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Ostertag, 38, Looks For One More Shot at the Big Time

In his final attempt to get back to the NBA, the former Jazz big man signs with the NBA Development League's Texas Legends -- affiliate of the size-strapped Dallas Mavericks.
Ostertag, one of the most revered shot blockers in the league over his 11-year career, last played in the NBA in 2006.
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

On Tuesday, the Texas Legends announced that they'd signed center Greg Ostertag from the available player pool.

Ostertag hadn't played any sort of organized basketball in five years, ever since he retired from an NBA career that saw him play a key role in Karl Malone and John Stockton's Utah Jazz teams of the 90's and early 2000's, and consistently finish near the top of the league in blocked shots. He called it quits in 2006 and proceeded to do, in his words, "nothing." A few short-lived comeback attempts dotted his retirement, until he decided, early in December, to drag his 38-year-old body back onto the court to see if it can still do what it once could. "One last good effort," he said.

On Wednesday, caught up with the 7-foot-2 big man to talk about what he expects from his final comeback attempt, how life changed during retirement and the void in his life that only grew with every year away from the game.

Kevin Scheitrum, You've been out of the game five years. Howís the body feeling these days?

Ostertag: I really havenít had any big-time contact in a couple days, so Iíve been more or less recovering, with travel and holidays. But practice will be my first little test. So, if you wanna call me back, let me know.

I put in two weeks of training, trying to get it done with a little bit of conditioning and strength training. I played a little bit, trying to get my timing back. Itís like riding a bike Ė you donít forget it, but you just gotta get the feel.

I'm gonna go to practice get a run in and get my timing back. You were always one of the best shot-blockers in the league, but youíre 38 years old now, and you havenít played ball in five years Ė whatís your value to an NBA team?

Ostertag: Probably about the same. I worked on my shot there a little bit, and I feel comfortable with my shot, but just being a defensive clogger, taking up space, knocking guys down, getting fouls, rebounding, blocking shots, changing shots, getting the put-backs.

I just missed it. I played for 11 years, and when I retired, at the time, I was just tired of it. But I missed it and realized I shouldnít have retired when I did.

I was like, ĎIím 38 Ė lemme see if I can get two more years out of it.í Youíre in the Mavsí organization now, and rumor has it that their loss of Tyson Chandler Ė and Dallasí need for a quality defender to replace him Ė had something to do with your decision to come back. Any truth to that?

Ostertag: No, right now I just want to try to get back and give it everything I can for a month, month and a half, and see what happens.

If I get lucky and the Mavs like what they see and I can go there and play, so be it.

My motivation is just to go do it. There are naysayers out there saying thereís no way Ė he wasnít that great when he played. I wasnít an All-Star. Iíll be the first to admit it. But people knew I was there when I was there.

I was always, per 48 minutes, at the top of the league in blocked shots. Iím still 7-foot-2, still got big long arms, Iím a big body still. Itís just gonna be a matter of how fast can I get into shape. Since you retired, what have you been doing to stay in shape? You been running at all? Lifting?

Ostertag: Nothing (laughs)

When I quit, I quit. I went to playing golf, hunting and fishing. Iíll be the first to admit Iím not the greatest father in the world, so Iím just trying to be a better dad.

I had a few hiccups in my life between when I retired and now, but things are going well now.

I had a few hiccups in my life between when I retired and now, but things are going well now. Iím doing the things I enjoy doing. What kind of hiccups?

Ostertag: Hiccups, just kind of Öhiccups. That's fair. So how did this comeback process start?

Ostertag: I talked to my agent, and I was like, Ďwith the lockout over, who needs a big guy?í He said you take two weeks and weíll see if we can get you into the D-League.

If I can get out there, and in a monthís time get back on the court, get the feeling back with the banging, the up and down, and do some extra workouts in the morning and that kind of stuff, I think Iíll be fine. What was the last time you played organized, competitive ball?

Ostertag: A couple years ago I went to Portland and was with them a couple days, maybe a week. Then I went to San Antonio a couple years ago, but I always tried to do it a little too late to get ready. Iím always thinking about it, thinking about it, and I try to do it a month before camp starts, and thatís hard to do.

I go in, and itís bad the way Iím doing it. But let me give it one more shot, give it as much as I can, give it full effort and go from there.

If at the end of the month or month and a half, if I donít feel like anythingís happening, Iíll pack my stuff and go back to Arizona. They say that the last thing to go for ballplayers is their shot. What about something like shot-blocking? Does that stick around, too?

Ostertag: Iím sure. Thatís what I was always known for, pretty much, anyway. Thatís part of it, getting the timing back, not taking pump fakes, knowing when to jump, when not to jump Ė just being a big body and using my length. Do you feel like youíre more mentally equipped to play ball now than when you were playing? That youíre now a smarter player, instead of just relying on your athleticism and physicality?

Ostertag: Iíve continued to watch basketball after I retired, and when youíre younger, you donít think studying film is important, but Iíve been watching guys Ė seeing how they move. And with the internet, now you can watch everything a guy does.

Itís stuff you should learn when youíre younger but youíre too stupid to do it.

Now itís important for me to study a guyís moves, and use less physical and athletic ability, and more understanding what a guyís gonna do with the ball.

Itís stuff you should learn when youíre younger but youíre too stupid to do it. Youíve gone to a couple camps but didnít stick Ė is this the most serious youíve been about an NBA comeback?

Ostertag: I think the other times I was thinking about it, and I was serious, but it was, you know, just trying to make a commitment too late. Of course, once again I am [doing that], but with a shortened season teams are gonna be looking.

Iíve put in two weeks of hard work. Harder than Iíve worked in a while. It was tough on me, and the end of the first week I wanted to lay down and not move. The second week was better, though. I had to miss one workout with a bad head cold, but I was there working. There were days when stuff would shut down, and Iíd have to get it adjusted by a chiropractor and get back out there.

I went out there with a trainer who broke down with a shot and now Iím shooting the ball a little bit better, whereas at the end of my career, I wasnít confident anywhere. Outside of layups and dunks I had no confidence anywhere. Not even confidence at the free throw line.

Right now I have confidence. Granted I havenít been in a game situation where I can use it, Iíll give it a run. Iím not scared. I know my ability. Is that what made you retire early? Just having not confidence in your shot?

Ostertag: There were a bunch of factors in there. I was just tired. I was tired of the travel, tired of the practices. Itís probably hard to hear you say that when youíre making the money that somebody like that makes, but I was tired of being on the road. I played basketball for 24 years.

Ostertag and longtime Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan (left) had a contentious relationship over the years, but today, the center says he loves the coach "to death."
NBAE via Getty Images

It was premature Ė I shouldnít have done it. I shouldíve stuck it out. Granted, the moneyís great, but itís not so much about the money. Itís just what I know.

I donít have my college degree, and basketballís what I know. I know basketball.

Iíve gotten smarter. I learned over the years of being retired, and started understanding. Jerry [Sloan] and I used to butt heads all the time and I thought he was getting on me because he needed somebody to get on.

Now I look back on the things he said to me and theyíre all making sense. I guess I wonít say the things he was saying to me Ė more like the things he was yelling at me. Haha, Jerry Sloan could be forcefulÖ

Ostertag: I love Jerry to death. He was old school. I played with two of the best to ever step on the floor, and I was the one taking the brunt when things were going bad. I thought he was just picking on me, and I understand it now. You talked about spending time fishing and hunting and having a lot of time to think over the past five years. What did you spend your time thinking about?

Ostertag: What was the next spot I was gonna throw this worm. Where was I gonna set up my deer stand. Whatís wrong with my golf swing. Thatís the kind of stuff I was thinking about.

I wasnít thinking a whole lot about how to make my basketball game better, because I was done, then as the years went on I started learning it more and learning positions better. Itís silly you learn those things when youíre not doing it.

I try to put my two cents in there with my sonsí teams and not try to get the coachesí way, and it turns out Ė and I donít mean this in a bad way Ė but when youíre playing basketball, you donít know anything about your son, and when youíre trying to talk to your son, you donít know anything about basketball.

My sonís a better shooter then I ever was, and we butt heads when it comes to basketball. Itís hard to have your father telling you what to do.

Who knows Ė maybe 20 years from now, heíll feel the way you feel about Jerry.

I canít wait until he has a son and heís trying to teach him stuff, and heís like ĎI donít want to talk about it!í Youíve been working on your shot, too. But over 845 career games, you took a grand total of 10 3-pointers. Any chance thatís gonna be part of the repertoire?

Ostertag: Probably not. I guarantee every one of those 3-pointers were trying to beat the buzzer, and the only one I made Ė I made one Ė it was a buzzer-beater at the end of the third quarter to beat the clock in Portland. I grabbed it, chucked it and it went in. So, like you said. youíve obviously heard from the naysayers, saying that this is a foolís errand Ė what do you say to them? What do you say to your critics?

Ostertag: You know, if I didnít think I could do it, I wouldnít be out there. Iím not doing it to prove anybody wrong, but to prove I can still do it, and to give it one last good effort.

I can already hear Shaq and Charles Barkley. If I ever get back in, I can hear Shaq and Charles going, ĎWhat the hell? Really?.í