Basketball may have been easy for Lamar Odom, but life sure hasn’t been.
He was 12, growing up in a rough neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens, when his mother, Cathy, died of colon cancer. His dad wasn’t around much, and his grandmother Mildred Mercer, who raised him as a teenager, died in 2003 when he was in his mid-20s.
Three years after that, his 6-month-old son, Jayden, died in his crib of sudden infant death syndrome. A grief-stricken Odom cradled Jayden’s tiny body in the hospital for hours, refusing to let go.
In the later years of his NBA career, before he took the court, Odom wrote a tribute to each of his departed loved ones on his sneakers. Three names. Every game. The arena lights shone and the fans cheered and Odom’s star-studded Los Angeles Lakers won two NBA titles and Hollywood beckoned, but heartache was never far away.
“I sometimes have to stop and remind myself how much this guy has been through and how much he’s lost,” then-teammate Derek Fisher told Sports Illustrated in 2009. “I’m sure there is anger and disappointment inside of him, but to have his spirit, to have his approach to everyday life, I don’t know how he does it.”
Now, as Odom, 35, lies clinging to life in a Las Vegas hospital after being found unconscious in a brothel in the Nevada desert, the world is taking a closer look at the talented athlete with the ready smile, the humble nature, the reality-show lifestyle and the famous in-laws.
Some of us think we know him through his 14 years in the NBA, where he charmed fans and teammates with his athletic grace and unselfish play. Some of us think we know him from his marriage to Khloe Kardashian, which ushered cameras into every corner of his personal life and brought him a new, intensified level of celebrity for which he may not have been prepared.
But few of us know the whole story.
“Death always seems to be around me,” Odom told the Los Angeles Times in 2011 after a young cousin was killed in New York. “I’ve been burying people for a long time.”
From Queens to Hollywood
Despite a turbulent childhood spent in one of New York’s rougher neighborhoods, Lamar Odom was always quick with a smile and a kind word.
“He grew up as a happy-go-lucky kid,” his paternal grandmother, Florence Odom, 89, said this week. “We taught him how to love instead of hating stuff going on. He gives you everything you ask for. He never talks (badly) about people.”
After the death of his mom, Odom found refuge in basketball. By the time he hit puberty, he was wowing older hoops players on his neighborhood playgrounds in Queens’ working-class Ozone Park.
When he was a high school sophomore, he grew 6 inches. At 15, he was 6-foot-8, rail-thin but strong on both ends of the court: He controlled rebounds and rejected ill-advised shots by opponents but ran the floor like a guard, flinging nifty passes and hitting three-pointers.
Colleges were already noticing him when he scored 36 points to lead his high school, Christ the King, to the New York Catholic League championship.
Suddenly, everyone in basketball knew who Lamar Odom was.
But his studies proved more difficult. With NBA scouts hovering, Odom got poor grades and switched high schools twice as a senior. Before he could play hoops for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Odom had to take summer classes.
But Lamar Odom, at 6-foot-10 and one of the top high school prospects in the nation, never suited up for the Rebels. A Sports Illustrated article expressed suspicion about a rise in his score on standardized admission tests, and then Odom was arrested for soliciting a prostitute. After he refused to cooperate with an NCAA investigation into his test scores, UNLV rescinded its offer. Odom was devastated.
He ended up at the University of Rhode Island, where — after taking courses to become academically eligible to play — he led the Rams to the 1999 NCAA Tournament. Three months later, the Los Angeles Clippers selected him fourth overall in the NBA Draft. He was 19 years old. For his jersey, he chose the number 7, his grandmother Mildred’s “lucky” number.
Odom scored 30 points in his NBA debut and was named to the league’s all-rookie team. Off the court, however, things were going less smoothly. He was suspended twice by the league in 2001 for violating its anti-drug program before confessing tearfully to reporters that he was using marijuana.
“I fell into things I wasn’t supposed to be doing, hanging out, partying,” he told the New York Times.
The native New Yorker would go on to spend all but two of his NBA seasons in Los Angeles with the Clippers, Lakers and finally Clippers again, winning back-to-back championships with the Lakers in 2009 and 2010.
Although he was never an All-Star, Odom was a versatile complementary player with a panache to his game. It wasn’t unusual to see him grab a rebound, dribble up the court and throw a behind-the-back pass to a teammate for an easy basket. In 2011, he won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award, given to the league’s top reserve player.
“He was a great teammate, full of joy, a guy you want to have in your locker room,” Pau Gasol, his former Laker teammate, told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s very unselfish, an incredible guy. I had a lot of memorable moments with him.”
A downward spiral?
It’s impossible to say exactly what led Lamar Odom to Dennis Hof’s Love Ranch in Crystal, Nevada, where employees said he was using cocaine and other drugs. But in recent years, his life seemed increasingly troubled.
Odom’s NBA career ended in 2013 and he has been out of basketball since a brief 2014 stint in a Spanish pro league and an attempted comeback with the Knicks. His departure deprived him of the stability and support that comes with being an active professional athlete.
Since leaving the NBA he has seen his marriage crumble and pleaded no contest to a DUI stemming from an August 2013 arrest. There have been numerous reports in recent years about his struggle with drugs.
Friends said Odom was distraught after the June death of Jamie Sangouthai, a close childhood friend from Queens. Several business ventures, including his Rich Soil clothing line, never caught fire.
And the constant prying by tabloid bloggers and paparazzi seemed to have taken a toll. In August, a visibly agitated Odom berated a photographer who followed him down the street.
“Y’all have discredited me, beat me down, took my confidence, took everything away from me,” he said, in a video posted on TMZ Sports. “I’ve been taking this s— for two years straight.”
Friends, former teammates and others believe Odom needs help.
“I think what’s happened with Lamar, like it happened to me, is that you become broken inside,” former baseball star and recovering addict Darryl Strawberry told CNN’s Chris Cuomo. “And when you’re broken inside you never heal your issues.”
“He was a good, good person that had demons. He has demons — everybody knows that,” said New Orleans Pelicans Coach Alvin Gentry, who coached Odom for two seasons with the Clippers.
Gentry told the Los Angeles Times that Odom’s kindness sometimes worked against him because people took advantage of him.
“But I just think if you take into account his whole background and how he grew up and what was there,” Gentry said, “it’s not that hard to see where the demons came from.”