As sports fans, when we watch players often enough we get to know them. Or we think we do. By watching the way they play, how they interact with their teammates, how they are portrayed by a biased media, and how they (or their handlers) portray themselves on social media, we can parse out what they are really like. We build stories and narratives, infer motives and project emotions. By some complex algorithm or secret code that combines that information with our own tastes and perceptions and worldview, we determine whether or not we actually like the athletes we watch. Whether we root for them, understand them. Whether we connect.
When Lamar Odom first came to the Lakers in 2004 along with Caron Butler in the infamous Shaq trade, I wasn’t a fan. The indelible image I have of Lamar from his first few seasons with the Lakers is him ripping down a rebound, sprinting up the court while the announcer praised his ability to start a fast break following a rebound, and then inevitably turning the ball over while attempting to spin by a defender at the 3 point arc–he’d either lose his handle, or charge into a defender for an offensive foul. Another precious possession taken away from the Kobe Show. He was a dull Swiss army knife that didn’t quite work. He wasn’t good enough at anything to be a viable second option, and had a hard time playing within himself.
But he grew on me. It wasn’t just the incessant press stories about how goofy he was and how much he loved candy. It was what I saw on the court. He always played hard, and he actually did play intelligently when he wasn’t trying to do too much. He was unerringly positive, and his teammates all seemed to really like him. When Pau Gasol joined the Lakers, he morphed from overwhelmed second banana to perfect third wheel. Sometimes he started, sometimes he came off the bench–didn’t matter. Sometimes he played as a big 3, sometimes as a stretch 4–didn’t matter. He was willing and able to do anything, to bend himself to his team’s needs, and he never complained. Contrary to my initial impression, he was inherently unselfish. Even though at one point he had been tipped for greatness, he seemed to take greater enjoyment playing a role.
The more I watched Lamar, the more it became clear to me he was a player I’d want to play with. Really, a player I identified with. Like me, he really loved being part of a team. It was an important part of his identity. He thrived on other’s confidence.
I knew him.
Yet, he’s lived a life I could never hope to understand.
Lamar Odom came from hardship. Right now, the first two lines of the “Early Life” section of his Wikipedia page read “Odom was born in South Jamaica, Queens, New York City, New York. His father was a heroin addict and his mother died of colon cancer when he was twelve years old.” In 2006, he was rocked by the death of his infant son from SIDS while he was in New York for his Aunt’s funeral. In August 2009, he met Khloe Kardashian, and one month later they were married and Lamar Odom was a tabloid and reality television star. He managed to balance his newfound fame with basketball for a couple of years before tragedy struck again and everything went off the rails.
In the Summer of 2011, while in New York filming a commercial, his cousin was killed. The day after the funeral, he was a passenger in an SUV that struck a motorcycle that ricocheted into and killed a 15 year old pedestrian. Weeks later, in a harrowing interview with the LA Times, Odom opened up: “Death always seems to be around me… I’ve been burying people for a long time. When I had to bury my child, I probably didn’t start grieving until a year and a half later… I think the effects of seeing [my cousin] die and then watching this kid die, it beat me down. I consider myself a little weak. I thought I was breaking down mentally. I’m doing a lot of reflecting… Then it’s what it has done to me emotionally and physically. It’s someone that you love. I’ve had to tell myself that I will get through this. And I will. I have to.”
The NBA started late in 2011 due to a lockout, and in the build up to the season the Hornets were holding a firesale for Chris Paul. Odom was included in a trade that was ultimately vetoed by the league for the Hornets’ star, but the damage had been done to the fragile Odom’s psyche. Days later he was traded to the Dallas Mavericks. He was out of shape and disinterested, had a terrible season, and effectively got cut. He played one more (poor) season for the Clippers in 2012-13, and has essentially been out of the league since.
He was arrested for DUI in the Summer of 2013 and was ultimately sentenced to probation. Rumors swirled that he was abusing drugs. That December Khloe filed for divorce. In 2014, he suffered through failed stints in Spain and with the Knicks. And then, of course, earlier this month, on October 13, he was found unconscious in a brothel outside of Las Vegas. He was in a coma for days as former teammates, Kardashians, and Kardashian Cameras rushed to his side, and he is still in the hospital.
ESPN’s Arash Markazi recently tweeted that Odom “cried for days after the Lakers traded him. He never did recover from that. It was one of many heartbreaks in a life filled with them.” I think his team and his role were his source of confidence and stability, and the trade ripped that safety net from him just when he needed it most. At the same time, the toxic Kardashian circus meant his pain and suffering was public–there was no out. I resented it when people thought he was just a fame seeker, that he was in it for the publicity. That wasn’t the Lamar I knew. He was no Kris Humphries. I always thought that, to him, the fame was incidental to his relationship, and that he got caught up in a whirlwind he never had the temperament to deal with.
“I’ve been burying people for a long time… I consider myself a little weak.”
As his basketball career and his relationship with Khloe sputtered, I kept expecting him to right the ship. I knew that if he found himself in the right environment he could thrive. I thought he’d be a great fit with the Mavs, and again with the Clippers. That he’d still be able to latch on somewhere after, find a new team, a new role, a new support system, a new home.
But I guess I was wrong; he fell through the cracks. I knew Lamar Odom. But I never really had a clue.
Get well Lamar. You’re one of the good ones. I’m glad you’re still around, and hope you will be for a long time.