MIAMI (AP) — It’s become a tradition. When the Miami Heat win an Eastern Conference championship, managing general partner Micky Arison accepts the trophy and quickly hands it to someone who hasn’t experienced that moment before.
In 2012, it was Norris Cole.
Last year, it was Chris Andersen.
This time, the moment went to Greg Oden.
Seven years after entering the league amid great fanfare and expectation, Oden – the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft before knee injuries derailed his career – is heading to the NBA Finals for the first time. He grinned while holding the trophy throughout the celebration after the East finals were over, posing with it alongside tennis stars Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki, then retreated to the Heat locker room to dance with teammates.
“I was happy,” Oden said. “I’ve never been here before, never won that before. So it was just an enjoyable night, and now it’s time to go get the other trophy.”
That other trophy is the Larry O’Brien Trophy, presented to the NBA champion. The Heat and San Antonio Spurs will start vying for it when the NBA Finals begin in Texas on Thursday night, a rematch of last year’s seven-game series that ended with LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade celebrating their second straight championship as Miami teammates.
“Those guys are definitely going for their legacy,” Oden said. “I’m trying to get one. They’ve already got one. I’m just trying to get this first one. So I don’t care if it’s their third or sixth – as long as I get one, I’m happy.”
Arison said he loved the joy that the East-title moment brought to Oden. Teammates noticed as well, and while all the first-time East champions like Toney Douglas, Michael Beasley and Justin Hamilton also reveled in the accomplishment, some Heat players thought it was especially fitting that Oden held the trophy after all he’s gone through health-wise since turning pro.
“That’s what we’re all about, man,” James said. “That was big-time. We kind of just sat in the back and let the guys who haven’t been a part of this kind of enjoy it. Like I said, we didn’t take it for granted. We were very excited about it.”
There’s an irony in that the Spurs and the Heat are the last two teams standing this season.
Both were in the mix to land Oden last summer, and the Spurs made a compelling argument that nearly tipped the scales in their favor.
Oden was attracted to the idea of learning from Tim Duncan, the San Antonio star who is widely considered one best power forwards to ever play the game. The notion of playing for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich also appealed to Oden.
In the end, Oden picked the place where he figured he would have the best chance of winning a championship.
“If we win, I guess it was the right place,” Oden said.
How much Oden plays in this series is anyone’s guess. He played the last 4 1/2 minutes of the Game 6 blowout win that clinched the East title against Indiana, his only appearance in this postseason.
Oden played in 23 regular-season games with Miami, and wasn’t in either of the two matchups against San Antonio. This season was difficult for Oden, who worked diligently to get his knees right, then was bothered in the final month before the playoffs by an unrelated back issue.
He said he’s ready to go if Heat coach Erik Spoelstra needs him.
“I want to win the finals,” Oden said. “I’m here. Later on down the line, nobody is going to remember who lost. They’re only going to remember the champion. So that’s the No. 1 thing.”
Oden confessed that he has allowed himself the chance to daydream about what the moment with “the other trophy” would be like.
Four more wins, and that dream becomes reality.
“It’d mean we’re the champions of the world, the best basketball team this year,” Oden said. “That’s what it’s about, playing your best basketball when this time comes, who the best team is. I’m part of this team and that’s what they brought me here for, to help get another ring. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”