Dear Greg: Don't change who you are   

Updated: May 22, 2007, 12:59 PM ET

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I thought Greg Oden was pulling my leg.

Sure, "Switch" was hot for a minute but who actually knows every song by Will Smith? Least of all the guy who is supposed to be the NBA's next great big man? But Oden didn't blink when I asked him to give me a couple of bars of "Summertime," a classic, but Oden was what, 2 years old when it came out?

    "Here it is, the groove slightly transformed
    Just a bit of a break from the norm ..."

"I don't want to go no further, you know, make him mad, copyright his stuff ..." Oden says with a smile.

Greg Oden and Travis Smith

Photo courtesy of Travis Smith family

Travis Smith, Oden's best friend, was killed in an automobile accident in January.

His admiration of Smith doesn't end there. Not only does Oden own every CD but he also has all of Will Smith's movies and has seen every episode of "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air."

He also watches way too much CBS for a 19-year-old.

To look at Greg Oden -- his towering frame, dark skin, grizzly face -- he fits the stereotypical image of one not to mess with.

But to know Greg Oden, how could you not?

The future lottery pick has this refreshing affinity for some of the corniest things middle America has to offer. There's nothing edgy or hardcore about Will Smith and there isn't anything edgy or hardcore about his biggest fan -- pun intended.

"I wanted to be a dentist when I was younger," Oden says, ironic, considering he recently had 11 cavities filled because of his sweet tooth. "But then I started to get big and realized that my hands were so big, I'd kind of scare the little kids away.

"I just realized that basketball and going to the NBA was a possibility, and that's something that I want to use to better my family and possibly help the world if I can."

You want to help the world, Greg?

Don't change.

Stay the same warm, slightly goofy and totally un-hip person that you are. Love Will Smith, TiVo "The New Adventures of Old Christine," and if you want, wear a fanny pack on road trips.

OK, don't wear the fanny pack.

But do continue to be yourself.

Greg Oden and friends

Photo courtesy of Travis Smith family

It's hard to develop street cred when you spent part of your childhood in Terre Haute, Indiana.

One of the reasons black men in general, and specifically those in the NBA have an image problem is because too many of us treat street cred as a precious commodity to obtain, as opposed to what it really is -- the byproduct of unfortunate circumstances. The rationale is so perverse that otherwise friendly players will scowl in photo shoots and spin tales about the hustle despite growing up attending private schools in the suburbs or in a loving home with two parents. Listen, regardless of what they will tell you, every black person older than 50 did not march with Dr. King and every black NBA player did not dodge bullets to get to school.

Members of the media will often blindly play along, walking into an interview with the story already written in their heads because, "Hey, it's a black ballplayer, of course he had it rough." They will edit video footage to show a player looking menacing on the court and yelling toward the heavens while a voiceover describes him as a "beast" or "monster" over a hip-hop beat. They will leave clips of a smiling Greg Oden on the cutting room floor because it doesn't fit the theme they are going for. They will briefly mention how the death of his best friend, Travis Smith, affected his life because he died in an automobile accident but had it been a gang-related death it would have been the dramatic lead. I've already had an exchange with someone in the media wondering how Oden's love of Will Smith will affect his street cred. All I kept thinking was, "Greg Oden grew up in Terre Haute, Ind. How much street cred can he have?"

It doesn't help that shoe companies prefer their basketball players black, intimidating and with a high level of street appeal. It makes it easier to market their products to consumers who wear "Stop Snitchin'" T-shirts and the people who inspire them. This explains why the past two NBA MVPs -- Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki -- don't have their own shoes but Carmelo Anthony and Tracy McGrady do. All are talented players but obviously the who-gets-what decisions are not based solely on wins. A shame considering there are tons of 30-something gym rats who would probably love to buy a Nash shoe if for no other reason than they can identify with him.

And there are plenty of young, black men who identify with Greg Oden. Not everyone is edgy, or hardcore, or from the streets. Some are warm, slightly goofy and totally un-hip, and they need someone they can relate to as well.

You can't control what people think about you but you can control what you think about yourself.

Very soon Greg Oden will be presented with that opportunity to help the world. But it won't come from writing a check or volunteering for a charity. It will come from his willingness to continue to say "Two and a Half Men" is his favorite TV show and "Parents Just Don't Understand" is the greatest rap song ever recorded.

Corny? Yes. But it's important to remember the street is not the only place where cred comes from.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and host of the ESPN360 talk show "Game Night." You can reach him here.


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