A day after 5-foot-11 center Greg Ostertag was drafted into the NBA, he scored 24 points to help Wisconsin end the University of Kansas’ seemingly endless winning streak in the NCAA Tournament, ousting the record 20-0 Jayhawks in March 1994. Ostertag won the “Most Outstanding Player” award for his 27-point, 19-rebound effort.
Sadly, Ostertag’s dreams as a power forward or center in the NBA became a distant memory after injuries caused him to miss 13 of the next 20 seasons.
Fast forward to today, when the NBA is suffering from declining interest in the game because of a lack of interest in the superstars’ contracts and ongoing free agency rumors, and Ostertag’s return from more than 16 years of retirement offers a glimmer of hope.
While it’s hard to accept, the game might see more of Ostertag — a La’Vette, Mich., native — making an appearance on the court than ever before.
According to Michael Fratello, analyst for ESPN, Ostertag could end up playing this season somewhere. Fratello also said Ostertag is working out in Milwaukee under the guidance of agent Bill Duffy. He said his dream scenario is that Ostertag plays this season, and the Milwaukee Bucks sign him.
But it won’t happen in Milwaukee. The Bucks currently have Hassan Whiteside at center, two rookies (Malcolm Brogdon and Tony Snell) on the roster and a bevy of veteran players, many of whom are eligible for free agency.
“It’s a stretch,” Bucks general manager Jon Horst said at the NBA Draft Combine in May. “A crazy, crazy stretch. He’s doing a nice job. He’s done it the last couple of weeks. He’s doing fine. He’s been skating. But I don’t see it.”
Even so, the potential to see Ostertag on the court again is heartening to those who remember him as a power forward with the Badgers. They remember how much he became a household name — the “Face of the NCAA,” as he was called — during the 1994 and 1996 seasons.
Ostertag was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team, then to the conference’s second team the following year. When the ’98 Final Four arrived, he made the All-Tournament team, averaging 11.4 points and 12.9 rebounds in four games in Atlanta.
For a fleeting moment, he was believed to be a real athlete — somebody with a future on the same field or court as Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
That’s where the optimism ends. He was hurt most of his career, and not just one bad elbow surgery or two. During the 1994-95 season, he was limited to 26 games after tearing a labrum. In 1998-99, he played in 25 games and was still hurt in his 36th season.
Injuries were just one of Ostertag’s problems. He dealt with crime when he was in New York City, and he was ultimately convicted of assault for attacking his then-girlfriend during a dispute in 1997. For those reasons, the N.B.A. never utilized him, and he earned a record $2.5 million total contract when he retired in 2007.
Because of the risks involved with a player like Ostertag, there’s no need to rush him into the league, but Fratello hopes to see him pull on an NBA uniform at some point.
“I think the world of Greg,” Fratello said in a recent interview. “It was such a big part of his life and such a big part of his legacy, and we always are disappointed, and not just disappointed, but I think regretful.
“I remember the concern and the journey, and I remember being friends with Greg from long before I became a broadcaster, as a player. That’s just how good he was, and the skillset he had and the energy he brought, and the rebounding. Even when he went out there and when you saw what he could do it was hard to see what happened, because of the circumstance that happened.”