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Frisco, Texas • The game ended and the losing Texas Legends players gathered at center court, grabbing pens from a staff member and waiting for fans of the NBA Development League team to approach them. Before long, 7-foot-2 center Greg Ostertag was surrounded by folks wanting an autograph or a posed photo, and he eagerly accommodated them.
A boy asked about Ostertag's height, then turned away, puzzled by the answer of "5-foot-26."
Catching a woman photographing the Fred Flintstone tattoo on his leg, Ostertag told her there would be a charge, because the ink needs fresh colorizing.
In the pregame warm-up, Ostertag pulled two kids onto the court to take shots. During a timeout, he pretended to steal a french fry from a courtside table.
Same old 'Tag, right?
Five-plus years after retiring from the Jazz, the player whose size, ability and wasted potential made him a subject of curiosity and derision for 10 seasons and 700 games in Utah is attempting a comeback at age 38. He wishes he could replay his NBA career with greater commitment, and this is his only hope: Greg Ostertag officially is a Legend.
This status will be temporary, one way or another. In February, an NBA team could sign him to a 10-day contract. Otherwise, he'll just "get in my truck and drive back to Arizona with a smile on my face," he said after his D-League debut in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, 40 miles from his hometown of Duncanville.
What's he doing here? "I just want to play," he said. "I miss it. I've missed it ever since I quit."
So having made $48 million in the NBA, the father of three is playing for a prorated D-League salary of $25,500. "You never know what to expect from him," said his sister, Amy. Yet the day he retired, she accurately predicted he would become bored. Jazz teammate Matt Harpring understands his friend's motivation. "I think every retired player goes in and out of phases of wanting to play. … You wake up one day, and you've got nothing," said Harpring, now a Jazz broadcaster. "You've got to do something."
Whether Ostertag's NBA call-up comes is questionable. He's listed at 295 pounds (up from his Jazz weight of 280) and his physique would be described kindly as Phil Mickelson-esque. He asked to come out after four minutes of his first game on Dec. 29, even with a timeout in the middle of that stint. The next night, he managed to run up and down the court for longer stretches, waving off suggestions of substitutions while playing 23 minutes.
This past week, his playing time was reduced after the Dallas Mavericks signed NBA veteran Yi Jianlian and assigned him to the Legends. Yet Ostertag grabbed 14 boards in 32 minutes of two games.
"He does rebound," said Legends coach Del Harris, a longtime NBA coach. But "it's going to take a while. You can't lay off for five years and just pick up. You're not going to see the real Greg for a couple of weeks or so."
Ah, the real Greg. This prospect is both encouraging and frightening to Jazz fans. It didn't help that Karl Malone continually ridiculed him, he feuded with coach Jerry Sloan, and Larry H. Miller awarded him a $39 million contract extension. Ostertag also hurt the perception of himself by performing well in intermittent moments.
Harris vividly remembers one of them, while coaching the Los Angeles Lakers in a 1997 playoff series that the Jazz won on their way to the NBA Finals. Game 5 was tied with 40 seconds left in regulation, when Eddie Jones "had a stone-cold layup," Harris recalled. Ostertag "came out of nowhere to block that shot."
Asked how he believes he's remembered in Utah, Ostertag laughed. "As a roller coaster," he said. "One game, I was there; one game, I wasn't. … For the most part, I had a decent career there."
Ostertag ranks third in franchise history in blocked shots, fourth in rebounds and sixth in games played. In 2009, a Tribune-commissioned panel ranked him No. 22 among more than 200 all-time Jazz players, disregarding his 4.9-point average.
He could have done much more, and he knows it. "I wish I could go back and do it over with the knowledge I have now," he said. "I could have been better. I took it for granted. I was [7-2]. I didn't work hard enough. I could go on and on and on."
He could, but it's getting late, and the Legends have another game the next night. Whether or not his return to pro basketball is too late for him, Greg Ostertag is coming back for more, while asking only, "What've I got to lose?"
Greg Ostertag as a Texas Legend
Date Opponent Min. Pts. Reb.
Dec. 29 Rio Grande 17 2 11
Dec. 30 Tulsa 23 5 8
Jan. 5 at Tulsa 22 4 7
Jan. 6 at Austin 10 7 7
Averages 18 4.5 8.2
Sunday vs. Maine
Tuesday vs. Tulsa*
Wednesday vs. Sioux Falls*
Friday at Erie
Saturday at Erie
* - In D-League Showcase, Reno, Nev.
Greg Ostertag's rankings on Jazz's all-time lists
John Stockton 1,504
Karl Malone 1,434
Mark Eaton 874
Darrell Griffith 765
Thurl Bailey 708
Greg Ostertag 700
Andrei Kirilenko 681
Mark Eaton 3,064
Andrei Kirilenko 1,380
Greg Ostertag 1,253
Karl Malone 1,125
Thurl Bailey 879
Karl Malone 14,601
Mark Eaton 6,939
John Stockton 4,051
Greg Ostertag 3,978
Rich Kelley 3,972