Howard’s Shy Odom took a tortuous path to the NCAA tournament


DES MOINES – Smiling and surrounded by Howard’s basketball teammates, Shy Odom felt at peace: He had arrived where he was supposed to be. He left the tunnel for open practice on Wednesday morning, a final session before the program’s biggest game in three decades. Light applause came from the seats in the Wells Fargo Arena. “Yes indeed!” Odom exclaimed as he entered a courtyard painted with the March Madness logo.

Odom had traveled a tortuous, unusual route to the NCAA tournament. It had wound itself through a move abroad, hints from LeBron James, dalliances with major conference schools, personal tragedy, and physical hardship. He had once envisioned reaching the NCAA tournament at a basketball powerhouse. Instead, he became a fundamental freshman at an elite academic school, helping Howard make his first tournament appearance since 1992 while also being a symbol of the dizzying heights coach Kenny Blakeney’s HBCU program could reach.

According to consensus rankings, the 6-foot-6 Odom is one of the most talented rookies to ever play at Howard. The forward’s 10.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game earned him the MEAC Freshman of the Year award. His versatile scoring, playmaking and rebounding made him the MVP of the MEAC tournament. As the final buzzer sounded after Howard defeated Norfolk State for the conference championship, Odom hugged Blakeney and blurted out, “I love you Coach!”

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“With the turn of events after my junior and senior years of high school, when I wasn’t able to go to a Power Five college, I felt a bit discouraged and wouldn’t make it to one big stage like this to come. ‘ Odom said on Wednesday. “But God works in mysterious ways. So I feel like I should be here.”

Odom grew up in Roxbury, Mass., just outside of Boston. He became close friends with Terrence Clarke, one of the best youth players in the country. Odom and Clarke gambled and studied together at a Boston nonprofit founded by former Harvard gambler Kyle Casey, whom Blakeney had recruited as a Crimson assistant.

By the time high school started, Odom had grown to a muscular 6-5 and played with the athleticism and skill of a smaller player. Current Howard assistant Rod Balanis, then a Notre-Dame assistant, has frequently scouted top Boston-area players. A recruiting contact called him and told him, “Shy Odom is the best freshman in New England.”

After his freshman year, Odom, with his mother’s support, wanted to expand his game. “I needed something else,” said Odom. “I needed to see a more elite game.” He had become friends during USA basketball events with Amari Bailey, who is now a star freshman at UCLA. Bailey played at the Sierra Canyon School, Southern California powerhouse Bronny James, LeBron’s son, had become a national attraction.

Bailey gave an introduction. When Odom expressed interest in moving across the country, Sierra Canyon readily accepted him.

“He has the ability to do anything,” said Sierra Canyon coach Andre Chevalier. “He can shoot. He can dribble it. He can defend himself. He has a high basketball IQ. It was great for us that he showed up.”

Early in his career in Sierra Canyon, “everyone was trying to recruit him,” Chevalier said. Southern California and Georgetown offered him scholarships. He traveled to China for tournaments. A showcase at the NBA Arena in Minnesota attracted 14,000 spectators to see Sierra Canyon play. Cameras followed him and his teammates for “Top Class,” an ongoing documentary about the basketball program.

“I’m prepared for moments like this,” said Odom. “I’m just grateful that I was able to take that leap of faith in high school to make myself uncomfortable. Now I’m not so nervous anymore.”

Odom met James a few times. He shared training tips, gave Odom advice on his midrange play and showed how he executes some of his moves. “He’s a great guy,” said Odom. “I am grateful for everything he has done for me. That was a few summers ago. It definitely stays with you.”

Early in his junior year, Odom expected to play for USC and slowed his communication with other schools. Then he suffered a micro fracture in his left kneecap and a partial rupture of the patellar tendon in his left knee. He still wanted to play at USC, but the school, led by coach Andy Enfield, backed down after the injuries.

“I tried to get involved with USC,” Odom said. “But we weren’t on the same page anymore.”

In April 2021, while recovering from his injuries, Odom faced the unthinkable. Clarke died in a car accident after his freshman season in Kentucky, a tragedy that spread throughout the basketball world – with a profound impact on Odom in particular.

At a low point, Odom reconnected with Casey, who knew Blakeney would be keen to coach Odom and believed that Odom would benefit from Blakeney’s leadership, both as a player and as a person. Casey and Odom had a “proper conversation” about his future, Casey said. Casey told him, “Go where is best for you, go where you are wanted, and go where you can make a difference.”

The trio began a triangular communication that led to Odom visiting Howard in the fall of 2021, Odom’s senior year. He toured campus during homecoming weekend. It felt like a family he was already a part of.

“Shy is a very spiritual person, just like his mother,” Blakeney said. “The loss of Terrence Clarke, someone very close to him and who he grew up with in Boston, and everything that happened after that with his injuries made him look for something that would be a good fit for him, and for a place where he could really grow and develop and come into his own.”

Blakeney achieved a turning point in recruitment in 2020 when he received an acceptance from Center Makur Maker, the first five-star recruit to commit to an HBCU school. Almost three years later, Maker’s commitment sounds more unique than transformative. Maker, now a member of G-League Capital City Go-Go, only played two games with Howard before declaring for the NBA draft due to coronavirus complications.

The Bison have not landed another player of Maker’s stature. In Odom, Blakeney and Howard may have found a more sustainable representative of how the program could improve its recruiting profile.

“He can be a beacon for others to see what’s possible and that the conference is something that people can come to and get the attention of NBA scouts,” Chevalier said. “We’re super proud of him. Not only is he a great performer in basketball, he was willing to take a risk and go somewhere where he could really make a difference.”

In Blakeney’s view, the connection between Maker and Odom is less about talent or impact and more about personal connections. “Fit and feel,” he said. Odom was comfortable with Blakeney, in part because the coach could relate to the injuries he sustained.

“Not every elite basketball player has to go to a big-name school to be recognized,” Odom said. “I didn’t know it was going to happen like this, but I’m here at an HBCU and I’m still recognized.”

“He could be the focal point for the Howard men’s basketball culture,” Casey said. “That comes with a lot of responsibility. The attention to it, day after day, I know he’s been through his ups and downs with this role, even this year. It has been a journey of growth.”

It made it to the NCAA tournament, and without Odom, Howard probably wouldn’t be here. Odom showed his diverse skills in the MEAC title game. He scored nine points and grabbed seven rebounds, and Odom’s point, Cross Court Pass Setting up Marcus Dockery’s crucial three-pointer in the last minute helped save Howard’s season.

“Incredible,” Balanis said. “This basketball IQ plays, he’s done all year.”

At the start of Wednesday’s practice, Bison players, coaches and managers stood in a circle on midfield, holding a rope. They ended it with half-field shots. They signed autographs for fans leaning over railings.

“HU!” chanted a fan.

“You know!” Players chanted back.

“Seeing their connection, seeing their smile, that’s part of the student experience for them,” Blakeney said. “And that’s a moment they’ll never forget.”

Odom is now healthy and could receive another round of interest from larger programs. This is the modern reality of sport. He didn’t want to predict the future but said he’s already decided to return to Howard next year for another run in a place he knows belongs.

“It’s a great place,” said Odom. “The fact that I was here and able to come back and make history, especially as a newcomer, means everything to me.” Howard’s Shy Odom took a tortuous path to the NCAA tournament

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