In holiday spirit, Oden relishes time spent with Portland youths

PORTLAND, Ore. -- They say the holidays bring out the kid in everyone, and for a self-proclaimed kid at heart, it's not a big stretch.

We haven't seen a lot of that side of Portland Trail Blazers center Greg Oden this season, as the goofy, whimsical newcomer of a year ago has become a bit more glum in his second year here -- at least when he's around the game. In fact, Oregonian beat writer Jason Quick set off a mini-brouhaha in the Rose City recently when he said on a radio show that Oden wasn't much fun to be around.

But put a Santa hat on his head and stick him in a theater full of kids to watch a movie and give out gifts, and the other Oden comes back out. That's where he was Saturday afternoon, hosting a private holiday party for over 200 youths and their mentors from throughout Oregon at McMenamins Bagdad Theater.

It offered a striking difference from the Oden that we've seen in the locker room (or not seen, given the speed records he's set in getting away after games). Instead of uncomfortably answering questions about his play on the court, there was Oden chatting amiably with youngsters about basketball and video games.

The event was part of his association with Oregon Mentors, an organization dedicated to raising awareness for the need for male mentors throughout Oregon. They're an umbrella group working with more than 100 organizations statewide, running the gamut from Big Brothers and Big Sisters to college prep to assisting the children of incarcerated parents.

While mentors of both sexes are always in demand, the need for male mentors in Oregon and throughout the nation is particularly acute -- wait lists for youths to enroll in these programs can be as long as two years. (Oregon residents interested in becoming mentors can click here for more information.)

"Mentoring is something I wanted to get into, and the people, the organization -- it's been a good thing," Oden said. "So I got involved and everything has been great so far."

It's a cause that's important to Oden because mentors have been such a huge factor in his own life -- in particular a man named Jimmy Smith, the director of the Boys and Girls Club in Terre Haute, Ind., when Oden was growing up.

"I was at the Boys and Girls Club every day starting in fourth grade," said Oden, who also was best friends with Smith's son Travis before his tragic death in a car accident in January 2007. "I didn't have anything else to do. My dad was far away from me in Buffalo, so [Jimmy Smith] was always there, anything I needed, and he still is. I still talk to him every week."

Oden's cousin, Chris Cothran, who lives with him in Portland, also participates by mentoring a local boy. That type of involvement isn't as plausible for Oden given the demands and travel of the NBA schedule, but he said he often makes it a trio by joining them.

"They come to the games, and I hang around when Chris takes him out," Oden said. "But I can't buy them anything because [it's against] the rules."

As part of his commitment to the program, Oden donates 30 tickets for youths and mentors from throughout the state for every other home game. Additionally, Oden and Smith have created a public service announcement for the group that will air later this season.

It's guaranteed to be only the second-most famous piece of video work he's produced on this group's behalf. His last benefit event for Oregon Mentors was called Summer Slam, and it produced one of the signature Oden moments -- this now world-famous YouTube clip of his singing karaoke to an *NSYNC song.

Oden told me his karaoke days are done, but he still loves to talk to the kids -- in fact, he seemed much more comfortable with them than with the adults in the room.

"He gets involved," said Christina Mullin of Oregon Mentors. "At Summer Slam he was on the karaoke machine, playing pingpong with the kids, playing video games with them. He loves to enjoy the kids."

Perhaps that's because he has a playful side that is tough to indulge in the grown-up world he now inhabits. While he looks much older than his years, this was a good event to remind ourselves just how young he is -- the Bagdad Theater also operates as a brewpub, and if he had returned about two hours later, the 20-year-old wouldn't have been allowed to order anything with major hops.

Which helps explain why he was happily chatting with a lot of the teenaged and preteen kids; they were practically his peers. They watched "Home Alone 2," which Oden described as his favorite Christmas movie. "It's just funny," he said. "I just love when they're getting beat up."

Afterward, he went to a Christmas tree and handed out gift bags to all the youths, autographed items from the bags -- the Spalding basketball and the 2K Sports "College Hoops 2K6" video game with Oden on the cover were the most popular choices -- and smiled for photo after photo while chatting with the youngsters.

Oden recognized one youth from his Summer Slam event and brightened up -- "Hey, aren't you the kid I dunked on?" -- and immediately stopped to chat with him for nearly 15 minutes. This wasn't a show, either; the cameras had been off for a long time. And when the cameras are off, apparently, Oden's inner kid still comes out.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.