The Book On Dominique Oden: She's Something Special
Before starting ninth grade, Dominique Oden visited Atlanta's Marist High School, which was hosting an open house so prospective students could tour the campus and meet the faculty.
When Oden arrived at the gym, she met with basketball coach Kim Hixon. But basketball was not what Oden had on her mind.
"She kept telling me how gorgeous the library was," Hixon said. "I thought she was kidding. But now that I've known her for almost four years, I know she was being sincere. She really loves to read."
Oden, who has a 3.95 GPA and wants to be an architectural engineer, is more than just an academic standout -- she's pretty good at basketball, too.
A 5-foot-9 senior guard who has committed to Purdue, Oden averaged 24 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals as a junior last season, leading Marist to the Elite Eight in the Class 4A Georgia playoffs. In the regional finals, Oden won a duel for the ages. She had 33 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals in a 54-53 overtime win over St. Pius X, which was led by 39 points from superstar Asia Durr, now at Louisville.
All that, and Oden is still as comfortable with a book in her hands as she is with a basketball at her fingertips. She goes so far as to describe her younger self as "antisocial."
"I don't know why, but I just didn't want anyone around me," said the 17-year-old, who spent her childhood in New Orleans before it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago. "When you read, it's a good escape. You don't have to focus on the real world."
That "real world," as Oden puts it, has brought her much heartache.
When she was 4, she was in the car when her dad, Marquis Oden, was murdered just a few feet away from her and two of her sisters.
Trudy Drayton-Oden, Marquis' widow and now a single mother of four girls, said her husband was an innocent victim -- a high school teacher who had tried to help a drug-addicted student who instead turned a gun on him after being confronted about a theft.
Drayton-Oden, who has been a hospice nurse for more than 27 years, said the man who murdered her husband shot him in the back four times. "I don't remember a lot," Dominique said when asked about her dad. "I remember he was tall. We have pictures of him, and I think I make memories of him because I've heard so many stories."
Three years after Oden lost her father, she lost her city.
On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina stuck New Orleans, and nothing would ever be the same. The Oden family, like hundreds of thousands of other residents, evacuated. Their first stop was a brief one, in Tallahassee, Florida, where Dominique's uncle lived. Later, the family landed and settled in Atlanta.
Katrina's impact on Oden was minimal compared with countless others. Hers is a story of success, in fact. Katrina pushed Oden to Georgia, where she's done nothing but flourish. Her actual memories of life in New Orleans are few, and many of them are bad.
Oden returned to her hometown to play in an AAU tournament in 2013, and was surprised by what she found.
I have family there, but it doesn't feel the same.Dominique Oden
"I remember it way different from the way it is now," Oden said. "I didn't like it. I have family there, but it doesn't feel the same."
Oden's mother, Trudy, recalls fun details from her life in New Orleans. Trudy's mother, a seamstress, would make many an elaborate gown for Mardi Gras.
Meanwhile, Trudy, who went to high school in New Orleans (John F. Kennedy) and college in Baton Rouge (Southern University), remembers a lot of good times in her home growing up on Mendez Street.
New Orleans is where she met, married and lost her husband. It's where her daughters -- Diamond, Dominique, Diarra and Divine -- were born. And she can practically still smell the city and taste its signature food: gumbo, crawfish, beignets and more.
"Katrina washed the foundation out from under me," Trudy said.
After making the move to Atlanta, the Odens found the comfort of family -- Dominique's uncle Cedric Drayton and her cousins Tyler and Tess. The transition, Trudy says, has been relatively smooth.
"Once the girls started playing sports," she said, "it brought a great balance to our lives."
The story of the Oden family is one of perseverance over pain, triumph despite torment.
Trudy's father died of lung cancer in 1999. Her mother died of colon cancer in 2006.
"I had to rely on God," said Trudy, whose grandfather was a pastor. "That's all I knew."
Her faith was severely tested when Dominique was born prematurely and had to wear a heart monitor for the first 10 months of her life.
"She was so little -- the doctors didn't think she would live past 5 years old," Trudy said. "But she has always been a fighter."
Her oldest daughter, 20-year-old Diamond, is a junior at Cornell, studying environmental and sustainability sciences. After Diamond graduates, she wants to join the Peace Corps. Diarra, 15, is a member of the Marist varsity basketball team. She has overcome ACL injuries to each of her knees. Divine is a 12-year-old middle school basketball player. Diamond calls Dominique calls her "little rock."
Recently, Diamond has noticed a change in Dominique and the dynamic at home.
"My sisters used to defer to me," she said. "But now when my mom is busy working, Dominique cooks.
"I'm proud of her. It's not easy being the big sister, but Dominique runs the show now."
Brian Harmon, who coaches Dominique in club ball for FBC, said he would challenge anyone to find a kid who sacrifices as much as she does for the good of her family.
"With everything that has happened, she would have every reason to make excuses, but she never makes any," Harmon said. "When the bills are short, she will take care of it -- whatever it takes to get through the month.
"With her mom having to work, she is there sometimes by herself with her little sisters. They respect her. If they don't -- watch out! She's a tough kid."
Hixon said Dominique is the type of player every coach loves.
"When I saw that she was probably more serious about her books and studying than she cares about athletics, it just made me immediately fall in love with the kid," Hixon said.
According to Hixon, Dominique really liked South Carolina's coaches during the recruiting process before ruling them out. "She said, 'Coach, if they don't have my major, I'm not interested,'" Hixon said. "She's so level-headed. She gets it. She won't play basketball forever."
With everything that has happened, she would have every reason to make excuses, but she never makes any.Marist coach Kim Hixon
Dominique eventually chose Purdue over Harvard, Princeton, Notre Dame and others.
Hixon said Purdue is getting a mature leader. Last season, Marist had six freshmen on varsity, and Dominique mentored each one.
"She could have been all about herself -- she could have worked out with a personal trainer," Hixon said. "Instead, she made sure that when we didn't have practice, she was working out on campus where her teammates could see her.
"Defensively, she goes too hard sometimes. She defends 94 feet. She'd rather rest on offense than on defense. That's her DNA."
Oden's leadership tendencies can get intense at times.
She recently scolded her sister for getting what she thought was a bizarre haircut. And this was her older sister, not one of the younger girls.
But Oden does have a lighter side.
After the practicing, the playing, the mentoring and the studying all get done, she knows just what to do.
She grabs a book, puts on some headphones so her music can drown out any outside noise ... and she escapes, reading her favorite genre -- fan fiction.
"It's really important to have an activity you can use to enjoy yourself," Oden said. "I don't stress. It's not good to stress -- so I don't do it."