Greg Oden returned from China in 2016 without much of an idea what was up next.
A well-documented history of significant injuries since he was taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft following his lone season at Ohio State had left him without any real hopes of remaining on the court. And now at the ripe old age of 28, he was faced with the difficult task of figuring out life after basketball.
It turned out the answer wasn’t too far away. After a talk with his former coach, Thad Matta, Oden began to take the necessary steps to being involved in the game that has been an integral part of his life for more than two decades. But in order to become a coach, athletic director or anyone of significance within the industry, Oden was going to need his college degree first.
And that’s where Ohio State was waiting to meet him. By taking advantage of the university’s degree completion program for former student-athletes, which helps those who leave without graduating return and finish their courses, Oden is now roughly one year shy of a bachelor’s degree in education, sport industry after enrolling as a freshman in 2006.
“I had to get my degree,” said Oden, a student assistant coach for the Buckeyes. “I have to get a job post-basketball life, you know? I always had that mindset that to be better in life outside of sports, you definitely need your college degree.”
To date, 187 former athletes have earned their degrees through the program. Oden is the only men’s basketball player taking classes, although Trevor Thompson is expected to begin this summer. Thompson left with a year of eligibility remaining in 2017 and spent this season in the NBA’s developmental G-League, where he averaged 5.0 points and 4.1 rebounds and played in 38 of 50 games for the Santa Cruz Warriors.
Candidates are required to meet a list of qualifications and receive help with tuition, tutoring, academic counseling and the re-enrollment process. That is more complicated for some than others, as Scoonie Penn can attest.
After leaving Ohio State to play professional basketball in 2000, he suffered a season-ending injury during his first year that brought him back to Columbus prematurely. One class shy of graduating, Penn used the program to finish his sociology degree with a minor in African-American studies — without which he wouldn’t be able to hold his current title of director of player development for the men’s basketball program.
“I always had a feeling I’d go into coaching, especially college, and to do that I knew you had to have a degree, as well," Penn said. "I think a lot of guys may not realize that. They talk about wanting to go into coaching, and you can’t coach until you have a degree. It’s something I felt I had to do for myself.”
Oden had been taking a class or two during the summers when his NBA schedule permitted but is finishing up his second consecutive year of being a full-time student. The courses are more interesting this time around, he said, because he’s more engaged in the end goal.
“With my older age, I actually want to learn this stuff,” Oden said. “I’m in class taking notes. I want to be in class because I want to get that knowledge taught to me where before it was kind of like, ‘You’re here, do what you do, go to the tutors, take in the knowledge in one ear and out the other.’ Now it’s like, ‘No, I’ve got to learn this stuff and take it in.’ ”
Earning his degree will save Oden at least one potential headache down the road, too.
“Now having a daughter also, there’s no way I can look at her and say, ‘You’re going to college,’ when she could be like, ‘But you don’t even have your degree,’ ” Oden said. “That’s just an argument for the future for me.”