There was no easy way around the fact that the Union City High School boys’ basketball team was decimated by graduation after winning the Hudson County Tournament title for the very first time and capturing the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV championship as well a year ago.
The Soaring Eagles lost five key players from that year to remember, including Gabe Johnson, the Hudson Reporter Player of the Year who is now performing admirably at Caldwell University.
Veteran Union City head coach Drew Morano knew that he was going to have to rely on the lone returning starter from that magical team, namely sophomore point guard Maurice Odum.
But there was no need for a sit-down discussion with Odum to tell him how much the Soaring Eagles were going to rely on him this season. Odum simply understood.
“We put so much on his shoulders,” Morano said. “But he sensed the responsibility. I think it was understood. He knew it. He’s a bright young man. He knows the game so much.”
“I knew I had to pick up my teammates,” Odum said. “I knew that if I could elevate my teammates and play at a high level, we could be fine.”
A little more than a year ago, Odum didn’t know what to expect when his mother decided to move from their home in Harlem to Union City.
“I actually Googled the Union City basketball team to see what they had,” Odum said. “I read about their games and the team, so I was ready to base myself off that.”
And Odum knew one important fact: The Soaring Eagles had Johnson, who emerged as the go-to leader of the Soaring Eagles in the best season in school history.
“I knew about Gabe,” Odum said. “I knew he was a good shooter.”
While Odum was doing his research about his new school and home, Morano had no idea who Odum was.
“We had an open gym in September,” Morano said. “I heard that we had this pretty good freshman from New York, but I just didn’t know how good.”
Odum fit in with his new surroundings very well.
“Gabe trusted me to get him open and get him the ball,” Odum said. “I trusted Gabe as well. I liked playing with him a lot. He made me a better player. I knew that if I got him the ball, then three points were going up on the board.”
Johnson averaged 19 points and seven assists last year in earning the Player of the Year accolades, the first Union City player to ever secure the honor. Odum averaged 9.1 points and 2.6 assists per contest. Odum had 23 points in the Soaring Eagles win over Montclair in the state tournament and tossed in 15 points, had seven rebounds, added four assists and five steals in the state sectional title win over Hackensack.
But with Johnson gone – along with three other teammates who are all currently playing college basketball in New Jersey schools and another teammates playing college football – Odum had to be the one to pick up the pieces.
In Morano’s eyes, it was no problem.
“Mo [Odum’s nickname] is so poised beyond his years,” Morano said. “He has that ‘it’ factor. He was going to do whatever it took for us to win. I didn’t have to tell him anything. He sets his teammates up and makes the right pass. He controls everything. He’s just so efficient in what he does.”
The relationship between Johnson and Odum was a big help.
“I think being around Gabe helped Maurice a lot,” Morano said. “Gabe was the one who brought the college coaches into our gym.”
“It gave me a little motivation,” Odum said. “I worked on my jump shot a lot and my [ball] handle. I got ready.”
Morano said that Elijah Sparkman, the one who is playing junior college football for ASA College in Brooklyn, was also a huge assistance to Odum.
“Being around Elijah made Mo feel at home,” Morano said. “He was just more comfortable with Elijah.”
Even though he’s just a sophomore, the 6-foot-1 point guard had major responsibility with the defending county and state champs.
Seven games into the 2019-2020 season, Odum is handling that role quite well indeed.
Odum, who only reached 20 points in a game four times all of last season, has scored 22 points or more in each of the last six Soaring Eagle contests. And in the past week, Odum has exploded as one of the elite scorers in the entire state.
Odum had 22 points and seven assists in a huge win over Long Branch in the Neptune Holiday Tournament, then came home to Hudson County and proceeded to light up the local competition.
Odum scored 38 points and added nine assists in a 73-70 victory over Dickinson and had 36 points and 10 assists in a 77-62 win over Bayonne.
For his efforts, Odum has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week. He’s also the first such honoree for the winter scholastic sports season.
For the season, Odum is averaging 26.1 points and seven assists. It’s rare to see a scorer collect assists at a high rate as well. But Odum, as the facilitator, has to do a little bit of everything.
“He just eats, sleeps and drinks basketball,” Morano said. “He’s in the gym all the time.”
Odum began the current season with just 11 points in a loss to Hudson Catholic.
“I was a little frustrated after that game,” Odum said. “I didn’t want to let my teammates down.”
The next game, Odum had 29 points, six assists and five rebounds in a win over Barringer.
“He has not turned back since,” Morano said. “I trusted him tremendously. I can go on and on talking about him. He’s phenomenal. I’m lucky to have him on our team.”
And although he’s just a sophomore, Morano knows one thing. Odum has an incredible future.
“He’s a D-I [NCAA Division I] player,” Morano said. “He sets his teammates up and makes the right pass. He knocks down shots and makes plays. He’s just a special talent.”
And here comes the best compliment Morano could give.
“This kid is the best talent I’ve ever coached,” Morano said. “And I feel like I’ve had a lot of really good players over the years. This kid is unbelievable. He has that never-say-care attitude all the time. He’s just a pleasure to coach.”
It’s not too early for Odum to start thinking about college basketball. He already has one D-I offer in his pocket. Certainly, there will be many more over the next three seasons.
“I want to play at the next level,” Odum said. “I’m just going to continue to work hard, to see if I can play to my full potential and see what I can do.”
Right now, after seven games and five wins already, Odum is doing quite well – but no question, Morano and the rest of the Soaring Eagles want just a little Mo. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com