Ohio State's Greg Oden is Playing Again in China
ZHENJIANG, China — On a frigid January night in Zhenjiang, a city with a population of 1.2 million, Greg Oden iced his knees in an austere locker-less locker room. Playing 31 minutes, he had 18 rebounds and scored eight points to help the Jiangsu Dragons defeat Jiangsu Tongxi 107-92.
As he exited the arena, Oden, or “Dàdì” (“The Great King”) as he’s been nicknamed, was cheered by dozens of security personnel. The opposing teams’ cheerleaders swooned in search of autographs, and hundreds of fans swarmed outside to high-five him as he boarded the team bus.
In Mandarin Chinese, Dragons teammate Yahui Liu said, “I think Oden is very modest and easy to get along with. ... He is a very interesting and fun foreign player.”
A decade ago, being a foreign player in China was not Oden’s plan. After his Ohio State Buckeyes lost to the Florida Gators in the NCAA tournament title game, the Portland Trail Blazers made him the first overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft. Because of injuries, he played sparingly in three seasons over seven years.
After knee surgery, Oden sat out his rookie season with Portland, played two seasons there, sat out three years, and made a brief comeback with Miami in 2013-14. In 105 career games he averaged 19 minutes, 8.0 points, and 6.2 rebounds.
In the Chinese Basketball Association, teams are allowed to sign two foreign players. Additionally, the bottom five teams from the previous season are granted an exemption for an Asian player.
Whatever the circumstances that brought him here, Oden says he is grateful to be playing. “It's a great opportunity for me to come and just play basketball, which I haven't been able to do for a while.”
Life in China, however, comes with challenges. About the new environment, Oden said, “I live in the ’burbs in Ohio so it’s definitely different.” In China, he lives in a hotel, gets around by taxi and watches television shows online.
Attention off the court is another issue.
“If you’re tall and you’re black, you’re gonna be seen. So there’s not that much you can do to try to hide,” he said. “I’m just so much bigger than everybody. Half the time I feel like every lady’s scared of me. Every guy, they’re smaller than me, but when they want a picture they start grabbing my arm. Very aggressive. I’ll take pictures but not if you’re grabbing my arm. Then I’m moving on.”
From a dietary perspective, fellow Buckeyes Terence Dials and Scoonie Penn, who spent time in China, warned him against eating too much chicken and rice. Oden eats a lot of broccoli and also frequents an Italian restaurant.
One local specialty he is partial to is crayfish, xiǎo lóng xiā (literally “little lobster”), which are slathered in spicy, garlicky stir-fry sauces.
“That stuff is really good,” he said. “When I first had it I’m eating just the meat. The second time, I was eating the head. I was eating everything. I like those.”
In China, no animal part is wastedand Oden’s willingness to sample local offerings differentiates him from others.
“Oden is better at adapting to Chinese food,” Liu said. “He has been receptive to some cow and sheep internal organs, which other foreign players have not been ... in previous seasons, other foreign players just ate at KFC and Pizza Hut. They didn’t eat Chinese food at all. Oden is fairly easy-going about food.
“Relatively speaking, he has adapted to Chinese life.”
Oden has meshed on the court, too, where there is no language barrier. “When you’re on the court with guys that know basketball,” Oden said, “it’s a universal language for us.”
He has focused his play on defending and rebounding, which has benefited the Dragons.
“He has helped our team a lot because previously our inside play was extremely weak,” Liu said. “After Oden arrived, our defense improved significantly.”
In 25 games, he averaged 13 points, 12.6 rebounds, and two blocks. He has had a few minor injuries, but says every player deals with them when competing regularly.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to come and just play basketball, which I haven’t been able to do for awhile,” Oden said. “They got me playing. For me, that’s all I can say. I’ve had a lot of years where I actually just couldn’t play and this year I’m actually able to be out there on the court and play 25 minutes when I never thought I would see over 20 minutes in a game. And I’m playing three games a week. For me, that’s just something I didn’t even think I would ever be able to do.”
Oden is working through stability in his knee, and this was a promising step forward. That doesn't mean he's ready for an NBA return, but he does want to play somewhere next season.
“Everybody would love to get back to the NBA,” he said. “Right now, I just want to finish out this season and see what happens next.”
Oden was two regular season games away from completing the season in China, but on Jan. 31 with the Dragons officially eliminated from the playoffs, his contract was terminated. In an online video, organization representatives thanked Oden for his contribution to the team this season and Brooks said, “I will always want to see [him] do well because we’re like brothers.”