As a player he was very tall.
With shoulders so broad for his frame, when he brought the ball up the court like a point guard, he teeter-tottered. He smiled a lot when he played, and with the sweaty bald head, he actually shined.
And yet for a 6-foot-10 point forward, he was beautifully predictable, almost always driving to his left, his long gait loping him through the lane, his broad shoulders providing extra protection, his impossibly long arms swooping so that his soft hands could drop the ball in the bucket—usually past the reach of the defender.
He made it look so easy, and it was almost like he felt guilty, like he knew it, and he’d appear bashful after a basket when so many others, the greats (hell, even the mediocre players scraping on low talent), they’d celebrate their momentary dominance. Like he knew life was unfair, and that successes were fleeting.
He had the innocence, joy and vulnerability that made him so unique. Comparatively, the icons, the LeBrons, Jordans, Kobes, Shaqs, Russells, Birds, Duncans, Kareems… they seem inevitable. In this game played by men, someone has to be the best — it’s guaranteed. But where is there room for the unadulterated, the childish, the kids? The NBA is so rigorous and competitive that it weeds those traits out of people.
I miss Lamar Odom.
I loved the paradox of him.
Lamar Odom was found unconscious in a brothel in Nevada at 3:30 pm, October 13, 2015.
He was foaming at the mouth, and couldn’t be airlifted to the hospital because he was too big.
“Like most young people genetically hard wired for a secret drug problem, Hal Incandeza also has severe compulsion issues around nicotine and sugar.” p. 396 Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Candyman, that was one of Lamar’s nicknames. And it was well-earned. Mini-candy bars, gummy bears, whatever he could get his hands on. He said he’d wake up at 3 am and eat some candy and go back to sleep. ESPN did multiple videos of his candy habits. He said eating candy helped him play better.
We all knew that it was pretty much impossible that he’d play better on candy. Even the mood swings that kids endure seemed emblematic of his play on court. At times, he was lethargic, forgetful, distant. At others, completely engaged, single-handedly driving the pace of the game.
Unfortunately, inconsistency is a deep weakness in a league that runs on back-to-back road games, 82-game seasons, 7-game playoff series.
Lamar had All-Star talent, but his inconsistency and off court behavior prevented him from leading a team, despite his electrifying ability. He had two suspensions for drug use — it is speculated that it was marijuana– and when his production slipped, Lamar found his way out of town.
The Candy Man couldn’t find a home.
There is a poster of Lamar as Job that was created by Big Baby Belafonte of Free Darko. You can see it for yourself, but for me it has always captured the questioning and the naked vulnerability of Lamar.
Lamar suffered so much.
- His mom died when he was 12
- His dad was a heroin addict
- His grandmother, the woman who raised him, died in 2011
- His son died of Sudden Infant Death Sindrome while sleeping in his crib
- His cousin died and at the same time he was in a car accident, where his driver killed a 15 year old kid
- He had a publicly televised separation from his wife
Lamar’s biggest success came as a 6th man. Limited minutes for a man of his talent, but he had the ability to subdue his ego to take that role. He shone in moments, took over the game without bearing the burden of leadership, of real stardom.
His streakiness became a life-giving asset, embodying the aphorism:
“The Man Who Knows His Limits Has None.”
Lamar was unstoppable with Bynum and Gasol in the frontcourt. The passing between Gasol and Lamar was spectacular and discombobulating for opposing defenses. He even developed a legitimate three-point shot.
His team won two championships.
But more than that, he had a family, both with the Lakers and with, as unlikely as it may have been, the Kardashians. He seemed happy, rooted, at least to this observer.
And then came the trade to Dallas. I know basketball is business, but Odom reacted like it was a betrayal. Remember he took lower pay to stay there in the first place.
“Professor Alexander argues this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. In fact, he argues, addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you. It’s your cage.” – Johan Hari
The discovery mentioned is that loneliness is one of the primary influencers in addiction. In his studies, the same rats that are addicted to drugs then often ignore the drugs when they are in the company of other rats. When Professor Alexander talks about an addiction as an adaptation, what he means is that it’s a bond — a relationship — to another thing that’s making up for the social relationships that we are missing.
As Johan states so eloquently, “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.”
It’s the Human Theory of Relativity.
In one of life’s strange synchronicities, I was on a plane to Las Vegas the next morning when I found out about Lamar.
I have a client that is a medical group, and our ad agency is responsible for their in-clinic graphics. It’s a fun project, actually, as it’s meant to create an environment that fosters a better relationship between doctors and patients. It’s based on simple behavioral science that shows when patients feel their doctor cares for them, they are more likely to comply with doctors’ recommendations, get healthier, live happier.
In my experience this is true for more than just this type of relationship. When people care about you, life just improves.
At a coffee shop, two locals jawed about Lamar. Las Vegas being a small place for the full-time residents, one local had had a friend say Lamar moved to Las Vegas recently. I couldn’t help but think that Vegas might not be the best place to make a delicate psychological transition. A transience is built into the culture, just like any tourist destination. But there’s also an edge to it, and I am almost defensive of Lamar in front of these two old locals.
I wanted to tell him that he was beloved by teammates, didn’t matter that he teeter-tottered on doing what was right. That he survived tragedy and smiled in tragedy’s face. That he won championships. That he supported dozens of friends. That he was the face of those who had overcome, only life overcame him, like it can do to any of us, like it had so cruelly done in his past.
I drove to this trip’s in-clinic installation, just blocks from where Lamar clings to his life.
I think of the times I’ve suffered — like any human does — and I wonder if I would have been capable of losing the people I loved, in repeated and merciless and unique ways, and still have been able to move on. Love another person, even through the depth of that type of loss and continued struggle, and I know that’s not something you can know until it happens. So Lamar, to me, has been heroic.
I don’t know what happens next. But if Lamar wakes up, I know what he will do: he will love, he will love, he will love.
Please wake up, Lamar. Please wake up.