it by saying it, like, “I might be a bust, but that’s somebody’s else personal thought.” I had an opportunity and it didn’t work out, which was unfortunate. It didn’t turn out the way that it was supposed to, but I think I was actually one heck of a basketball player back in the day. Funny story about that word “bust”: If you go to YouTube and type in “Greg Oden highlight video,” the best one is actually the one titled “Greg Oden: A Bust?” Go watch that. I’ve watched it. I actually watch it a lot, it makes me feel good about myself! (laughs)
When you were healthy, you were incredible. It was just the injuries that limited you. Former Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard told me a crazy stat: You, Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge only played 62 games together because of injuries. In those 62 games, you guys were 50-12. When healthy, you guys were dominant! Do you think about different what-ifs about your career (like how special that team could’ve been) or do you try not to focus on those things?
GO: Oh, there’s nothing to do except think about the what-ifs! That’s a great stat! That was a good team and I definitely loved playing with those guys. I still text with Brandon Roy every now and then, and I love watching LaMarcus Aldridge play. For him to become an All-Star and the player that he is and to have such a long career, I’m just so happy for him. I wish I was able to be part of it and that we could’ve grown that team even more – for Coach Nate [McMillan], for Kevin [Pritchard], for everybody involved in that Blazers organization. I really wish we could’ve stayed together and been healthier, but it just didn’t work out that way. But I will always have those great memories and I’m forever grateful to the city of Portland and everybody in the organization and Mr. Paul Allen for taking a chance on me and giving me an opportunity to play with those guys.
In The Athletic’s feature on you, it said that you’d watch Kevin Durant play and it would make you cry. Did Durant having so much success as the No. 2 pick in 2007 make things even more difficult for you?
GO: It said that? (shakes head) No, I’m happy for KD. I hope and pray that he can come back from this injury and be just like he was before – or even better. I’m nothing but a fan of KD. I wouldn’t say that I cried. I had some feelings inside like, “Damn, I was picked first…” I wish I could be doing those things! I wish I could be the businessman that he is, the good dude that he is. But I’ve never felt anger or like, “That should be me!” I’m a fan of basketball and a fan of him. I wish him nothing but the best and I hope he comes back next year and takes Brooklyn to a championship.
If you could go back to when you were dealing with the injuries and give yourself advice, what would you tell yourself?
GO: I would tell myself to be more involved and understand my body more. There were so many setbacks and I feel like if I actually understood what was happening with my body and what each of the injuries entailed, maybe we could’ve approached it differently and maybe I could possibly feel a little bit better and still be playing. That would be nice to think. But, honestly, I’d tell anybody: Don’t just listen to what somebody is telling you, make sure you actually understand what they’re talking about. Why did this happen? What are the next steps? What’s the treatment plan and how am I going to get healthy?
You seem like you’re in such a good place mentally right now. What do you attribute that to?
GO: I think it’s because I’m maturing, getting older, actually figuring out who I am and getting comfortable being myself. It’s tough when you’re young and you get a lot of money and you still haven’t figured yourself out as a person. Like I told you, in May, I graduated and I was like, “Well, what the hell do I do now?” But I’m happy just being me. Living my life and being me. What’s wrong with being a happy, positive human being? I don’t have everything figured out in life, I really don’t. But I’m enjoying it and I’m so blessed that this is the path that I went down, and I’m really accepting that. And my wife kind of puts me in my place when I need it. (laughs)
You were labeled a phenom in high school and received a ton of hype. Then, after one NCAA season, you entered the NBA as the No. 1 overall pick. But in college and early in your NBA career, you suffered numerous injuries. This is similar to Zion Williamson’s journey so far. Given what you’ve been through, what would you tell Zion?
GO: Have fun! Enjoy every minute of it, but also make sure that you’re understanding what’s going on. Make sure that you’re taking advantage of the situation that you’re in. Have meetings with these owners, talk to the mayor of New Orleans and get in those rooms. Build that brand of Zion while you’re the man right now. Really, the biggest thing that I want to say to him is take advantage of this. But have fun. Don’t take yourself or all of this noise too seriously. Enjoy it! Also, realize that you put the work in and you deserve this, and keep on working to get even better.
You played with Mike Conley growing up and you guys had a ton of success together. For those who don’t know, you and Mike won three-straight state titles in high school and led Ohio State to the NCAA national championship game in 2007. Are you and Mike still close?
GO: Yeah! I told you about seeing the movie “Knives Out.” Well, when I saw it, I was the third wheel on a date with Mike and his wife! (laughs) We were in Utah.
What do you make of the Houston Rockets’ decision to stop using a center, relying instead on PJ Tucker and Robert Covington at the 5?
GO: I think it’s just the evolution of the basketball player. Now, you have a seven-footer who’s able to bring the ball up the court, run the offense, shoot the three to spread out the floor and then he can also take you down in the post and dunk on you? I mean, that’s just a good basketball player to me. I see what Houston is doing and that’s a real advantage for them because they get to play fast. As a seven-footer, it’s going to be tough for you to guard a backcourt player like that. But also, on the other end, when you get a big who can shoot threes but also knows how to go into the post, he’s going to be like, “Yeah, PJ Tucker come guard me!” That’s going to be tough for them, but they’ve got some guys on that team that can really [defend]. I think Coach [Mike] D’Antoni is really going to make it work because he’s a really good coach, and they have great players who understand and who can adapt. But so will the rest of the league. Other teams and players will evolve as well.
You’re so recognizable. Unlike guards, it’s harder for you to blend in given your seven-foot frame. What is it like not being able to leave your house without being recognized and how do you deal with that?
GO: I use my daughter sometimes. If I don’t want to talk to nobody, I just pick her up and keep it moving. (laughs) No, but really, it’s been happening to me since I was a kid. If they come at me with respect, I give them the time that I can. But understand that I have things to do and please respect my privacy and my time with my family. Don’t be an a-hole about it and I’ll give you my time.
That’s should be a general rule for life: Don’t be an a-hole.
GO: Yes, it should! Definitely. I forgot where I heard that, but I always say it. Don’t be an a**hole. That’s the only thing you need to know. (laughs) That’s the rule of life: Don’t be an a**hole!