Hoop Dreams Take An Icy Twist

Retired NBA star Greg Ostertag finds a new passion in Arizona adult hockey leagues

Greg Ostertag established himself as a shot-blocking presence over the course of an 11-year career in the National Basketball Association. In his latest athletic pursuit, blocking shots doesn’t carry quite the same appeal.

Shortly after retiring from the Utah Jazz in 2006, the 7-foot-2, 280-pound center returned to his childhood roots by playing adult recreational hockey. He skates in a beginner-level league on Wednesdays and an intermediate-level league on Thursdays at the Ice Den in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“One day, I just decided to go find something to do besides playing golf every day,” says the 41-year-old Ostertag. “I was lucky to have a guy in Utah send me a pair of skates. Then I went to a rink, started skating around, and, once I got my feet under me again, I got into a league. I’ve been doing it ever since.

“I don’t do it to stay in shape. I do it because it’s fun. I love playing hockey, and I love being around the guys. I’d do it five days a week if I could and if I had time.”

Ostertag, who plays both forward and defense, takes pride in his ability to win faceoffs and set up wingers with better wheels than his. And, of course, after years of playing college and pro basketball, he understands how to use his massive frame to his advantage.

“I don’t handle the puck great, but I know how to get into position, and sometimes I get lucky,” Ostertag says. “I try to be a screen as much as I can and get out of the way at the last second. I don’t know if I’m man enough to get hit by that little rubber sucker all the time. Some of the guys I play with can shoot the puck pretty hard.”

One of the few men who towers over Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara, Ostertag knows the challenge of finding gear that can cover his long legs and massive torso. He occasionally gets zinged in the lower leg with well-placed shots that find the gap between his skates and 18-inch shin pads. And even extra-long shoulder pads leave an unguarded area above his pants.

But his size also has its advantages.

“I don’t do it to stay in shape. I do it because it’s fun. I love playing hockey, and I love being around the guys. I’d do it five days a week if I could and if I had time.”

“He definitely takes up a lot of space out there, and he has a very long reach. Those are his greatest assets,” says Marc Kamin, who has played with and against Ostertag. “With his reach and the length of his stick, it’s almost like you have to skate around two guys when you try to skate around him.”

Even with his size and his background as a professional athlete, Ostertag is just one of the guys once he enters the locker room.

“Greg doesn’t think he’s any better or any different than anybody else because he played in the NBA,” Kamin says. “That’s why the guys like being around him in the locker room and probably why he likes being around the other guys, too. He doesn’t bring up the basketball thing unless somebody asks him about it.”

Growing up in the suburbs of Dallas, Ostertag played hockey briefly as a child until the sport exceeded the family’s finances. A natural athlete, he also played baseball, basketball, football and soccer during his formative years.

“I could usually pick up a sport and be pretty good at it fairly quickly. Unfortunately, I just didn’t take the time to master any one of them,” he says.

“I’ll be the first to admit that I never reached my full potential as a basketball player. I took it for granted that I was 7 feet tall, and I rode that.”

Still, Ostertag racked up 3,512 points, grabbed 4,145 rebounds and blocked 1,293 shots during his 11-year NBA career before retiring at age 33 because of the toll the sport took on his body. He appeared in the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998, his second and third seasons in Utah, after a standout career at the University of Kansas.

After 11 seasons in the NBA, Greg Ostertag retired from the game in 2006. These days he gets his fill of fun and competition playing in several adult hockey leagues in Arizona.After 11 seasons in the NBA, Greg Ostertag retired from the game in 2006. These days he gets his fill of fun and competition playing in several adult hockey leagues in Arizona.

In 2002, Ostertag unselfishly donated a kidney to save the life of his sister, Amy, and became the first man to play in the NBA after donating an organ. Five years after his retirement, he attempted a brief comeback attempt in the NBA’s Developmental League but his knees wouldn’t cooperate.

“Hockey doesn’t have near the impact on my knees, because there’s not a lot of pounding,” Ostertag says. “I still get sore when I haven’t played in a while. I’ll get aches and pains, but it doesn’t hurt me too bad as far as the pounding part of it.”

Ostertag casually watched hockey during his hoop days but it wasn’t until he moved to Arizona and began skating that he was bitten by the bug. Over the course of time he became acquainted with Coyotes players Derek Morris and Shane Doan, who worked out with him before they started training camp.

“You really get an appreciation for how good those guys are when you get to see them up close,” he says.

“It’s amazing how fast they are, how well they handle the puck, how strong they are and how they can be going one direction, stop, turn around and go the same speed in another direction in the blink of an eye. 
I love watching them up close.”

Jim Leitner is the sports editor for The Dubuque (Iowa) Telegraph Herald.

 

Photos By Norm Hall; Getty Images


Issue: 
2015-02

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