This is almost unbelievable to think about: the last time I exchanged more than a few pleasantries with Portland Trail Blazers center Greg Oden was all the way back in January, as he addressed a media crowd regarding nude pictures of him that had leaked online. Sure, I saw him in the locker room during the playoffs, saw him in the workout room right before Summer League and read all the articles following his summer activities. But Oden has redefined the term "low key" during his current rehabilitation.
Today, I found myself in the birthday party room at Big Al's in Vancouver, watching as Oden moved easily and happily through a crowd of hundreds of kids (dubbed "Team Oden") assembled for an event hosted by Oregon Mentors, handing out autographed photographs and posing for picture after picture. Here's a slideshow of images from the event.
It was an unlikely scene for the conversation -- amidst party balloons and with happy bowling noises going on in the background -- but it didn't seem to matter, as Oden was at ease even though he was hunched over a kid-sized round table. He took questions patiently and with an easy smile, the Shaq-esque charisma that has been so elusive was back in full force, especially as he recalled meeting new general manager Rich Cho for the first time and not recognizing him. Given that access to Oden is so guarded and his profile has been so low, I left Big Al's thinking this was probably the happiest and easiest I'd seen him in at least a year.
With that said, as you read the following transcript of our conversation, you'll realize his answers raise some questions. For starters, a full 8 months after he injured his knee in December, Oden still has yet to commit to a firm recovery timeline. Pushed for details, Oden referred specific questions about the rehabilitation process to his doctor.
Here's the full transcript of our conversation.
Blazersedge: Tell me first about the event today and the progress you've made with developing this mentorship program.
"Originally, the thing at the start was to do whatever I can to put my name on it. To definitely try to help to get as many mentors as possible. The goal was 40,000 by the end of 2010. We've got 35,000 now and that's something I'm very excited about. In the next couple months I'm trying to get 5,000 more and hopefully keep it going."
Blazersedge: What kind of people are signing up as mentors? Are they Blazers fans attracted to your name and the cause that way?
"I think there's a lot of different people. I'd say a majority of them are probably Blazers fans, seeing what I'm doing brings them to this. But a lot of people who aren't Blazers fans are probably seeing me, at least know who I am, and seeing that I'm actually doing something for a good cause, probably think if I'm doing it they should go out and do it themselves."
Blazersedge: It's been a summer of causes for you with the Brian Grant fundraiser and the golf tournament back in Indiana. I read you were a little nervous stepping into the tee box. How'd it go?
"It went good. I actually golfed the whole 18. i was pretty excited. I've never golfed a whole 18. We actually ended 7 under but that was because we had a guy on our team who actually golfs for Indiana University. We had a ringer."
Blazersedge: What's your workout like at this point? I saw you jogging back in July on a treadmill. Doing the balance work. Where are you right now in your schedule and how do you feel?
"I feel good. My body feels good. Still doing my workout, my rehab stuff. Getting on the court, running some. Everything feels good and everything looks like it's going to be pretty good for me this season. The big thing for me is to do all I can to make sure all my focus is on basketball. I'm definitely doing that. I think Indiana was the right place for me, the right place for me to be."
Blazersedge: Were there things taking your focus off of basketball?
"Oh, no, I didn't mean to say that. I was just saying that being home is giving me a chance to concentrate on getting my game back and basically stay out of the media, stay out of doing stuff like that. Just worried about doing what I'm doing for myself. Not trying to make a big deal."
Blazersedge: Eliminate the distractions?
Blazersedge: Where's your head at? You've had a long layoff and it's only a few months until training camp. Are you pumped, confident, what's your mental mindframe right now?
"I'm all of the above. I'm definitely confident. I definitely have a chip on my shoulder. I have something to strive for. This is a big year for me. No matter what happens. I gotta get a contract also. There's a lot of stuff that goes into going into this year. I'm excited about it, I'm ready for it to start, I'm ready to just get going and show everybody what I can do."
Blazersedge: Have you met and talked to Rich Cho yet?
Blazersedge: What has he told you about his expectations for you?
"We haven't had that conversation yet but we've talked briefly. Pretty soon me and him are going to sit down and have dinner and talk about all that. What I've seen is that he's a good guy. He's seen me workout but we really haven't had that sit down chat yet."
Blazersedge: What was your first impression of him?
"It's funny because the first time I met him -- I hadn't met him before -- but when I saw [the hiring] on TV I was in Indiana, I didn't really see his face or anything like that. So then I was at the Brian Grant event and I was talking to him. And then he started asking me real serious questions. And then I was like, 'I... think... this is him... I'm ... not ...sure.' That was kind of funny." [laughs]
Blazersedge: It was a case of mistaken identity?
"Yeah, I started realizing like, 'Oh.... this is him.'" [laughs]
Blazersedge: You're here talking about mentors. There's a lot of theories that have floated around the internet about where you've been, what you've been up to since we haven't seen you in so long. Who would you say serves as your mentors or your support staff right now?
"First, I wanna know what they're saying on the internet. I don't read that stuff."
Blazersedge: They say things like you go out and party, you've been seen in Vegas a few times this summer. They've heard you talk about some distractions or trying to focus on basketball. Some fans or readers think that perhaps you're not focused. And some of that comes from the fact that we haven't seen you a lot.
"I guess the big thing this summer is that I didn't want all that media attention this summer. I wanted to concentrate on ball. I didn't want everybody in every aspect of my workouts. If I had a bad workout, the media is going to be there, 'Is he going to be ready?' All of those conclusions come from nobody seeing me.
"I'm back in Indiana and back to your original question, my mentor, somebody who I can have there for me by my side, is my mom. For the first half of the summer I was there living with her, before I got my own place. Just to have that rock there, somebody who I've grown up with. If I needed anything, even if I wanted a glass of water and I didn't want to get out of bed, she comes down and helps me out. That's why I'm back home and that's my biggest mentor, person who helps me out."
Blazersedge: What's your relationship like with Blazers President Larry Miller and Blazers Head Coach Nate McMillan like right now? Do you see those guys as people in your life?
"Those guys are in my life. I definitely make it a point to try to call or talk to one of them every couple of weeks. I've definitely been trying that this summer with calling Nate a lot, talking to him. Definitely building a relationship with Larry. And now starting to try to build one with Rich. Just try to get close to these guys so they can trust me and believe in me this year."
Blazersedge: Do you feel like they believe in you right now?
"I feel like they believe in me but I just want to build it a little closer. The closer that we are, the better that the team is going to do."
Blazersedge: I ask because I've heard some people around the team throw out the words "all star" when they talk about you and your future. I get the sense that that belief is there pretty solidly.
"That's where I plan to be. That's where I'm striving towards. Like I said in an interview earlier this summer, I'm preparing myself right now to be an all star. I can't predict the future but I know right now that whatever happens I'm prepared for."
Blazersedge: Are you ready to say today that you'll be playing opening night?
"No, I'm on whatever the doctors says. Right now I'm not going to put a timetable on it. I just keep moving in segments. Whenever the doctor says I can move here, then I can move here. If that's opening night, then that's opening night. I can't say that I can give you a timetable because I can't."
Blazersedge: What's the next segment you've got to do?
"You'd have to talk to the doctor about that one. I just know my body feels good. I'm happy. I'm on schedule to heal. Take that however you want to. I'm excited for this year. I will be playing this year. So I'm excited."
Blazersedge: It's good to see you on Twitter.
"Yeah, finally they got me to make it public. It's cool."
Blazersedge: How do you like it?
"Actually I'm not that big a fan of Twitter. I hear it different ways. People are like, 'It's like text messaging to a whole bunch of people' or it's 'letting everybody know what you're doing.' I'm not into that. I like reading what other people say though. It's funny to me."
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter
PS You can follow Greg Oden on Twitter here.