Cursed by the body that was his blessing, Greg Oden is headed back to Ohio State

Walter Iooss for ESPN

This is a story from ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue 2017, on newsstands on July 7. Subscribe today!

GREG ODEN HAS a recurring dream. He's playing defense for the Trail Blazers. He blocks a shot and passes to the outlet and sprints downcourt, light and fast and strong. He's three years removed from his last NBA appearance now, trying to build a new life out of the lows of his last one, but in the dream he can still play. He can still run. He glides to the paint, catches a return pass and dunks. Coast-to-coast. The crowd explodes. He feels a sweet rush of adrenaline. Fans love him, and he loves himself -- all joy and no shame.

ODEN IS IN the lobby of the academic support center on the Ohio State campus on a late-May morning, registering for classes to finish the degree he started a decade ago. He lived in a dorm a block away at the time. He remembers returning to Columbus after a Final Four run ended in a national championship loss to Florida in 2007. Most assumed he would leave for the NBA, but he came back to go to class. "I never planned on leaving," he says. Students waited for him outside his dorm. Cars stopped on the street to stare. It took him 45 minutes to walk one block. Oden called his coach, Thad Matta, and said, "I can't get to class." A few weeks later, Oden announced that he would leave for the draft, one of many decisions in his life that wasn't really his to make. Now, 10 years, three major knee surgeries and a failed career later, Oden arrives at the academic support center unnoticed and unbothered, his burden no longer walking to this building but rather walking up it.

THREE FLIGHTS OF stairs. That's what he's looking at to reach his adviser's office. At 29, Oden can't jump like he used to -- he can't leap at all off his right leg -- but he swallows half a flight of stairs in his first step. He gently grunts. His body is hurting and scarred, but he actually looks young. It used to be the opposite. In high school, the deep creases near his eyes led some to suspect he was older than his verified age. Even then, with a seemingly limitless future, he struggled under the pressure placed upon him by his body, by what it seemed capable of, by the way it dictated to him. He was going to play basketball. He was going to be a superstar. He was going to take care of his family. He was going to be a Hall of Famer.

The pressures grew when his body failed him. Over the course of a decade, he developed a dependence on painkillers and alcohol to sleep, and he was arrested on domestic violence charges. Oden is now a student again, with a fiancée and 9-month-old daughter, still processing being at the center of a mania and disappointment to which few American athletes can relate. He reaches the top of the first flight of stairs at the academic support center, breathing too hard for the distance, and says, "Dead lifts are catching up to me!"

THE DAY BEFORE registering for classes, Oden is in the weight room at the Jerome Schottenstein Center on campus, where he once played and now helps the basketball team as a student assistant coach. He places just two 45-pound weights on a bar -- "I've got nothing to prove," he jokes with a shrug -- and deadlifts it, bending and straightening his fragile knees. In between sets, he describes himself as the "biggest bust in NBA history," as if saying it out loud will give him some kind of dominion over the pain of it. Before the NBA, Oden never had a serious knee injury. Not at Sarah Scott Middle School in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he first worked hard at basketball. Not at Lawrence North in Indianapolis, where he won three consecutive championships and was a two-time Parade All-American. And not during his single season at Ohio State, where he was a first-team All-American.

Two lifts into another set, something is off.

"Coach!" Oden hollers, dropping the bar and easing himself to the ground until he lies flat on his back. Dave Richardson, Ohio State basketball's longtime strength coach, runs out of his gym office. He crouches down and lifts Oden's right leg, gently shaking his foot, then pulling hard as if he were tugging a rope, his face reddening, Oden wincing for almost a minute before they both feel a pop of relief.

Still sweating, Oden explains that when he was in sixth grade, he grew so volcanically -- 6 inches in less than a year -- that his right hip detached from its socket. After surgery to place two pins in the joint, Oden enjoyed swinging his gangly legs on crutches down the hallways at school. But though the procedure worked, it left his right leg 8 millimeters shorter than his left. He walked with a bit of a dip, leaving people to assume that he was strutting, acting hard. Over time, his body adjusted, but the hip required the occasional heavy tug when it jammed.

After Oden was drafted first overall by the Trail Blazers in 2007, one pick ahead of Kevin Durant, the team outfitted him with a special orthotic insert to even his legs. "Three weeks later, I'm in surgery," he says. Oden can't prove that the orthotic is the sole reason his body collapsed in the NBA. The wheels were in motion for his body to fall apart the moment he hit his first growth spurt on the way to 7 feet. Everything in his life since has been governed by it.

"And now I'm back here," he says at the gym, "trying to figure it all out."

HALFWAY UP THE stairs, Oden slows for a moment before he hits the final stretch. He's slightly hunched over and for a moment doesn't seem that tall -- then he straightens himself and you wonder how anyone ever got a shot off. He's wearing his own shoe: Nike size 19 in the Trail Blazers colors of white, red and black, a logo of his last name etched into the heel. Once an embodiment of a bright basketball future, it's now a relic. Oden's friends worried when he was drafted by Portland, not just because he had to move to the Pacific Northwest after spending most of his adolescence in the Midwest. His personality always seemed miscast for his body. He was an introvert -- a self-described loner who "goes with the flow" -- who had pictured himself as one day being a dentist or a movie critic. There was a lingering sadness you felt in his company a decade ago, a fragility as he told you he felt "expected and obliged to be the best."

Oden always had tried to reckon with what his body was and could be, its power and potential. When he was a 17-year-old junior, he drew up a plus-minus list about whether to enter the NBA draft or go to college. NBA: "Set for life. Play against the best. Could be all-time leading scorer." College: "Fun. Win national title? Love Ohio State." He lunched with Kevin Garnett and bowled with Peyton Manning and rode in a limo with Baron Davis. But he also "wanted to hide and wanted to be a kid," says Reginald Shelt, an assistant coach at Lawrence North in those years. Oden couldn't disappear off the court, so he sometimes would try to do so on it, content to rebound and block shots. Jack Keefer, Lawrence North's head coach, instated a 15-touches-a-game rule for him. "He never wanted to be a basketball player," Shelt says. "That wasn't his thing. Yes, he played basketball. But basketball didn't define him in his mind."

Former Ohio State assistant Alan Major remembers a jump shot Oden made against Georgetown in the Final Four because it was the Buckeyes' 38th game and Oden had taken just a handful of jumpers all year. GMs nitpicked that Oden didn't dominate the way a 7-footer should, but a perceived red flag was actually a teenager's coping mechanism. "He really needed to be 5-11 and a bookworm," 
Major says.

When Oden got to Portland, his isolation wasn't just that of the introverted. It was the isolation of the injured. His knee injury after wearing the orthotics wiped out his first season. At the beginning of his second year, the team gave him an insert so thick that it pushed his right ankle past the rim of his high-tops. Thirteen minutes into his regular-season debut, he sprained his right foot and missed two weeks. Three and a half months later, he chipped his left kneecap and missed three more weeks.

As Oden's body broke, so did his mind. Afraid of being photographed in public doing anything but rehabbing, he wouldn't leave home, which soon turned into not leaving his bedroom. "I tried to get in my own little cocoon," he says. He would lie in bed all day, living with the dull panic that he was the Sam Bowie to Durant's Michael Jordan. "You're a bust and you can't do nothing about it," he says now. "I'm sitting there watching all these guys get better." Oden went to a dark place. Before he had turned 21, he'd grown used to drinking alone -- there are no fake IDs for famous 7-footers -- and now all of the vices that had been creeping into his life for years took over. His nighttime routine became beer, light liquor, dark liquor, champagne, wine -- "whatever I could get," he says -- coupled with two Percocets, at least two Vicodin and at least three sleeping pills, anything to help him feel less. "It got to the point where I was taking so many pills and drinking just to sleep at night that even if I didn't want to drink, I wouldn't be able to sleep," he says.

Guilty and ashamed, Oden apologized to Trail Blazers management before his 2007 and 2009 surgeries. He was easy to text but hard to get on the phone. "I don't know that he had a trusted male figure in his life that could give him good advice," Shelt says. Oden wanted out. He would look at pills and ask, Does it make you drowsy? All right, I'm taking it. "I was like, 'If I don't wake up, whatever,'" he says.

In 2009, Oden started seeing a therapist. Each session began with 10 minutes of silent meditation. He cut back on the heavy drinking and hired a personal chef. Through the first 20 games of that season, he played well and enjoyed himself, showing flashes of his original promise. But in December, he jumped to challenge a shot by Aaron Brooks of the Rockets. Their knees bumped midair. Oden felt a hollow pop. The Blazers' trainer held Oden's head to the floor so that he couldn't look down at his kneecap, mangled and split. Teammate Brandon Roy hustled to his side and said, "Oh my god," and backed away.

The only thing Oden remembers from the night in 2012 when the Trail Blazers cut him -- after three more years and three more knee operations -- is that he drank enough to not remember anything. The Heat signed him in 2013, but he played sparingly that season, and the team let him walk. Soon after, on Aug. 7, 2014, Oden was supposed to be with the Ohio State basketball team in the Bahamas, volunteering on a summer tour, but he bailed at the last minute. He went to a club with his on-and-off girlfriend at the time, Christina Green, and he coupled beers with shots. They returned to the house of Oden's mother, Zoe, and started arguing. Zoe and a friend of Green's tried to calm him down, but Oden swatted them out of the way, pushed Green onto a couch and hit her three times, according to the police report. The last blow split open her forehead, drawing blood. Oden's mother pulled him off, and Green's friend called 911. Oden also called 911, ordered an ambulance and turned himself in. "I was wrong," he told police, "and I know what has to happen."

Oden pleaded guilty to a felony charge of battery with moderate bodily injury, for which he received probation, a fine and an order to attend counseling and Alcoholics Anonymous classes. Almost three years later, he thinks often about that night, though he can't discuss it in much detail because of the terms of a civil suit. "I just want to be a good example for my fiancée and daughter," he says. He thinks about what will happen when Londyn one day Googles her daddy's name and discovers something much worse than being the biggest bust in NBA history. And he thinks about what he did next, trying to begin a new life.

He moved back to Columbus.

HE REACHES THE top of the stairs, masking pain. He always hurts somewhere -- his knees, his legs, his hip, his back. He talks about goals the way many former NFL players do, in terms of just wanting to be able to walk and to be able to pick up his daughter and to be able to make peace with not feeling right -- not feeling good -- ever again. People sometimes ask if he still plays ball or, worse, look at him with pity in their eyes because they know why he doesn't. He looks like he could play -- until he tries to run. He's on a roster for a five-on-five summer tournament, but whether he'll play is an open question. He loves his identity as a father and husband-to-be, but he needs a professional distinction outside of his current one.

So in fall 2014, Oden started showing up at the Schottenstein Center basketball court. He had a support system -- Matta would let him come to practices and games and be around the guys -- but it was no small feat. A body that once announced his arrival now announced his failures. "I tried to find happiness again," he says. One day, Jake Diebler, an OSU video coordinator at the time, introduced himself. "I'm a big fan of yours," Diebler said. They became friends, and Oden became Diebler's project. He was out of shape, in constant pain, bereft of confidence and still feeling the pressure to somehow right a wrong, both with his career and his criminal actions. He would often cancel their morning workouts, claiming his knees hurt. "Rather than a full workout, let's do half," Diebler would say, and Oden would relent. "He was lost," says Diebler, now an assistant at Vanderbilt. "It hurt my heart to see him go through what he did. But it was also cool to see him go through it."

Oden could no longer rely on his physical dominance, so he practiced hooks and jumpers. By the summer of 2015, he landed tryouts with the Mavericks and Hornets but received no offers. The only chance came from the Jiangsu Dragons of the Chinese Basketball Association. He took it. In the preseason, he injured his thumb, missing three weeks. But he didn't fall apart; he returned to play 25 games. That he had even gotten himself in shape to play felt like enough of a win. "I was actually ready to play basketball," he says. It was more than a chance to walk off the court with a new semblance of peace. It was an invisible victory upon which the rest of his life would be built.

HE ENTERS THE office of John Macko, his academic counselor. Oden sits opposite Macko, knees touching the bottom of the desk. Oden still has a lot of the $24 million he made in his career, but he knows how quickly the life he thought he'd have can disappear. He might coach. Might broadcast. Might go into business. "Who knows?" he says.

Energetic and excited to see Oden, Macko plays a video made years ago in which famous OSU athletes tout the school's academics.

"You seen it?" Macko says.

"I haven't seen it," Oden says.

Oden is the first athlete to appear.

"Oh man," he says, shaking his head. "So skinny."

His old life will always follow him, haunting him, even as he tries to define his new one. He didn't throw away his future; his body broke before he could experience it. He is often asked to give motivational speeches, but he doesn't know what to say. "I don't think I have an ending yet," he says. On the first day of school last fall, Oden stood in line for his student ID card, surrounded by freshmen. Last semester he took a class about NCAA rules and regulations -- a class he lived -- but he still did his required reading. He grinds as if something larger than a degree is at stake.

Macko switches screens, to Oden's student profile.

Oden seems antsy, staring at his accumulated credits. He registers for advanced math and history of sports. Now the number of credits left for his degree appears on the screen. He leans in.

"That's all you've got left," Macko says.

"Oh really?"

He's closer than he realized. He leans back, feeling a little lighter. "I'm chopping away at it." He'll likely receive his degree in two years. He smiles and says, "I need to eat."

He will go next door to a greasy spoon called Hang Over Easy, one of his favorite spots from his first run as a student. People will stare at him as he enters, as he ducks below low ceilings. He'll find a quiet table and relax, ordering both breakfast and lunch. A waiter will welcome him back and give him a card for free food. Someone else will shake his hand and will walk away saying, "That's my man!" Then he will go home and play with Londyn. A good morning will become a good day. But first, Oden walks down the stairs of the academic support center, back to the first floor. His steps are slow and studied, but they are steady, so much easier than the way up.