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Published: Thursday, 6/28/2007

Taking care of Trail Blazers

BY LIZ ROBBINS
NEW YORK TIMES
Greg Oden was a big attraction on the streets of New York yesterday, along with, clockwise from left, Ohio State teammate Michael Conley Jr., Kevin Durant and Al Horford. Greg Oden was a big attraction on the streets of New York yesterday, along with, clockwise from left, Ohio State teammate Michael Conley Jr., Kevin Durant and Al Horford.
KATHY WILLENS / AP Enlarge

NEW YORK - Greg Oden held a tissue in his left hand, coughed like a truck rumbling through Times Square and graciously extended his right hand.

"Don't worry," he said with his mustache-stretching smile, "I used hand sanitizer."

Oden was looking out for others even though he was only beginning a whirlwind schedule of interviews Tuesday in his first visit to New York City. The 19-year-old, 7-foot Oden is approaching tonight's NBA draft - where he is likely to be the first pick - with a cold.

It is rare, NBA team executives say, that a player like Oden possesses the physical prowess and crisp fundamentals that could alter a franchise's future. It is rarer still that he possesses a humility that sidesteps his stature for his friends, teammates and opponents.

"When he talks, everything is about the team," said Portland general manager Kevin Pritchard, who will make the first selection. "The thing we feel comfortable with is that his core is about being a caregiver. How are his teammates feeling? How do I help them succeed? How can we win a championship?"

Still, Pritchard said Portland had not decided whether Ohio State's Oden or the similarly unselfish and freakishly talented 6-foot-9 forward Kevin Durant of Texas would be the one to take the franchise to that vaunted level.

But the prevailing belief from analysts and team executives who identified Oden as a No. 1 pick while he was still in high school is that Pritchard must seize the obvious - that talented 7-footers like Oden do not come around often.

"In the modern era since Michael Jordan there's been nine championships and eight have been won by Shaq and Tim Duncan," said Bill Walton, the ESPN analyst and Hall of Fame center who led the Blazers to the 1977 title.

Taking Oden, said Walton, "could change everything. This was a franchise on the brink."

They were recently known as the Jail Blazers for their players' legal troubles. The owner, Paul Allen, tried unsuccessfully to sell the team last year. Now, the Blazers, with their team-first ethos, rookie of the year Brandon Roy, and No. 1 pick, have re-energized a city Oden wants to join.

"No. 1 would be nice," Oden said, adding that regardless of draft position, he and Durant agreed to stay friends. "We're only two hours away no matter what, we can just go up and chill with each other," said Oden, referring to Durant's likely selection as the No. 2 pick by Seattle.

Oden called his one season at Ohio State "the greatest year." He loved being the big man on a campus that revolved around football, keeping him out of the spotlight until he took the Buckeyes to the national championship game.

Even after Florida won, Oden could not get to class without being mobbed.

"Every time I go somewhere and someone recognizes me and I'm with Mike Conley Jr.," Oden said about his former point guard who is likely to be drafted no later than fourth, "I'm like, 'Do they not recognize you? Is it my face? What's going on here?'•"

Oden's wizened face - with deep lines across his forehead and chiseled cheeks - has had people calling him Grandpa since he was in junior high. His mother, Zoe, said she showed his birth certificate, Jan. 22, 1988, so often it is falling apart.

But behind Oden's face and beneath his pressed dress shirt there is another story, one that begins: Until We Meet Again.

In a fresh tattoo across his chest, Oden has memorialized his best friend, Travis Smith, who died in a car crash last January. Smith was Oden's first friend in fourth grade when Zoe moved Oden and her younger son, Anthony, 17, from Buffalo to Terre Haute, Ind.

"I'm not one to cry," Oden said. "But I think about him all the time. I try to look out for his family."

Oden invited Travis' father, Jimmy, the boys' AAU coach, and his wife, Tami, to attend the draft.

"I tried to talk to Jimmy on Father's Day," Oden said. "He was just leaving the cemetery. He said, 'Thank you, but I really can't talk right now.'•"

Oden, too, grew silent, before recalling with a laugh the spitball escapades in which he and Smith conspired.

Oden is matter-of-fact in his revelations, as he apologized to Pritchard for not having the best workout last week.

"He said, 'I could have done better. I want to do better, I put a lot of pressure on myself,'•" Pritchard said. "And we're OK with that."

Oden offers no apologies for his no-frills post game, though one is emerging more fully now since recovering from his right wrist injury that limited him at Ohio State.

"My game is just basic: big-man hook shot," he said. "I'm excelling at what I'm doing now, why change it? Maybe one day it means me going out there and dribbling and doing fancy stuff. Right now, it's just being in the post, rebounding, playing good defense, blocking shots."

During the NBA finals, Oden traveled to Cleveland to attend Game 3 between the Cavaliers and San Antonio. There he met with Bill Russell, and came away wanting to emulate Russell's meticulous scouting of opponents.

He already has tape of Orlando's all-star big man, Dwight Howard, and can mimic Tim Duncan's deadpan delivery on his favorite credit card commercial.

Mostly, he wants to emulate his mother, who worked two jobs to support her children while instilling in them a sense of independence. Zoe thought about accompanying Oden as a rookie, but Oden talked her out of it. She said she felt reassured in meeting the Blazers, featuring a nurturing but no-nonsense coach in Nate McMillan, assistant coach Maurice Lucas and Pritchard.

"Those group of guys are wonderful, they will take care of him," Zoe said.

If they choose him, Oden hopes to return the favor.



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