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Editor's note: This feature originally appeared in the Greater Indy January/February 2006 issue of SchoolSports Magazine (which later became ESPN RISE Magazine). We're taking a look back at high school greats as part of ESPN RISE's Best Baller package.
They say great friendships don't happen overnight, but that's exactly what happened with Lawrence North (Indianapolis, Ind.) seniors Greg Oden and Mike Conley.
|Greg Oden was featued on the cover of the Greater Indy January/February 2006 issue of SchoolSports Magazine.|
Back before they were the nation's No. 1 duo and their high school games were televised on ESPN, it all started in the seventh grade. That's when Oden joined Conley's Spiece Indy Heat AAU team, which is coached by Conley's father, Mike Sr., who won the triple jump gold medal at the 1992 Olympics.
Oden lived in Terre Haute at the time (he moved to Indianapolis in the eighth grade), so he often stayed at the Conley household rather than travel back home during the AAU season.
The first night Oden stayed over, Conley noticed how soft-spoken the big man was. Still, Conley managed to strike up a conversation and the two stayed up all night talking.
"He was very quiet to begin with," says Conley. "He was very calm, cool and collected, and I kind of forced him to open up a little. He was very easy to get along with and become friends with."
The rest, as they say, is history. Since then, the two have played countless hours of basketball together from high school ball to AAU, creating a chemistry that has helped form the nation's top high school hoop duo. And they hope that chemistry will continue at the next level since both have signed to play at Ohio State.
On almost any other team in the country, Conley would be the star of the show. A 6-foot-1, 175-pound floor leader, Conley is rated the nation's No. 3 point guard and No. 15 overall recruit in the Class of 2006 by SchoolSports.com. He practically defines what a pure point guard should be.
But Conley is not on any other team. He's on the same team as Oden, who's rated the nation's No. 1 recruit in the senior class by SchoolSports.com. A 254-pound center who's generally listed at 7 feet but claims he's 6-11 1/2, Oden is literally the biggest star in high school basketball. He's so talented and has so much potential that he could have been the No. 1 pick in the 2006 NBA Draft if the league didn't pass its age minimum.
Oden, however, is quick to credit Conley with helping him get where he is today.
"With Mike, he's such a good point guard that everything develops from him," says Oden. "Everything he seems to do is right. Before I came to the Indy AAU team, I could barely make a layup." Now, the two have such impeccable timing on the court that they're like the Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison of high school hoops. They don't even need to say anything to communicate. All it takes is a simple nod or a look, which usually signals bad news for opponents.
Last season, Oden averaged 20 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks per game and was named both the Gatorade and USA Today National Player of the Year. Conley averaged 10.7 points, 5.0 assists and 2.4 steals and was selected to The Indianapolis Star Super Team.
"There's just such a timing factor between the two of them that the work is done before Greg even touches the ball," says Lawrence North head coach Jack Keefer, who's in his 30th year at the helm and has led the Wildcats to three state titles, including the last two.
"We've both matured a lot," adds Conley. "We've been at all the camps together, year-round. It helps out tremendously in the big moments that we know each other so well."
Lawrence North has experienced plenty of big moments since Oden and Conley arrived. During their sophomore and junior seasons, the Wildcats went an incredible 53-4 and won two straight Class 4A state titles. And both have elevated their games when it matters most -- in the postseason.
In a 60-45 win over Arlington in the Class 4A Sectional 10 semifinals last year, Oden blocked a remarkable 18 shots and added 12 points and seven boards. Conley, meanwhile, chipped in with 16 points. The win was especially sweet because Arlington had beaten the Wildcats earlier in the season.
"My competitive nature spurs me to do what I do," says Conley, who's tremendously competitive, whether it's on the court or playing video games or cards. "I love playing the best teams and the best players. When I get in the zone, I don't even remember it when I'm done. It makes me want to wake up in the morning and work harder. I think I've rubbed off on Greg a little bit. He kind of learned from me and started working harder and harder."
That hard work has helped both players develop into elite talents. Oden has always been known as a defensive force thanks to his shot blocking and overall presence in the paint, which has elicited comparisons to even the great Bill Russell.
"Our defense is good because teams are throwing up 3's because Greg is underneath," says Keefer. "He can adjust a team's strategy. He's just a defensive phenomenon because he can time it so well."
The scary part is that Oden's offensive game continues to improve, and he's worked extremely hard on his jumper. He already has tremendous footwork in the post and can seal off anyone who's guarding him, leading to thunderous dunks. Combine that with a jump shot, and look out.
Conley has also worked on being more assertive offensively. He knows teams are going to double down on Oden, leaving him open from the perimeter. And with a sweet lefty stroke from 3-point land, that's fine with Conley.
He's also a stalwart on defense -- breaking the previous school record of 202 career steals earlier this season -- but it's Conley's leadership and coolness under pressure that has Keefer gushing with praise.
"When you say what is a point guard and put the definition down, it's Mike," says Keefer.
Still, despite all that talent, neither player has even the smallest trace of a me-first attitude. And it's their ability to blend in with the team, not just their incredible talent, that makes Lawrence North so good.
"They're just such giving kids," says Keefer. "They make a team good because they're so unselfish. They play hard and study hard and do everything correctly. These guys set the tone and everyone follows."
This season, Oden and Conley are hoping their teammates follow them to a third consecutive state crown before they head off to play together at Ohio State.
"It's a thrill knowing Greg wanted to go to the same school," says Conley. "It's good knowing that we're going to be playing together at the next level."
Where they'll continue the friendship and on-court chemistry that's made Lawrence North such a success and should make the rest of the nation's college teams fearful of Ohio State.