Odicea (Odie) "Sleepy" Spears became one of the great success stories in Western basketball history. A native of nearby Scottsville, Ky., and the son of a Baptist minister, the 6' 5" Spears arrived on the Hill in 1941 as a very mediocre player at best. However, by the time his collegiate career was complete, Odie had established himself in the Hilltopper history books as one of the greatest to ever don the red & white....a recognition which holds true even to this day.
Odie had the distinction of playing on four of the most successful teams in Topper history. The 1942 & 1943 squads posted tremendous records of 29-5 and 24-3 respectively. Those two teams also hold the distinction of being the first in Western history to participate in the prestigious NIT Tournament (then college basketball's true national championship event) with the 1942 squad falling 47-45 to West Virginia in the title game. A game in which the Toppers held an eight-point lead at halftime, and a one-point lead with 45 seconds remaining, before the Mountaineers received the benefit of some officiating and sank three free throws in the remaining seconds to pull out the victory.
During those first two years on campus, Odie was still a seldom-used player off of Mr. Diddle's bench. In fact, former teammate Johnny Oldham stated that Odie was so far down the list that when the team ran short on uniforms in 1942, Spears was the odd man out, being the only one given a different style of uniform!! That all began to change however in 1943......when like many of Western's top players, Odie left for the army. It was during those three years away that Oldham says, "Odie really developed in the service, he really blossomed." During that time, Spears starred for the 326th Glider Infantry five at Ft. Bragg, NC, and upon returning to the Hill in 1946 his impact was immediate, as his newly developed skills and maturity began to show on the court. Odie had gone from being a rarely used benchwarmer to becoming the team's leading scorer during his final two years on the Hill......teams that consisted of an amazing eight players who gained All-America honors before their respective careers were through!!
Oldham described Spears as, "a very hard worker with good speed and quickness, but shooting was the best part of his game." Coach Oldham also states that, "Mr. Diddle really rode him hard in practice," undoubtedly recognizing the enormous potential that the young man now had. A newspaper quote from that period stated this about Spears, "Sleepy" belies a lackadaisical appearance on the court by flashing a terrific burst of speed when cutting towards the basket."
The 1946-'47 season saw Odie lead the way with a 13.9 ppg average (his 403 total points led the entire state in 1947), while the team rolled to an outstanding 25-4 record. A season which was highlighted by the 43-point destruction of arch-rival louisville (one of the worst defeats ever inflicted on a cardinal team). Amazingly, however, despite the sparkling record and two more conference titles, the Toppers failed to receive an invite from the NIT.
When the 1947-'48 season rolled around, Diddle's men came back with a vengeance. Once again, Odie led the scoring-charge with a 14.0 ppg average, while the team rolled to the greatest season ever (percentage-wise) for a Topper team finishing with a 28-2 record!! This time, not only was the NIT craving for their return, but they even awarded Western the #1 seed in the tournament!! After crushing Lasalle 66-51 in their first game, the Toppers then faced off against St. Louis and their 6' 8" All-American "Easy" Ed McCauley in the semifinals. In a game which saw Western jump out to an early ten-point lead and then settle into a see-saw affair in the second-half, the Toppers fell (60-53) after a disappointingly sub-par performance. After the game, when the team was obviously crushed by the unexpected loss, Diddle simply told his squad, "Boys, we didn't play our best ball tonight but at a time like this I'm gonna think of the twenty-seven you won for me." The Billikens went on to claim the national championship while Western defeated Ray Meyer's Depaul squad (61-59) for third-place honors. Once again, the national title had slipped through theTopper's hands.
Individual awards poured in to the Hill however, as Odie and fellow teammates, Dee Gibson and Don Ray were awarded All-America honors, becoming the fourth, fifth, and sixth Toppers to be so honored.
Soon after graduating from Western in 1948, Odie embarked on one of the most successful professional basketball careers in Hilltopper history. Over a playing career that lasted nine years, Odie had successful stints with the Chicago Stags, Rochester Royals, Ft. Wayne Pistons, and the St. Louis Hawks, and was widely known and respected throughout the NBA as an excellent player and a great person. Tom Marshall, another Hilltopper legend from the early 50's, fondly credits Spears for taking him under his wing and watching over him in Marshall's first year in the NBA with the Rochester Royals.
After his playing days were behind him, Spears relocated to Louisville, Ky. where he became a highly successful insurance executive. Over the years however, Odie never lost the Western spirit as he continued to be a loyal follower of his beloved Toppers, consistently making the trip down from Louisville to cheer the teams on. Sadly though, Western lost one of their finest ever when Spears succumbed to an illness in the early 1990's. However, the impact that he had on Hilltopper Basketball and on all of those who knew him will never be lost.
In 1993, Odicea "Odie" Spears became a member of the third class to be inducted into the Western Kentucky University Hall of Fame.