Print by Jacob Weinstein — available for purchase here.
Lamar Odom’s entrance to the league couldn’t have come at a better time.
I was 14-years-old when Odom was drafted by the Clippers, and my fanhood was in a state of flux. I had loved the Los Angeles Lakers growing up (save your pitchforks for the Jamal Crawford signing, please), primarily because of the subtle brilliance that was Eddie Jones. As one of the few sane, hard working Lakers at the time who didn’t smoke cigarettes before games (Vlade), lose their minds during games (Nick Van Exel) or play like beached manatees (Elden Campbell), my dad implored me to model my game after Jones. Be tough, keep your mouth shut, and work your tail off on defense. As far as role models in Purple and Gold went, Jones was as good as it got.
Of course, as the NBA tends to operate, Jones was eventually thrown out on his butt to make way for a more talented player. You probably know the man who replaced him as Kobe or The Black Mamba, but we purposely refer to him only as Bryant on this blog. I loathed Bryant almost instantly, which basically made me at least 50 percent Clippers fan, even if I didn’t know it yet.
It was Odom who pushed that number to 100 percent. Like just about every kid my age, the search for a new basketball hero was in full effect. Jordan was done (for the time being), leaving plenty of young NBA fans in the wind. I had admired the hell out of John Stockton, mainly because he gave my little white ass hope (and gave Bryant’s Lakers the fits), but being a Jazz fan in Southern California was like taping a “kick me” sign to your back. With the “And-1” stuff emerging and Allen Iverson ushering in a new era of superstar, Mr. Short Shorts would no longer cut it.
Like many Clippers fans, seeing Odom for the first time was an experience — it was like love at first sight. He played every position and no position, all at the same time. He floated around the court seamlessly, never appearing out of place. He was tall and athletic and skilled, but most importantly, he was smooth. Odom was cool without even trying — a state every 14-year-old desperately tries (and fails) to attain.
My high school days coincided almost perfectly with Odom’s first four seasons with the Clippers. His potential was always evident — he the most fluid big man in the game — but it never amounted to much, mostly due to things out of his control. I related with Odom even then, as I just barely graduated high school by the slimmest of margins. All I really wanted was the burden of potential to disappear; to go some place where no one knew who I was. A new place free of expectations.
Maybe the Clippers were that awful of an organization back then, that seems extremely plausible, or maybe Odom just wanted a fresh start. Whatever it was, when the Miami Heat came on hard in free agency, Odom pleaded for the Clippers not to match the offer, making it clear he wanted out of Los Angeles. Odom was dealing with grief in his personal life, as he had just lost his grandmother who raised him. That combined with the Sterling effect likely led Odom to do everything he could to make sure there would be change, calling the Clippers “basketball hell”, effectively dousing the bridge with gasoline before he dropped the match and headed to South Beach.
I remember rooting hard for Odom in Miami, where the “cool” came rushing back on a Heat team that featured a young D-Wade and Caron Butler. Odom looked revitalized, putting up the best stats of his career and tasting the playoffs for the very first time. Odom was growing up, and realizing the potential that had burdened him before.
“Every day, after practice, driving home, it was the first time I felt like a man,” Odom said in his biography of his first season with Miami. “Sometimes – we’re so blessed, you can always do what you want to do. And I had fun doing that. But it was the first time I felt like a grown man. How I think. How I act.”
Of course, as the NBA tends to operate, Odom would be traded back to Los Angeles (along with Caron Butler) to suit up for the Lakers.
In his first few years back in L.A., there wasn’t a more popular target for criticism — both for Clippers fans and Lakers fans. His drive was questioned. He was pegged as un-clutch. He was beat up for being soft. And then the injuries came back. And then more tragedy in his personal life.
In 2006, Odom’s 8-month old son, Jayden, would die in his crib.
“It’s so unexpected – eight months old, healthy,” Odom said in his biography. “I don’t think nothing could prepare you. It’s just one of those things that’s just out of your hands.”
That would be more than enough to break a lesser man. Grieving heavily, Odom almost quit basketball altogether that offseason.
“I spent a lot of time by myself, just thinking,” he said. “I kind of needed it. I really had to be strong for my family. It really hit my family really, really hard.”
As we all know, Odom would fight through it, playing a huge role on the Lakers’ championship teams in the years to come. Finally appreciated for what he was instead of who he could be, Odom looked like he was at peace with his basketball life and personal life. Some weight was finally lifted off those broad shoulders of his.
Somewhere along the line during all of this, it even became kind of fun to embrace Odom as a villain. He was the guy who got it into it with Blake (don’t touch our baby!) in his rookie year. He was the guy who didn’t shy away from “sticking it” to the Clippers. He was the guy who thrust himself into the spotlight by marrying a Kardashian. Odom became viewed as more of a caricature than a human being. He was more readily digestible. Easier to understand than ever.
But if there’s one recurring theme of Odom’s life, it’s heartbreak. This past summer, in yet another tragedy, Odom’s cousin was shot in the head, and it was Odom’s job to tell his cousin’s mother to take him off the respirator. The very next day, Odom witnessed the death of a 15-year-old boy in a car accident.
And then, to top it all off, Odom unexpectedly got traded for Chris Paul, another in a long list of life-altering events out of his control. And he reacted. He blew up. He made it known he was unhappy. Clearly hurting from everything, his personal life and professional life a mess, Odom was shipped out to Dallas where he was expected to help the Mavs defend their title in a compacted season where there was no time to catch your breath, let alone grieve.
Perhaps predictably, it didn’t work out. Odom registered the worst year of his career by far. His mind and heart clearly weren’t there. His talent sparked once or twice, but it wasn’t nearly enough for a team with championship aspirations. It got so bad that Odom was sent home for the end of the season — an unthinkable end for a former champion and 6th Man of the Year.
Odom’s value dropped so much that Dallas traded him for literally nothing — and they’re applauded for winning the deal. How did we get here so quickly? Time moved too fast last year, and all Odom needed was for it to slow down.
It’s been 8 years since Lamar Odom suited up for the Clippers — something he probably never thought would happen again. He also probably thought he’d never play basketball again after the death of his son. But time changes things, and time heals wounds, and no one is more aware of that fact than Odom. After a life filled with tragedy outside of his control, Odom knows exactly what he can control — his will to keep going.
It would probably be wise to approach Odom’s return to the Clippers with caution. Maybe all the weight on his shoulders finally broke him. Maybe he just doesn’t want to play basketball anymore. Maybe he’s finished.
That’s all possible, but I’m not betting against the heart of a guy who has been coming back his whole life.
It’s been 12 years since I first saw Lamar Odom bring the ball up the court, the ball effortlessly snapping back to his left hand time and time again, looking so in control.
I can’t wait to see it again.