Authors: Mark Titus
’ll never forget the first time I played against Greg Oden and Mike Conley, mostly because that one game changed my life forever. I can’t remember what year it was, but it was definitely during either the spring or the summer when my AAU team played theirs in some tournament somewhere in Indiana I think. They had nothing but athletic black guys (redundant, I know) from Indianapolis on their team and were by far the best AAU team in the country, despite the fact that back then Greg wore Rec-Specs that made him as intimidating as Richard Simmons’s vagina. Meanwhile, my team was full of stereotypical white guys from the suburbs who masked our athletic deficiencies with solid fundamentals and the collective ability to make it rain from anywhere on the court. I would say that heading into the game the clash of cultures conjured up memories of the Princeton upset over UCLA in the 1996 NCAA Tournament, but the truth is that since I was barely in junior high, I was most likely oblivious to who we were playing and probably only agreed to go to the game because my dad promised to take me out for pizza afterward. Nonetheless, even though
I was just a dipshit little kid who probably had no idea what was going on, I can say with absolute certainty that this singular game was the most pivotal moment in my basketball career and, to a lesser extent, my life.
I won’t bore you with the play-by-play rundown of the game, but I will say that the first half played out exactly like you’d think it would. Mike and his absurd athleticism dribbled circles around us and either laid the ball in or dropped it off to Greg for a thunderous board-slap layup (the seventh-grade version of a dunk). Meanwhile, on the other end of the court, our offense was a well-oiled machine predicated on being in the triple-threat position, setting flawless screens, pump-faking way too much, and shooting almost nothing but threes. This back-and-forth contrast of styles went on for two quarters and left us trailing by 15 at halftime, mostly because Mike and Greg were getting layups every time down the court, and we couldn’t make enough threes to keep up with them since we were in seventh grade and it was just short of a miracle that we could consistently get the ball to the rim in the first place. Still, despite our inability to play any defense whatsoever, the fact of the matter was that we were only down by 15 to a team that should’ve been blowing us out. Wait, did I say
Heading into the second half, we knew that we had to make some adjustments to avoid getting run out of the gym, so our coach decided to implement a 2–3 zone. By switching to a zone and compacting our defense around the basket, we would hopefully negate the athleticism of the guys on the other team and force them to shoot jump shots instead of getting wide-open layups. In other words, we were going with the “if he’s black play back and if he’s white play tight” philosophy, which is unquestionably the greatest defensive strategy in the history of basketball (although it’s not exactly clear on how to guard Latinos, Asians, or Native Americans).
This instantly proved to be a good move. Since Mike and the rest of the guards on the other team were accustomed to getting to the basket whenever they wanted, they had never had any reason
to practice shooting threes and weren’t all that great at it. Knowing this, we basically forced them to match our style of play, and for a while the game turned into a three-point contest that featured them bricking shot after shot and us having the exact amount of success that you would think white guys from Indiana would have. Eventually, they figured our zone out and turned up their defensive intensity when the game mattered most, but for a quick second we gave them a scare that would have surely turned the seventh-grade AAU basketball world upside down. Even though we ran out of gas down the stretch and came up a little short, we managed to expose a serious flaw in a seemingly flawless team and only lost by seven, which was by far the closest any team had come to beating them up to that point.
So, how did this game “change my life forever,” or whatever dramatic phrase I used earlier to make this story sound more interesting? Well, what I failed to previously mention is that I was a mismatch nightmare for Greg and Mike’s team and played out of my mind for most of the game. As a six-foot-two seventh-grader with a wet jumper, I was too big for little guys like Mike to guard me, and I was too good of a shooter for big guys like Greg, who usually never leave the paint on defense, to guard me. I was essentially a junior-high version of Dirk Nowitzki, all the way down to the fact that I also considered Detlef Schrempf a personal hero of mine (but only because his flat top was damn near immaculate—not quite on the same level as Chris Mullin’s, but then again, whose is?). I lit Mike and Greg’s team up to the tune of 18 points and 7 rebounds (and no assists because passing is entirely unnecessary), which doesn’t sound like much at first, but when you consider that high school band parties have twice as much scoring as a typical seventh-grade basketball game, it arguably becomes just as impressive as Wilt’s 100 or Kobe’s 81.
My performance was so impressive, in fact, that Mike’s dad, who was Mike and Greg’s coach, asked me to join their team at the end of the AAU season, after our game made him realize that the lack of a good outside shooter could lead to their demise. Since I
was deadly from downtown and was projected to be six-nine by the time I was a senior in high school, Mike Sr. figured I was the missing piece to their puzzle of basketball perfection. Unfortunately for him, he figured wrong. I essentially stopped growing, my athleticism somehow deteriorated, and I became such a one-dimensional player that even Antoine Walker would have thought I shot too many threes.
But that wasn’t until later on down the road. For the time being, what was important was that I had my foot in the door and was now a member of the best AAU team in the country. The opportunities that came with this would prove to be staggering, as there’s no way in hell I ever would have played at Ohio State, become one of the most famous walk-ons of all time (which, let’s be honest, is like being the smartest Kardashian), or been given a book deal to talk about it all had I never been on that AAU team. Basically, my entire identity would have been completely different from what it is today. So yeah, that’s how one game changed my life forever.
s I walked into the gym for my first practice with my new AAU team, I decided it was crucial to send a message to my teammates that I wasn’t there to dick around. I accomplished this by pulling a pistol out of my bag, firing three shots in the air, and declaring to everyone in the most badass way imaginable that “you assholes picked a good day to die.” And by that I mean that I kept to myself and didn’t really talk to anyone because I was so terrified.
Being the only white guy in the gym (they added another white guy to the team, but he lived an hour from Indy and never came to any of our practices) was a huge culture shock for me, considering that my school had a total of one nonwhite student, but only after adding together the two biracial kids. It wasn’t so much that I was a racist little kid, but rather that getting dropped into this new culture felt like a whirlwind and I wasn’t exactly mature enough to adapt to the change. These guys played a different style of basketball, talked differently, dressed differently, and had different off-the-court interests than I did. I was completely overwhelmed
and thought for sure I’d never be able to fit in with any of my new teammates. And then Greg introduced himself.
If it weren’t for Wayne Brady, John Howard Griffin, and Carlton Banks, the young version of Greg Oden could very well make a case for being the whitest black person to ever live. Clearly I don’t mean that he had light pigmentation for a black guy, but rather that he seemed to identify more with white culture than he did with black culture. Whereas most black basketball players aim to be the epitome of cool, Greg used to play in Rec-Specs and routinely wore calf-high socks with jean shorts. I would say that he was kind of a goober, but I’ve never actually used the word “goober” in my life, and I don’t want to start now, so I’ll instead just say he looked like a dweeb. As we got older, Greg stayed true to his adopted culture by watching
religiously (I know this because we discussed Team Kristin versus Team LC far more often than two straight men ever should), and he even came to my high school’s prom instead of his own because there were “too many black people” at his school’s prom.
But my favorite example of Greg shying away from his natural culture came in the summer before our senior year of high school. We had an off day during the week of a tournament in Las Vegas, and most of the guys on the team tried to convince their parents to take them to an Ashanti concert. Hell, even I wanted to go until I found out that Ja Rule wasn’t going to be there too. (Sorry, Ashanti, but as far as I’m concerned you can either sing “Mesmerize” with Ja Rule or you can STFU.) But when my dad suggested that we go see a matinee magic show on the Strip instead, my inner nerd came out and decided that that was a much better idea. When I mentioned to Greg what my dad and I planned on doing, he immediately asked if he could come with us.
That’s right—when given the choice between a concert featuring one of the best R&B singers at the time and a $15 matinee magic show, Greg picked the magic show without hesitation. This single decision contradicted every stereotype I ever had about black basketball
players and helped subdue all of the uneasiness I had about integrating with my new teammates.
Because Greg and I shared a lot of similar interests other than basketball, I tended to hang out with him off the court more than I did with any of my other teammates. Some have suggested that the two of us really didn’t have that much in common and I was just forging a friendship because I knew he was going to be a millionaire NBA player in a few years, which is an accusation I can’t fully deny. But I swear that wasn’t the only reason. (You gotta believe me!) The way I see it, if Greg was Vince Chase, I was much more like E than I was like Turtle, if for no other reason than I like to think that I actually brought something to the table, even if I could never figure out exactly what that something was.
Either way, my friendship with Greg played a pivotal role in my attempt to integrate with my teammates, especially since I was having just as tough of a time trying to fit in on the court as I was off of it. That’s because, even though I was successfully fulfilling my role as designated three-point specialist, my playing time fluctuated more than a sine wave with an angular frequency of 1,000π radians per second. (That’s a nerd joke from a former math major, bitch.) Some games I would play just about every minute and even occasionally lead the team in scoring, and then others I wouldn’t even get off the bench. I understood that my playing time almost exclusively depended on the style of play of our opponent, which is to say it almost exclusively depended on how many white guys were on the other team, but that didn’t make it any less frustrating. My unpredictable playing time did, however, make things occasionally entertaining.
If there’s one story I love telling more than any other about my time on the best AAU team ever assembled, it has to be how I used to room on the road with Daequan Cook (who played with me for a year at Ohio State and now plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder), and he would stay up until four in the morning shooting dice with Aaron Pogue (who played at Cleveland State) while
on the TV in the background and I desperately tried to get sleep to prepare for our 8:00 a.m. game. But if there are two stories I love to tell, they are that one and what I’m going to tell you with these next few paragraphs.
Less than a month after I had torched the second-best AAU team in Indiana for 27 points in a tournament in Indianapolis, I found myself glued to the bench during the championship game of the prestigious Houston Kingwood Classic Tournament. Because Josh McRoberts (who now plays for the Los Angeles Lakers) had been added to our team earlier that year and was a senior while the rest of us were either juniors or sophomores, we were forced to play teams that were older than almost all of our players. Nonetheless, we breezed through the tournament with relative ease before meeting up with Lou Williams (who now plays for the Philadelphia 76ers) and the Georgia Stars in the championship. The Stars had zero white guys on their team, which meant there was nobody for me to guard, so I had an idea before the game that I most likely wouldn’t even need to bother warming up. I was spot-on with my prediction.
For 39 minutes and 45 seconds, the game was a back-and-forth battle in which I didn’t even sniff the court. Then, with 15 seconds left and us down by three with the ball, Mike’s dad called time-out and told me to check in. Naturally, I was caught off guard by this, but I wasn’t all that worried because I figured I wouldn’t have to do much more than stand in the corner while the good players made something happen. Instead, as I made my way back to the huddle from the scorer’s table, Mike Sr. looked me square in the eye and said, “Get ready. We need you to hit this,” before drawing up a play that would lead to me sinking a three to send it to overtime. Most guys in my situation (hadn’t played the entire game, ice-cold legs, championship on the line) would have been so nervous they would have soiled their trousers. But not me. As we broke from the huddle, I had a focused look on my face as I grabbed a fistful of Mike Sr.’s shirt and firmly said, “Coach, I got this.”
Lou Williams noticed that I had probably checked into the
game solely because I was a good shooter and we were going to run a play for me, and therefore decided that since he was their best player, he should be the one to guard me. As soon as I stepped on the court, he attached himself to my hip, as if to say there was no way in hell I was going to even get the game-tying shot off, let alone make it. But despite his best efforts, he was no match for me on this particular play. As the clock ticked down to less than 10 seconds, I came off a double screen, left him in the dust, and ran to the corner to spot up. While this was happening, Mike swung the ball to Daequan at the top of the key, just like we drew it up in the time-out. Once I got my feet set and my shoulders squared to the basket, I locked eyes with Daequan and raised my eyebrows to let him know I was ready for the pass.