Scott Odom, one of the first 10 people to play on the Final Four floor at University of Phoenix Stadium, brought the ball upcourt, wearing his black number 17 jersey.
Odom dribbled between his legs a few times, a bit of unnecessary showmanship for which he could be forgiven, then he shot forward, blowing by his defender.
After passing the ball into the post, Odom spotted up outside the three-point line. When the ball came back to him, he set his feet, rocked back hard on his left leg, and let fly.
The shooting form was awkward, at best, but Odom can be excused for the odd leftward lurch as he launches his shot. After all, that’s the only leg he has.
Wearing a metal prosthetic, Odom hit several outside shots and helped lead Team Harrick (coached by former UCLA coach Jim) to a win over Team Ryan (coached by former Wisconsin head man Bo) in the Infinity Coaches Versus Cancer Hardwood Heroes Game.
Odom was one of at least three amputees on the two teams, whose rosters were made up entirely of people who have battled cancer and won.
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Odom said, “to share the court with other cancer survivors. It’s just a blessing to be a part of it.”
Odom was a promising athlete who participated in a variety of sports. When he first felt the pain in his leg, he assumed it was related to his demanding schedule of practices and games.
“I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma,” he said. The bone cancer often occurs in children and teens, and, at age 14, Odom found himself faced with a decision when it came to treating the disease.
“I chose to have my leg amputated and get back to sports,” he said.
Odom worked to get back on the court, learning to walk again before he could even think about running, dribbling, or spotting up from three.
“Years,” he said. “It took years. A lot of hard work and dedication. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
Odom has started two organizations to help people in his situation. One is Amp1 Basketball, a team of high-level athletes who happen to be amputees. They travel the nation playing exhibitions.
The other is ABI, Amputee Basketball Invigorated.
“We put on charity games for people in need,” Odom said. “Cancer patients, amputees. Basketball—that’s my life. That’s what I do. Just to share my story, to be able to stand up as an amputee who overcame cancer. It’s all possible because of God.”
Odom’s was just one story on the floor for the Hardwood Heroes game. There was big man Walter Gordy III, who gave Team Harrick an inside presence, knocking down layups and second chance points in the win. He’s an assistant basketball coach at a Houston high school, and friends set up a #TeamWalt page to help raise money for his treatment.
Both players were on Harrick’s team at last year’s Final Four as well. “Some of these guys can really play,” the coach exclaimed.
Team Ryan was led by Jared Ornoski, a gutty undersized point guard who lettered in track, tennis, football and basketball before being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma as a junior. The Phoenix Suns named him an honorary member of the front office prior to the 2015 NBA Draft, and he threw himself around the Final Four court with gusto. At one point, he threw a long outlet pass over a breaking teammate’s head, then beat the ball downcourt to prevent it from going out of bounds.
Big man J. Dee Marinko was a teammate of Ornoski’s. The big man played football before losing his leg below the knee in 2009. He was a Paralympian in 2016, on Team USA’s volleyball team.
Ornoski and Marinko both had fans in the stands wearing replica jerseys and waving signs.
“It’s probably the most heartwarming thing I’ve ever done in coaching,” Jim Harrick said. “When you get to know these people and their stories, and to see them out on the floor and have everybody give them such an outpouring of love. It’s one of the best things I’ve done in coaching.”
Harrick was assisted by former Oklahoma State player Doug Gottlieb. Former Arizona star Miles Simon assisted Bo Ryan.
“Miles and I both lost our dads to cancer,” Gottlieb said. “Because of that, I do work with the American Cancer Society. In the early planning stages of this game, the second they said, ‘Do you want to…’ I said yes.”
Gottlieb prowled the sidelines during the game with his young son, Hayes.
“He got hit in the head with the ball,” Gottlieb said. “I said, ‘Hey man. You can’t cry. See all these people? They’re fighting to beat cancer. Think about how tough they are.’ Just to be a part of this event and help raise money to fight this disease, it’s amazing. So people don’t have to go through what Miles and I went through. It’s an honor. They ask me, whatever they want me to do, I’ll do.”
The players were hustled off the court after the final buzzer, with Coaches Vs. Cancer officials telling them they still had plenty of events to get to, including tickets to the Final Four games on Saturday.
“Just to be a part of this is a blessing,” Odom said. “Anything’s possible. God’s plans are better for you than what your dreams are. My dream was to be a pro athlete, but this is way more meaningful—to be able to touch people’s lives.”