To watch Jon Odum play basketball was a lesson in efficiency as he could dominate a game and only take a dozen shots.
When he got the ball in the post for the John Battle High School Trojans or Virginia Intermont College Cobras, scoreboard operators knew they could likely go ahead and put two points on the board as the 6-foot-6 Odum went to work.
“There have been better and obviously flashier players in Southwest Virginia, but Jon Odum was the model of consistency and what I always called an old-time player from the long, lost mold of yesteryear athletes,” said Stan Dunham, who was the coach at Northwood when Odum was playing at Battle. “He played with passion and cared only that his team was successful. He was John Battle basketball – then, now and forever.”
Odum, who died on Saturday from cancer at the age of 39, had spent the last three years as the head coach of the boys basketball team at John Battle, but first made his mark as a star player for the Trojans.
During his senior season in 1997-98, the guy they called Big O did big-time things. He averaged 21.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, while shooting 69.4 percent from the field.
John Battle won a regional title and advanced to the state finals.
The Trojans had never done any of those things before and they haven’t come close since.
“Jon was incredible during that season,” said Mike Tate, a guard on that team. “He had a way of elevating his game when we were down or needed a play. I look back now and Jon must have had a sore back the whole season from carrying us all.”
Battle had gone just 10-14 the year before and had been bounced in the first round of the Region C tournament. Nobody really saw it coming.
“Going into the season I had told our coaches that we would be as good as Jon Odum was tough,” said Doug Mitchell, the head coach of the Trojans. “As it played out, Jon was very tough because we were pretty good. … He was always at his best in the biggest games.”
Never was that more evident than in the 1998 Region C championship game against Glenvar in Saltville.
Battle trailed by three points in the waning seconds when Odum hit what he called in a 2018 interview with the Bristol Herald Courier the biggest shot of his career.
Odum drifted from his spot on the low block, caught a pass on the right baseline, made a left-handed dribble, got both feet behind the 3-point line and let one fly from long range.
It fell and sent the game into overtime.
“I knew the ball was good when it left his hand,” Tate said. “It was surreal, but Jon always had a way of making big plays in big moments.”
Those who were there will never forget the scene.
“Again, it speaks for Jon’s natural feel of the game,” Mitchell said. “From time to time, my kids will want to watch some games from that year and that’s the tape we always go to. It’s amazing watching the ball leave his hands and then watching everybody in the stands just explode. It’s as exciting to watch today as it was then. That was just one of many special memories of that season.”
Battle eventually prevailed 77-71 over the Highlanders in OT.
The Trojans suffered a 68-62 loss to Washington & Lee-Montross in the VHSL Group A state finals at the Norfolk Scope, despite a 23-point performance from Odum.
“It was always my thoughts that his ability to rebound on both ends of the floor was his greatest attribute,” Dunham said. “He was relentless on the boards. His strength and sense of where the ball was going to end up was uncanny.”
Odum showcased those same skills at VI and finished with 1,798 career points for the Cobras.
“Jon was a great athlete, teammate and a better person who rarely said much, but handled his responsibilities with hard work and dedication,” said Julius Gallishaw, a teammate of Odum’s at Virginia Intermont. “We didn’t see each other often [after graduating], but when we did see each other I was always greeted with a hug and a smile. I will definitely miss him.”
That was a sentiment shared by many following the news of Odum’s death.
“I couldn’t be more proud of Jon for the person, the family man, the husband and the father that he was,” Mitchell said. “We all saw that humble attitude in Jon and that’s just something that will always be remembered about him.”