A youth basketball coach in New York City received a phone call in July. One of his former players was looking for him.
“I can’t lie,” Charles said. “A lot of us were afraid of this day.”
Many athletes fade from public view and struggle to find a purpose once their playing days are over. Odom, however, has had a quintessentially modern late-career and post-career existence. He was married to, and later estranged from, the reality TV celebrity Khloe Kardashian. Their marriage and its demise were chronicled for the masses.
Even those who had never met him could watch his decline.
“I wish he had just come home and surrounded himself with the genuine, loving people who have been there for you from the beginning,” said Erick Barkley, a former teammate at Christ the King Regional High School in Queens.
Welcoming Reality TV
The Lakers have always thrown their arms around the entertainment world, but in Odom’s final season with the team, in 2010-11, they may as well have played under the Hollywood sign.
Sasha Vujacic, a backup guard, was engaged to the telegenic tennis star Maria Sharapova. Shannon Brown, another backup guard, was married to the pop star Monica. Matt Barnes, a reserve forward, was married to Gloria Govan, who starred on the reality show “Basketball Wives.”
And then there was Odom, who had met Khloe Kardashian at an August 2009 party thrown for his teammate Ron Artest. A month later, Odom and Kardashian were married. The wedding was featured on an episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” and Odom quickly became a fixture in America’s first family of reality television.
When the E! network unveiled its plans for a spinoff called “Khloe and Lamar,” in January 2011, Odom did not appear to be an ingénue along for the ride. It was a calculated business decision made by someone who grew up aware of life’s hard realities.Photo
“As an athlete, you’ve got to take advantage of opportunities,” Odom said at the time. “When the ball stops bouncing, it stops bouncing.”
He also appreciated that this was a different type of opportunity, not one that availed itself often to basketball players. He hoped that the show would showcase what his teammates saw regularly — his wry humor and ability to poke fun at himself — and that it would be an opportunity for him to evolve.
That did not stop others from raising their eyebrows — or their arms. The show came in the midst of the Lakers’ drive for a third consecutive N.B.A. championship, at a time when the coach, Phil Jackson, had wondered aloud about the attention span of many of his players, whose play in the first half of the season suggested they were conserving their energy for the playoffs.
But while Jackson backed Odom’s involvement, he barred the camera crew from the toilets, the showers, the trainer’s room or the coaches’ office. “There are some things we won’t be doing,” he said.
Odom welcomed the opportunity to do the show — and the public scrutiny. Knowing his attention and effort sometimes flagged over the course of the season, he hoped the show would help hold him accountable. Even a mini-slump would raise questions about his priorities.
“That’s almost like the added incentive a little bit,” Odom said. “I’ll make sure I remain sharp and stay in the gym, but basketball is basketball. I won’t tire myself out. Of course, if I don’t play well, it’s easy to take a shot at me.”
There was little reason to do so that season, among the finest of Odom’s career. A 6-foot-10 power forward, he set career highs in shooting and 3-point shooting percentage and averaged 14.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists, contributions that earned him the N.B.A.’s Sixth Man Award.
He did not anticipate what was next.
“When he got traded from the Lakers, I think he took that hard,” said the former N.B.A. player Speedy Claxton, a high school teammate. “He really liked it in L.A. He felt like he had a family there, with the Kardashians. I think that was kind of the start of it, when everything went bad.”Photo
Leaning on Friends
Odom had the rare capacity to drift in and out of friends’ lives as if nothing had changed. Claxton, who now works as an assistant coach at Hofstra, said he had last spoken to Odom about two years ago. Claxton’s phone rang — the caller ID registered an area code from Malibu, Calif. — and Claxton was confused. Who was calling him from Malibu?
It was Odom, en route to New York and eager for a reunion.
“He’ll just call you out of the blue,” Claxton said in an interview. “You won’t hear from him for years, and then, all of a sudden, your phone will ring.”
Claxton said he was always happy to hear from Odom. They had grown up together, won high school championships together and dreamed of stardom together. As a youth, Odom leaned on his friends as a source of stability when so much else in his life felt untethered.
Soon, others flocked to him. At Christ the King, Odom achieved a level of celebrity foreign to most teenagers. Courted by college recruiters and pursued by reporters, he was disarmingly courteous. When Odom appeared at his elite summer camp, Sonny Vaccaro, then an influential sneaker company executive, turned to the coach and said, “That’s a $2 million smile.”
Barkley, the former high school teammate, said: “The attention didn’t bother Lamar. It didn’t go to his head. He was always the same person.”
Yet Barkley — a product of public housing, the youngest of nine children — knew that Odom was dealing with tougher circumstances than most. Odom’s father was largely absent. His mother died of cancer when he was 12, and he then lived with his grandmother. It was no secret to Barkley how Odom coped with adversity.
“Basketball, man,” Barkley said. “Basketball. Basketball was his therapy.”Photo
Still, Charles said, Odom had a habit of disappearing for days at a time. When he would reappear, Charles — or someone else — would drive him back to school. Sometimes, Odom would vent to Charles about family members who had died, about the drugs in his South Jamaica neighborhood.
“I said to him, ‘My God, I don’t know how you stand up sometimes,’ ” Charles said.
Neither was Odom immune from the ills of grass-roots basketball, from the clutches of coaches who treated him like a commodity. He attended three high schools his senior year. He dropped out of Nevada-Las Vegas before playing a single game as the N.C.A.A. investigated his test scores. He declared for the N.B.A. draft after one season at Rhode Island.
Selected by the Los Angeles Clippers with the fourth overall pick in 1999, Odom twice violated the league’s drug policy in his first four seasons. Then, in June 2006, his 6-month-old son, Jayden, died of sudden infant death syndrome in New York while Odom was home to attend the funeral of an aunt. (He has two other children from a previous relationship.)
Barkley, who was a first-round pick of the Portland Trail Blazers, wound up spending much of his career overseas. But he and Odom would occasionally reconnect in New York. Odom, Barkley said, always seemed elated to see Barkley’s mother, Shirley, a pastor at God’s Divine Prayer Tabernacle in Brooklyn. Odom would ask her to lay her hands on him and pray for him.
By then, Odom had found a home with the Lakers, fulfilling many of the expectations that had trailed him since high school. But he also seemed to sense that he was vulnerable, too.
A Crushing Trade
When the Lakers traded Odom to the Dallas Mavericks in December 2011, many of those who knew him best feared for his mental health.
“Being with the Lakers meant everything to Lamar,” Charles said, “and Lamar is a very sensitive young man. When he was traded, I said, ‘Oh, my God, you just crushed that kid.’ Like, if you know him, you knew how much it meant for him to be with the Lakers.”Continue reading the main story
Odom struggled with the Mavericks, his confidence and focus eroding along with his playing time. On his final day with the team, in April 2012, he turned to a teammate at practice.
“I don’t love this anymore,” Odom said, according to a person briefed on the conversation. “I don’t want to do this.”
So Odom simply walked out of the gymnasium, the door closing behind him. He did not return.
The production crew from “Khloe and Lamar” was around for the final stages of Odom’s dysfunctional stint in Dallas. The show also spotlighted the difficult, sometimes parasitic relationships that Odom had with friends and family.
His close friend Jamie Sangouthai was in charge of Odom’s clothing company, Rich Soil, but failed to gain any traction with it, much to Khloe Kardashian’s chagrin. (Sangouthai died in June.) There was also the spectral presence of Odom’s father, Joe, with whom Odom had a fitful connection, and who would often conclude meetings by asking his son for money.
The next season, Odom rejoined the Clippers but averaged just 4 points a game. In August 2013, he was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving. He pleaded no contest and received three years’ probation. Four months later, Kardashian filed for divorce.
A comeback attempt with the Knicks in April 2014 foundered. Jackson, who had been hired as team president, had hoped to give Odom another chance to revive his career. But the Knicks waived Odom in July.
In the most recent cycle of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” Odom did not appear on camera, although he popped up as a voice on the phone in a couple of episodes, usually sounding sad and regretful. In chitchat with her sisters, Khloe Kardashian defended her continued contact with him.
As with some other troubled reality television stars — including Scott Disick, who has three children with Kourtney Kardashian but has been estranged from her — Odom’s primary use to the entertainment industry was as a piñata for the celebrity news media. TMZ has covered his personal problems relentlessly over the years, as have tabloid television shows like “Inside Edition.”
This week, with Khloe Kardashian reportedly at his hospital bedside and news cameras lurking outside, Odom was behind closed doors, yet somehow at the center of another public spectacle.
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