The trials of Greg Oden

Greg Oden made it back to basketball last NBA season, but the challenges in his life are far from over. Mark Macho

The fading sunlight illuminates the bustling gym lobby as the varsity pep squad huddles near a massive trophy case built within the brick walls of the athletic complex at Indianapolis' Lawrence North High School.

The group bursts into a set of jumps, twists and cheers at the end of a recent after-school practice. Hovering above them, centered inside the floor-to-ceiling shrine of championship memorabilia, is a poster of the primary contributor to the display.

One image captures Greg Oden battling for low-post position on the way to leading the Wildcats to a third straight state title and the nation's No. 1 ranking in 2006. Another shows one of the many emphatic dunks that earned Oden honors as Indiana's Mr. Basketball and Gatorade's 2006 national player of the year.

Nearly a decade has passed since Oden stood as a towering figure here, a 7-footer with the potential to become the NBA's next great center, the next Russell or Wilt or Kareem.

But what Oden could have been is now a relic, too. The former top-ranked high school prospect, Ohio State star and No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft once filled the halls of this prep school with pride. Now, with Oden's playing career potentially over and his freedom at stake because of a felony domestic violence charge, Lawrence North High School administrators, coaches and students respond to inquiries about him by sulking or politely declining to speak.

After nearly four years on the sideline, Oden overcame the injuries that sent his life into a spiral and returned to an NBA court, playing sparse minutes for the Miami Heat last season.

Now, with NBA training camps set to open in two weeks, both his basketball and personal life are defined by questions yet again.

"Every time Greg seems to be about to trend upward, something happens," said James Jones, a teammate of Oden's for a season with the Portland Trail Blazers and last season with the Heat. "It's unfortunate. Obviously, this time is a different situation than anything he's really faced before."

A soft-spoken introvert in most settings, Oden frequently avoided public attention, even amid his more productive stages. But a darker side emerged in the wee hours of Aug. 7, 2014.

Upon returning to his mother's suburban Indianapolis home from a nightclub with two women who were in town to visit him, according to police, Oden grew violent during an argument with a woman he dated on and off for three years. Oden's mother, Zoe, told police she was awakened by a dispute that might have involved accusations of the ex-girlfriend's infidelity. Arrest records indicate Oden overpowered his mother and a second person, described as the victim's best friend, to attack his ex-girlfriend near a family room sofa.

Oden struck the victim at least three times in the face, causing a laceration across her forehead, a swollen eye and a nasal fracture, according to court documents. A friend of the ex-girlfriend told police Oden stopped punching her only after he saw blood splattering onto the sofa.

"Stop! Stop! Get off her!" witnesses shouted at Oden, according to police records.

"He really wanted to punch the [redacted] up outta her," Zoe Oden told investigators, according to the police report.

Oden placed one of the two 911 calls made from the residence to police after the altercation, according to court records. There, he admitted he got into a fight with his ex-girlfriend.

"I already know how this [redacted] gonna go," he said. The dispatcher asked Oden if an ambulance was needed.

"Um, somebody is bleeding, so yes," he said. "But it's not that deep. So yes, send an ambulance."

The responding officer arrived at Oden's home around 3:30 a.m. and observed Oden was "calm, apologetic and cooperative," and that he "took full responsibility for his action."

According to the report, Oden told police: "Things got out of control and I started to go after [the victim]. My mother and [the victim's friend] tried to hold me back but I swung my arms to move them out of the way and then punched [the victim] in the face. I was wrong and I know what has to happen."

The victim was initially uncooperative with authorities but later told police Oden, who has admitted to developing a drinking problem while rehabbing in Portland, had been drinking shots of alcohol and a few beers at the nightclub. She also told police Oden "sometimes gets upset when he drinks" and admitted they had relationship problems.

Oden was arrested and released on bond hours later. He pleaded not guilty on Aug. 13 to charges of battery resulting in serious bodily injury and two misdemeanor battery counts. In the days since, Oden has been advised by some relatives and associates to consider counseling and treatment. Mike Conley Sr., Oden's agent and long-time mentor, would not confirm to what extent or for which issues Oden may have sought help.

Oden's trial was originally set for Oct. 22, but a judge granted a delay Monday until Nov. 19. He is free to leave Indiana but remains on a court-ordered GPS tracking device until his trial. Oden returned to Miami recently to move his belongings out of an apartment where he had been staying while playing with the Heat.

"Remorseful does not begin to describe how he feels," Conley Sr. told ESPN.com Monday. "People will write and say what they please, and I know Greg is a story, but all of that does not matter to him or me at this point. He is working to better himself for him -- not for the NBA, the press or anyone else. For that reason, I wish not to go into what Greg has and will do."

The 2013-14 season was supposed to be when Oden's story shifted. After missing three straight seasons and undergoing five surgeries on his knees, including three microfracture procedures, this is where the case for a happy ending could start being built.

And in many ways, things did change for the better. Once he made it through training camp with the Heat and secured a roster spot that had been his all along, Oden talked about the joy of simply being able to put on an NBA uniform again. He took pride in being able to walk off the court after those games "still on two legs," regardless if he played 12 minutes or saw his only action while running drills during pregame and halftime warm-ups.

After the Heat defeated the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals, sending Oden to the NBA Finals for the first time in his career, team owner Micky Arison first passed the trophy to Oden to hoist. Later, in the locker room, it became his dancing partner.

"One of the biggest success stories of the regular season," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Oden earlier this summer. "Sometimes, the perception outside is so jaded it's not seen as a success. Greg has gone through more than any of us has imagined to get to this point. Seeing that smile on his face after the conference finals -- that's [coming] from seeing some dark, low places from things you can't control."

Oden's contributions toward that conference title, though, were minor. He played in only 23 regular-season games, including six starts, averaging 2.9 points, 2.3 rebounds and 0.6 blocks in 9.2 minutes. Oden was brought to Miami in part to counterbalance the size advantage of some of the other East contenders. But against Roy Hibbert and the Pacers in the East finals, Oden played only five total minutes. He played three minutes in the Finals loss to the San Antonio Spurs.

Though his potential once foretold so much more, Oden told Grantland writer and former Ohio State teammate Mark Titus during the 2014 postseason, "I'm over all of that. I know I'm one of the biggest busts in NBA history, and I know it will only get worse as Kevin Durant continues doing big things. It's frustrating that my body can't do what my mind wants it to do sometimes. But worrying or complaining about it isn't going to fix anything."

Privately, his battle with personal demons still raged, according to multiple sources. Alcohol abuse remained a concern last season as he sat out many games because of soreness in his knees and back. When he was left in Miami during road trips early in the season, he often was spotted at local sports bars and restaurants, including a Hooters across the street from AmericanAirlines Arena, to watch the games.

He didn't hang out with many teammates when he did travel, choosing instead to venture out alone or with friends outside of the team. But multiple members of the Heat said he stayed even-keeled throughout the season, which one player said was better than many expected considering his trying situation. Oden rarely showed his frustration in moments when he expected to play but didn't, but he would, at times, scoff when approached by reporters about his health status after Spoelstra would suggest he wasn't quite ready to play.

There were times when team president Pat Riley clearly seemed more anxious than Spoelstra, who had committed to a smaller lineup that featured more versatile interior players, to give Oden a chance to play. In fact, it was initially Riley, not Spoelstra, who announced to reporters before a Jan. 15 game in Washington, D.C., that Oden would make his regular-season debut.

Teammates talked about Oden's straight-faced, dry humor and often joked that he was on a multiyear "rehab contract." His candidness to the point of self-deprecation was viewed as a coping mechanism, but it was generally respected by those around him.

But on a night that allegedly played out like Aug. 7, it turns ugly. Among the details that stood out to sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards, professor emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley who counseled the San Francisco 49ers and Golden State Warriors on sports, family, race and ethnic relations over nearly four decades, in Oden's arrest documents was the juxtaposition of his alleged rage as he punched his girlfriend and the calmness with which he described the incident to police in anticipation of the likely consequences.

"I'm more appalled by that than I would be if he just temporarily lost his mind," Edwards said. "Because what he's saying here is, 'Hey, I did this. Punish me. Give me what I've got coming.' If he was rational enough to go there, then he was rational and considerate enough not to beat on that woman."

The timing of Oden's case places him squarely at the center of national controversy and debate as both the NBA and the NFL point to stiff conduct policies now in place to punish those who commit acts of domestic violence.

The fallout from Ray Rice's February arrest for aggravated assault continues to take shape, as the six-year running back was suspended indefinitely and released by the Baltimore Ravens after a second video was released of him punching his then-fiancée. In August, the NFL set forth harsher punishment guidelines for such incidents after the league was criticized for giving Rice only a two-game suspension.

Under the NFL's new punitive measures, any employee who commits assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault will be suspended without pay six games for a first offense. A second offense constitutes banishment for at least one year. The first case to test the new policy came swiftly, when, three days after it was implemented, 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald was arrested for felony domestic violence after an alleged altercation with his pregnant fiancée. McDonald has played in San Francisco's first two games, with the team citing the need to respect due process. Greg Hardy was held out of the Carolina Panthers' home opener Sunday after being found guilty in July by a Mecklenburg County judge of assaulting and threatening his ex-girlfriend.

If Oden, a free agent, is signed, he could be subject to suspension if he is convicted or pleads guilty or no contest to any of the charges, according to league disciplinary guidelines. A first offense in the NBA generally warrants a 10-game suspension but could be expanded at the discretion of commissioner Adam Silver.

Dallas Mavericks point guard Raymond Felton was suspended for the first four games of the upcoming 2014-15 season after he pleaded guilty in July to a weapons charge. Felton was arrested in February as a member of the New York Knicks after being accused of pointing an unregistered gun toward his ex-wife.

"I think every franchise should sponsor or adopt a women's shelter, where they go out there to clean up, patch up, paint up, wash windows and serve the women and children dinner," Edwards said. "Then sit down and listen to these women's stories, so they know the damage that is done when they put their hands on a woman."

Although extensive studies have shown the domestic violence arrest rate among professional athletes is significantly lower than that of the general American public, this steady stream of high-profile recent cases has raised concern and awareness.

According to separate research by ESPN and USA Today, more than 80 NFL players have been arrested for domestic violence since 2000. Oden is at least the eighth NBA player investigated or charged for domestic violence over the past 20 months.

"When you live in a society where a pregnant woman is four times more likely to show up in an emergency room after being beaten than she is for a maternity issue, then you have a problem," Edwards said. "The poster boy for violence against women in American society is not Ray Rice. It's not Greg Oden. It's the guy next door. It's the guy up the street. It's your friendly barber or grocer or police officer. The difference with athletes is they are high-paid, high-profile and publicly known. There's a magnification factor because they are supposed to represent a higher standard of civility."

Edwards, who has counseled pro athletes involved in domestic disputes, examined Oden's case and believes it's essential to avoid linking his history of injuries, depression and alcohol issues as mitigating factors to a violent outburst against a woman.

"Is there any possibility that his chain of disappointments could have had an impact on his expressed frustrations?" Edwards asks. "Absolutely, because he's human. But beating on a woman simply is not an option. And for someone that high profile to do it, I don't want to hear about any of his bad luck."

Attempts to reach Oden at his homes in Indianapolis and Miami were unsuccessful.

Nate McMillan was there when Oden's fall first began.

The Trail Blazers finished well under .500 in the first two seasons of McMillan's stint as head coach, but a once-in-a-generation talent like Oden was supposed to change that. With Oden and Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland had homegrown a young, star-studded big three years before Miami could even dream of it.

But the high hopes didn't last long. About two months after being drafted, Oden underwent microfracture surgery on his right knee, ending his rookie season before it began.

Instead of teaching his franchise center the finer points of post play, McMillan would soon be spending his nights coaching the Blazers to cope without him. Eventually, his days would often require working with Oden through counseling for depression. There were times when Portland's basketball staff went through counseling to better help Oden benefit from his own sessions.

"We just tried to do all that we thought we needed to do," McMillan said. "But we also felt he needed some outside help. We worked with his agent, former coaches, mentors, Mike Conley Sr., his family ... trying to figure out what was best. We just tried to bring in all the people we felt could help."

He's still trying. McMillan, now a Pacers assistant, said he's maintained contact with Oden and has been among those advising him to resume studies at Ohio State to work toward a degree once his issues are settled. The Buckeyes' campus once provided a comfort zone during Oden's time away from the NBA as he took classes and worked on his conditioning to resume his playing career.

"There's a point in a professional player's career where you have to start thinking about life after basketball," McMillan said. "For Greg, it started a couple of years ago. But certainly now, he's got to think about, 'Hey, what am I going to do?'"

Zoe Oden has said her oldest son is a good kid who had a bad night. A former teammate insists Oden put in the work to emerge from harsh adversity before and will do so again. One of his competitors wants to see Oden take steps to address his issues.

"Whatever happened, it wasn't the best situation for him," said Al Horford, who was drafted two spots after Oden and whose Florida Gators beat Oden's Buckeyes in the 2007 NCAA national championship game. "But I think there's still something more to him. He can make something of himself. I strongly believe that."

The focus for now, though, is away from basketball.

A pre-trial conference for Oden's case is scheduled for Sept. 19. He is charged with what is classified as a Level 5 felony. A.J. Deer, a spokesman for the Marion County prosecutor's office, said Indiana cases that fall under that felony distinction are not typically considered for pre-trial diversion alternatives to avoid prosecution. Oden's defense lawyer has declined interview requests until the case is resolved.

The NBA and the league's players union are monitoring Oden's case, though one league executive said the severity of the charges against Oden creates significant doubt for now about his prospects to sign with a team.

The Heat have not responded to requests seeking comment about Oden since the arrest. A week before the incident, Riley would not rule out an Oden return.

"We talked about it, and we know him physically better than anybody else would," the team president said during a July 30 conference call about the Heat's offseason plans. "Next year, we would raise the protocol on him and see if he would have a different approach. I've seen him play in practices and I've seen him play in games, and you just don't walk away from that kind of talent."

Executives with two teams Oden saw playing time against last season both said they believe the center, in the right system, could build on his initial steps with the Heat.

Conley Sr. said Oden continues to work out but is not focused on his career at the moment. He would not say if any teams have called to inquire about Oden in the weeks since the arrest.

"He doesn't want to talk about basketball or anything outside of basketball right now," said Conley Sr., who coached his son, Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley Jr., and Oden during their prep days as AAU teammates. "He never stopped working out. That's not even the issue right now. But he's not even thinking about basketball."

The player might never pan out, but there's still plenty of developmental potential in the person.

"I pray and hope that he will be able to rehab himself back mentally and physically strong enough to get another chance," McMillan said. "I've told him I'm pulling for him. I just hope that he'll be able to show something in the end."