Greg Oden is back at Ohio State trying to find himself

A new beginning for Greg Oden (6:43)

Former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden opens up to OTL's Jeff Goodman about his personal battles, being labeled a "bust" and returning to Ohio State, where he is a student assistant coach and working on his degree. (6:43)

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Jan. 25.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- As Greg Oden headed to his first day of classes this past fall as a sophomore at Ohio State, he spied a note waiting for him.

"We are so proud of you,'' it read.

Sabrina Williams had penned the note for her fiancé, with the "we" meant to include the couple's infant daughter, Londyn.

Proud of you.

No one had said that in reference to Oden in a long time. Concerned and worried? Yes, he had heard that a lot recently. Stunned and confused was familiar, too.

But proud? That was a new one.

And it was all the motivation Oden needed.

He slung his backpack over his shoulder and headed out the door, a 28-year-old sports industry major still not entirely sure what he wants to be when he grows up but determined to at least be a better version of the Greg Oden he's become.

THAD MATTA ALWAYS THOUGHT Oden would be "one of the greatest all-time basketball players in the history of the game.'' He was not alone, with countless others sure the 7-foot wonder was headed for greatness. Oden, the two-time national high school player of the year, blessed with a high hoops IQ, savvy footwork and a soft touch, was a once-in-a-generation talent.

Except that Oden, the one destined to change the game, never made it in the NBA, his career short-circuited by knees that simply wouldn't work. He played just 105 games in the league, the equivalent of little more than a full season. Were it to end there, with three microfracture surgeries and a horrific broken kneecap, Oden's story would be sad enough.

"Heartbreaking,'' Matta calls it.

But as his professional life careened off the rails, Oden swerved his reputation into a ditch. The sports pages didn't just reveal his injury slide -- these pages detailed a far more catastrophic fall that included drinking, a leaked naked picture and an arrest for domestic assault.

That is how he ended up here, back again on the Ohio State campus, shagging rebounds and feeding passes as a student-coach for the Buckeyes. Oden calls Ohio State his "comfy place." It is his cocoon, the warm embrace of a security blanket. People here still adore him, steadfast in their faith that Oden is a good person despite the headlines that scream otherwise. Here he does not get the sideways looks of disapproval; instead, here, he is still viewed with reverence.

"That's Greg Oden; still think that every day,'' freshman forward Micah Potter says.

Columbus, too, is the last place everything went right for Oden, where basketball was fun and easy, where there was hope, promise. He averaged 15.7 points and 9.6 rebounds during his collegiate career in which he also won player of the year awards and appeared in a national championship game.

Oden is not looking for a time machine to erase his past or provide a chance to do it all over. He cannot undo what has been done anymore than he can change some people's opinions of him. But he is hoping that here, as a student-coach, a student, a father and soon, a husband, he can finally figure out how to go forward.

"A new beginning?'' Oden said. "Yeah, this is definitely a new beginning for me.''

THE PHONE RANG LATE AT NIGHT, probably close to midnight, three years ago.

"Coach,'' Oden began, "I'm sorry to bother you.''

Though he hadn't been his coach in years -- and technically coached Oden for only a few months -- Matta remained close with his former big man. The two exchanged texts and phone calls regularly, through all of Oden's ups and downs. Matta always told his former star he could come home to Ohio State whenever he needed. Oden never took him up on the offer, intent to keep playing, convinced he could make a go of it in basketball.

This call was different. Oden was in Miami, on a one-year contract with the Heat, trying one more attempt at a playing career after three full years out of basketball.

"I don't think I can do this anymore,'' he told Matta. "I'm afraid I'm going to get hurt. I want to be able to walk, to enjoy my life.''

Matta would recall that conversation a few months later, when he sat in a hotel in the Bahamas as bad news scrolled across the bottom of a television screen. Oden was supposed to be there, too, part of the traveling party for Ohio State's 2014 summer tour. But Oden had opted out at the last minute.

While the Buckeyes played on their foreign tour, Oden was arrested and charged with battery after punching his then-girlfriend three times, hitting her so hard he fractured her nose. Oden only stopped when his mother, Zoe, awoken by the commotion, pulled him off the woman.

As Matta read the news, he realized the Oden who placed that midnight phone call was more than just a player staring at the end of his competitive career; he was a man hurtling toward rock bottom.

"He was 26 years old, and I think he finally realized he had to get his life back in order,'' Matta says now.

Keeping order never seemed to be a problem early on for Oden. He was never the type to embrace the spotlight, content to keep his circle small and his life simple. Hyped since middle school, he never bought into his own story. He begged Matta to "please coach me" in the one season the two were together at Ohio State. He was wary of people who wanted to kiss up to him because of his talents. He never understood -- and still doesn't -- why being Greg Oden made him such a big deal.

The locker room was his solace, the one place where who he was didn't matter so much as what he did. He would go out of his way, he says, to find common ground with his teammates, convinced that even a forced bond was better than none at all.

His first knee injury occurred before his rookie season with the Portland Trail Blazers even began. So Oden began his professional life cut off from the very lifeblood he craved. Stuck in the solitude of rehab, he never developed any real rapport with his new teammates, feeling like an outsider to the franchise that had invested so much in him by taking him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft, ahead of perennial All-Star Kevin Durant.

Worse still, he was a teenager alone in Portland, living in a city where he knew no one, but everyone knew him. Or at least they knew Greg Oden, Basketball Star and not Greg Oden, Human Being. People were pleasant enough, supportive and friendly, but they also expected something out of him.

Namely they expected Oden to save their NBA franchise.

He didn't, and the pleasantries turned into muted whispers as his time under the knife doubled his time on the court. All these years later, Oden still sounds stung when he recounts one of the ridiculous rumors about how he injured his knee. "Bowling, that was one of them,'' he says. "What could I possibly do so hard bowling?"

One knee injury begat the next, a chain reaction of misfortune that left Oden to himself and for the first time, left him without basketball for long stretches. He started drinking excessively to celebrate his too few accomplishments and drinking to forget his too many setbacks.

"It wasn't like I was clinically depressed, but I was so down. I think I was probably depressed,'' he says. "Nothing went my way since college, and I put my head down and kind of pitied myself. That wasn't the right way to go.''

A leaked naked picture was easily written off, sophomoric sure, but never intended for the public. Still the photo emerged while Oden was sidelined with injury, this time a broken kneecap, arming disenfranchised fans with more fuel for their frustration. Oden eventually called a news conference to apologize for his actions. At least in that case, the only victim was Oden himself.

But August 2014, that was another story. This was no victimless crime. This was a 7-foot, 250-plus-pound man unleashing his anger and bitterness, his disappointment and failures, on a woman named Christina Green.

There was no excuse then. In court documents, Oden admitted what happened. "Things got out of control, and I started to go after Christina. My mother and [Green's best friend] Toni tried to hold me back, but I swung my arms to move them out of the way and then punched Christina in the face. I was wrong, and I know what has to happen.''

Attempts by Outside the Lines to reach Green were unsuccessful.

Oden does not try to offer an excuse now. The bad knees, the dream never realized, the drinking may have led Oden astray.

He chose to swing his fist.

"That was a terrible person in a terrible place,'' he says. "She did not deserve any of that. I'm very sorry for it. I have to show a better example for everybody. I have a fiancée now. I can't have people looking at her weird. I've got a baby girl, and I could never imagine anyone doing something like that to her. It still hurts me that I put that lady and her family through that. That was not somebody I ever thought I could be.''

EARLY IN THE MORNING, late at night, during the hours of alone time Oden piled up a year ago during his one season playing for the Jiangsu Dragons in China, he'd pull out his phone and thumb notes, an electronic journal of a man playing devil's advocate with himself.

I love this game.
I've played it my whole life.
It's all I've known.
Who walks away from all that money?
Even guys sitting on the bench are getting paid enough to be set for life.
But I want to be happy.
I want to have my health.
I want to do something.

He was wrestling with more than the end of a dream. He was coming to grips with the end of what he thought was his destiny. Greg Oden was a basketball player. His future, he always thought, would follow the bounce of a ball.

Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, every great athlete has to come to terms with the end, even after enjoying long and illustrious careers, even with the fanfare of farewell tours and celebratory final bows.

Oden would not walk off to the drumbeat of thunderous applause. He would simply fade away.

The Dragons eventually made it easy for him, waiving Oden after the team failed to make the playoffs, saving themselves a good portion of his month-to-month salary. But it was Oden who finally decided to stop chasing windmills.

Instead of searching for one more team for one more season, he took Matta up on his offer. Oden returned to Ohio State. He signed on originally as a student-manager. Once he enrolled full-time in school, and all the compliance box T's were crossed and I's dotted, Matta was able to promote him to student-coach.

"I just knew there were certain roads I could go down, but this was the best one for me,'' Oden says. "To get that degree, to continue to stay around basketball, that's what will help me down the road.''

Oden knows how it looks: a washed-up has-been trying to recapture his faded glory or airbrush his image. But he's not here seeking a second chance or hoping to rebrand himself as a "changed man." He, in fact, only reluctantly agreed to an interview and is well aware the assault charge will stay with him for a lifetime. (Oden struck a plea deal that called for probation and counseling).

He also didn't come to Ohio State out of desperation, a lost man with nowhere else to go. He came as a man who finally had a direction and a plan, enrolling at Ohio State for the same reason that most people go to college.

Greg Oden is trying to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up.

Now the hard part -- figuring out what exactly that is.

"Honestly I really don't know,'' Oden says.

That makes him like plenty of college sophomores, except that most college sophomores are not 28 years old and certainly not former No. 1 overall NBA draft picks.

Oden is fine with the quizzical stares and the selfie requests, happy to be settling into a rhythm that may lack superstardom but includes welcomed normalcy.

His day usually begins at 3 a.m., with a cry or a whimper from four-month-old Londyn. Sabrina is working at Nationwide Children's Hospital and studying to be a nurse, so Oden takes the middle-of-the-night feeding to allow his fiancée time to sleep.

By late morning, he's out the door early for class, eventually winding his way to practice.

His student-coaching duties could expand down the road, but right now, the duties mostly consist of working with the Buckeyes post players.

The days usually zoom by.

"I'm happy with where my life is headed right now,'' he says.

Considering where he had been, that is no small achievement.

Matta thinks Oden would make a terrific coach, that the combination of his skills, knowledge and personality would translate well with players. Athletic trainer Vince O'Brien, who has known Oden since he arrived at Ohio State for the first time, says even though Oden's role is small, his impact on the Buckeyes is not. He pipes up with insight when he sees fit, careful not to overstep.

"Ohio State needed Greg as much as we needed him,'' O'Brien says.

"That's true,'' says Potter, who is helping himself to some food in the Ohio State locker room as O'Brien is being interviewed. "He's fun and he's upbeat all of the time,'' the freshman says. "But he's also smart. He works with us on defense, explains footwork and how to read certain situations. He makes things a lot easier.''

Oden doesn't discount the idea of coaching. But he's also intrigued with the notion of running a team from an administrative standpoint. Oden jokes that if someone wants to make him a general manager someday, he'd be more than interested. And then in the next breath, he mentions television work, or even something in film.

"I really wish I knew,'' he says.

This obviously is a man at a crossroads.

EACH DAY AS HE HEADS to the locker room, Oden passes the Mike Conley Jr. Strength and Conditioning Room, built via a $500,000 donation from his former teammate and best friend.

This summer, just as Oden was giving up his career, Conley signed a five-year, $153 million deal with the Memphis Grizzlies.

It strikes Oden, the divergent paths of their careers. How could it not? But he says he's neither envious or angry.

"All I know is what I've lived through, so this is what I know,'' he says. "I envisioned my career going the same way as his did, but it didn't, and now I'm just so happy for him. I don't think he even knows how happy I am for him.''

The feeling is mutual. Conley, like so many, can't help but shake his head at what might have been.

"So frustrating,'' he told Outside the Lines.

But he, like everyone else, all are following Oden's lead. He is not bitter, and so they won't be on his behalf.

"To be honest, I'm happy for him,'' Conley told Outside the Lines. "As much as people want to talk about his career and all these things he could have had, I think what we focused on is what he has right now, and it's an unbelievable blessing for him. Not a lot of people could have gotten out of the situation he was in, all the mistakes, all the issues, and gotten to a level playing ground where he's at now, where he feels, you know, excited and happy for every day that he has. So, I mean, it's really neat to see it.''

Oden misses basketball, but he is at peace with the end of his career and content to feed his hoops' jones at Buckeyes' practices or as a 7-foot ringer for the Ohio State manager team. His knees remind him every day that there is no other choice, swelling after a workout, aching so much that a good day can only be described as "all right."

Just a few months ago, he told ESPN's Jeff Goodman that he was the biggest bust in NBA history, but he has since amended the definition.

"If you're out there and you can't do it, that makes you a bust,'' he says. "Well, I was never really out there. I was never Greg Oden in the NBA.''

But who is Greg Oden?

That's the real answer he is seeking. He played basketball. He was a basketball player. He was on a team or making a comeback, at practice or in rehab, healthy or injured. And now without it, who is he?

People tell Oden all the time he should speak to kids -- tell his story so they can learn from his mistakes and see his determination to forge a future.

"Yeah, but shouldn't my story be finished first?" he says. "Or at least towards a finish? When you tell your story, don't you want to have an ending?''

He fears that teenagers especially, the ones who might need his advice the most, would see through him the most quickly, and that they wouldn't see a man trying to figure out his future, but one who's not really doing anything with his life.

"I don't know,'' he says, shrugging. "I'd be scared to keep it open.''

And then Oden grabs his long, black parka. The interview winding down, he's heading outside on a cold December afternoon. School is closed, most students all home for the holiday break. The Buckeyes already have practiced once. There will be another workout later in the afternoon.

Oden can't make it. A game in Las Vegas meant a few extra days away from home, and now it's time to catch up on his honey-do list.

"I have to go do some Christmas shopping,'' he says.

For what?

"I have a few ideas,'' he says with a smile.

Greg Oden might not know exactly where he's heading, but for the first time in a long time, he is a man with a direction.