Lamar Odom: From Mean Streets sans Mean Streak

My recent quickie synopsis of the melodramatic life of the Lakers' unstable and unsmall Small Forward Ron Artest got me thinking about digging up info on the life story of another Laker in the news — Ron-Ron's fellow native of Queens, New York, Lamar Odom.

Odom-story00_mediumWhereas Artest's difficult origins have been seen as a primary factor behind his mercurial temperament and controversial career, Lamar Odom's fairly similar upbringing seems to have generated an altogether different man. For all the scarcely contained passive-aggressive rage that Ron Artest leaks from around the seams, there seems an equal measure of serenity and confidence emanating from the Candyman. Why the difference?

It is certain that one's social origins can only be regarded as a contributing factor to one's eventual development as a fully formed adult human being — genetic predispositions and family life and the various free choices one makes in life are even more formative. Still, it is is fascinating to ponder the different life paths traversed by these large, physically gifted athletes of the same ethnicity and social class who emerged at the same time from the same place.

There is almost a "Prince and the Pauper" quality to the comparison, it seems to me — bearing in mind that both of our multimillionaire subjects now do their shopping and banking elbow-to-elbow with the princes of American capitalism. What caused Lamar Odom to turn out so very differently than Ron Artest? Can we learn anything from a quick glance?

Prior to taking this little plunge into Lamar's biography, I knew comparatively little about him. I was never a tremendous fan of his, nor did I actively dislike his style of play, although I did gradually come to appreciate the various capabilities which he brought to the table for Phil & Co. Now I feel that I know him a little better — and I really like him. He's a good dude.

We've all been waiting with baited breath this summer for confirmation of Odom's free agent signing with the Lakers. It has been a long and frustrating process, as these things can be. Nevertheless, the deal is finally done, and #7 will be back in purple and gold for a few more years. We can finally exhale. As a FanPost notes in the sidebar, "There's no LakeshOw without LO," and it's quite a relief to learn that yes, Virginia, there is a Lakeshow in 2009-10.

Click on through for the story of our LO...

Young Man in a Big City.

Lamar Joseph Odom was born Nov. 6, 1979 in Jamaica, New York, part of New York City's borough of Queens.* Young Lamar grew up in a single parent household, raised by his mother, Cathy Mercer, who worked as a corrections officer at Rikers Island.† His mother worked hard to support her son and to keep him away from trouble in the crack cocaine-infested neighborhood in which they lived.‡

Lamar's mother was genial and outgoing. "People loved her," Lamar later recalled, adding "A lot of my personality, the way I deal with people, it's definitely through her."‡ Tragically, Mercer contracted colon cancer when Lamar was 12 years old. "She got sick in January, and in July she was gone," LO later recalled.‡

Odom-story0_mediumWith his father out of the picture, Lamar moved in with his grandmother, a Southern-born resident of New York City since the days of the Great Depression. Lamar later saw this second part of his upbringing as pivotal, crediting his grandmother for teaching him "all the little things that I stand for, the things that in today's world get overlooked, as far as family, trying to put back into your neighborhood. Being spiritual, believing in God. Having principles, and morals, and treating people the right way. Respecting people so you can earn respect."‡

From a very early age the tall youngster was convinced that his future lay in the world of professional basketball. His idol growing up was oversized Point Guard of the Lakers Ervin "Magic" Johnson, and he worked hard to try to emulate the court vision and passing skills of his hero.§

Lamar's first experience playing organized basketball was with Richmond Hill's St. Benedict Joseph CYO team. The team traveled all over New York City playing games, allowing LO to meet future NBAers like Rafer "Skip to My Lou" Alston and Stephon Marbury.§ In addition to playing in the church's Catholic Youth Organization, Lamar Odom also was enrolled Catholic school, attending Christ the King High School of Middle Village, Queens, where he was a 6'2" Point Guard for the Royals.§

The year 1994 proved to be Lamar's turning point as a basketball player. A growth spurt hit LO and suddenly the unexceptional 6'2" PG was a 6'9" specimen with great handles. In his second season at Christ the King, Lamar lead the Royals to the championship of the Catholic High School Athletic Association, scoring a record-tying 36 points in the title game.§

From that point onward, Odom's stock was on the rise. He played with one AAU team and then another, meeting future pros Elton Brand and Ron Artest, and coming into the orbit of Adidas' mover and shaker, Sonny Vacaro.§ LO was a budding superstar of the New York City hardcourt, named the City and Queens Player of the Year as a Junior, a year in which he averaged a staggering 17 points, 11 boards, 6 assists, and 4 blocks.§

However, as with many talented young jocks, Lamar's prowess on the court contributed to his goofing off in the classroom. In his Senior year he was forced to leave Christ the King to enroll at Redemption Christian Academy in Troy, New York, due to academic issues.† During this Senior season, LO was named Parade Magazine's National Player of the Year as well as a member of McDonald's All-American Team.†

Not surprisingly given his size, talent, and achievements, Lamar was heavily recruited by collegiate programs from around the country. The young man from the big city packed his bags and headed west to begin the next phase of his career.

 

Lamar as Collegian.

Lamar Odom's years as a classroom jock had left him ill prepared for the rigors of the college lecture hall. LO eventually decided to enroll at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, regarded since the days of "Tark the Shark" as a veritable sports factory, a place at which academics for athletes came not second in the list of priorities, but third.

Odom-story1_mediumEven then, things did not go as planned. A Sports Illustrated article published in the July 1997 issue questioning the validity of the 22 he purportedly scored on the ACT exam, with which he gained admission to UNLV.§ In the glare of public scrutiny, UNLV administrators — already facing NCAA sanctions for other recruiting violations — decided to withdraw his scholarship.‡ It was also later asserted by the NCAA that Lamar had received cash payments totaling $5600 from a Las Vegas dentist and UNLV booster prior to the university's decision to withdraw its scholarship offer.∆

On the other side of the continent, former UCLA Head Coach Jim Harrick was assembling his coaching staff at his new gig at the University of Rhode Island. One of these assistants hired by Harrick was Jerry DeGregorio, Lamar's High School coach during his Senior year. The highly-touted Lamar managed to land a scholarship offer at the University of Rhode Island through his contact with his old HS coach, "Pops" DeGregorio.‡ Still, LO wound up losing the whole of the 1997-98 season with a redshirt made necessary by academic ineligibility.◊ He declared for the 1998 NBA draft but, lacking any experience at the college level by which teams might judge him, he ended up withdrawing and returning to Kingston to go to school.◊

The 1998-99 season was Lamar's one and only experience playing ball at the collegiate level. During the year he played 32 games as a Small Forward for the Rams, averaging an impressive 17.6 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. LO also displayed passing prowess for the position, racking up an average of 3.8 assists per game.◊ Lamar helped lead Rhode Island to the Atlantic-10 Championship for the 1988-99 campaign.

College basketball was merely a stepping stone for Lamar; the fame and fortune of the professional game awaited and he was anxious to make his way. Odom hired an agent and declared for the 1999 NBA draft, joining one of the richest crops of prospects in league history. Others selected in that year included Ron Artest, Elton Brand, Steve Francis, Rip Hamilton, André Miller, Baron Davis, Corey Maggette, Wally Szczerbiak, Shawn Marion, Devean George, James Posey, and Manu Ginobili.

Lamar Odom wound up being drafted #4 of the 1st Round, the selection of the Los Angeles Clippers. His pro career was about to begin.

 

Early NBA Experience.

Lamar Odom later recalled the day he was drafted by the Clippers as the happiest day of his life. Certainly the guaranteed $7.9 million 3 year rookie contract which came in association with being the 4th pick overall had to be a life-changing event for the poor kid from the big city.†

Odom-story2_mediumDuring his rookie season, LO lead the hapless Clippers in total points, averaging 16.8 to go with 7.8 rebounds.† He was honored by selection to the NBA's All-Rookie First Team. In his second year, the 2000-01 season, he did even better, upping his scoring output to 17.2, while maintaining his healthy 7.8 rebounds per game average.

The Clippers continued to lose and to pick up hip and highly-touted youngsters like SF Darius Miles and Guard Quentin Richardson in 2000 and Elton Brand in 2001. LO later recalled that when he came to the Clips, basketball fans throughout California and across the country viewed the team in a very negative light. "And I said, so what," said Lamar, "I'm going to make it cool to be a Clipper. With Darius Miles coming, and Elton Brand coming, we were like the hip-hop babies of the NBA. You saw the jerseys everywhere."‡

Injuries and off-court difficulties hampered the development of the young Odom throughout his 4 year stint with the Clips, however — problems exacerbated by his choice to live like "a 19 year-old rock star" rather than as a dedicated professional athelete.‡

At the tail end of the 2000-01 season, Odom was suspended by the NBA for 5 games for violation of the league's substance abuse policy for his use of marijuana. Despite the public relations black eye, Clippers Vice President of Basketball Operations Elgin Baylor was supportive of his budding young star. In a statement to the press, Baylor declared that  "Lamar's top priority right now has got to be to fulfill whatever is required of him under [the league's drug] program, and then go from there. Our organization will be fully supportive of the positive choices he makes in going forward. He will have resources to help him and there will be many people willing to talk to him and guide him through this. He can if he chooses use this as a learning experience, and come out better as a result. We will be there for him, but it is ultimately up to him." ∫

Unfortunately, LO did not learn rapidly from his initial mistake. In November of 2001, the 22-year old Odom was again suspended for violation of the league's substance abuse rules. In press conference held the day after his 22nd birthday, the young SF choked up immediately.

"I'm here today because I failed," Odom declared during the 13 minute session. "I'm disappointed in myself. I don"t want to put anybody in this position again. I'm sorry, but I don't want everybody to feel sorry for me."

"I made the mistake once, now it"s twice," Odom continued. "I feel like I can get through it, I know I can get through it, I'm strong enough. Nothing I can say is going to make people believe me, I've just got to do it."

Odom-story4_mediumOdom expressed gratitude for the support of the teammates who surrounded him at the press conference and vowed never to miss a game in such a manner again.ß

Clippers coach Alvin Gentry noted that Lamar was "a good person, and everybody here believes that. We love him because of who he is, and that"s the way it"s going to be. We believe in him, we believe in him until the day we die. All we can do is help any way we can."ß

Odom was reinstated by the NBA on Nov. 21, 2001, having missed 8 games, but he never regained the form of his previous seasons. In January of the snakebit 2001-02 campaign Lamar suffered a badly sprained right wrist which sent him to the bench again. In February, a distraught Lamar briefly went AWOL, an action which further aggravated his employers.§ LO wound up missing a total of 53 games through suspension or injury that year. In the games in which he did actually play, Lamar's productivity plummeted from the standard set in the first 2 seasons, and he finished '01-02 with a career low 13.1 points per game in just over 34 minutes.∂ The Clippers wound up in the lottery yet again, missing the playoffs finishing with a record of 39-43.

Lamar was largely blamed for the failings of the Clippers in the 2001-02 season and he was placed in a position of needing to prove himself in his fourth season, the final year of his rookie contract.

Unfortunately for Odom, 2002-03 was only marginally better than his previous nightmare year. In October LO went down with a sore wrist and ankle and he was only able to return late in December.† A total of 33 games were missed in the season, and Lamar's scoring average of 14.6 points per game once again failed to equal the measure of his stellar rookie and sophomore years.

Lamar's world was further rocked in June 2003 with the death of his beloved grandmother, the woman who had raised him after his own mother's tragic early death.

His contract at an end, Lamar Odom became a Restricted Free Agent and signed a lucrative offer sheet with GM Pat Riley and the Miami Heat for $65 million over 6 year — a contract which the Clippers declined to match.§

Lamar packed his bags and left Los Angeles, heading back East to begin the next phase of his career.

 

The Man in Miami.

Lamar Odom did his best to make Pat Riley look like a genius in the 2003-04 season. He ran the floor like a gazelle and shot the ball with great acumen. LO was once again scoring over 17 points per game, this time with very nearly 10 rebounds per outing to go with it, finishing the year with an impressive average of 9.7.∂

Odom-story3_medium

The move away from the toxic Clipper culture also proved very positive for Lamar off the court, with great credit given to coach Pat Riley.

He saved me," declared Lamar. "He saved me, as far as holding me accountable for everything I do."

"Every day, after practice, driving home, it was the first time I felt like a man," Lamar said. "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. My relationships with people were changing and evolving. I was in the best shape of my life. I was happy when I looked in the mirror every day."‡

Together with superstar SG Dwayne Wade, Lamar led the Heat to the NBA playoffs, where the team advanced to the second round. Lamar continued his solid play under the bright lights, averaging 16.8 points and 8.3 boards in the 2004 Playoffs — a series ultimately won by the Detroit Pistons when they crushed the favored Los Angeles Lakers 4 games to 1.∂

Lamar looked like he had found his home. He had achieved happiness off the court, self-dignity that came with emerging maturity. He liked his coach and his team. He had found his game on the floor. He had the safety and security of a lucrative long-term guaranteed contract. What could possibly go wrong?

LO failed to take account of one very large kink in his hose, however — a man named Shaquille O'Neal.

Days after the Lakers' shocking loss to the Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals, the Lakers' dream team pairing the greatest Shooting Guard in the league with the greatest Center in the league imploded. Shaquille O'Neal, weary of his passive-aggressive relationship with fellow superstar Kobe Bryant and feeling disrespected by General Manager Mitch Kupchak and Laker team owner Jerry Buss, demanded a trade.£

Pat Riley was anxious to be reunited with the man-mountain and immediately hit the phones to his old franchise in an effort to work out a deal.

In July 2004, the trade was finalized: Shaquille O'Neal would return to Florida, suiting up in Miami black, with Los Angeles receiving in return star SF Caron Butler, big man Brian Grant, and a first-round draft pick — along with Lamar Odom.

O'Neal was pleased to be leaving LA, noting that the changing makeup of the Lakers under GM Mitch Kupchak "tells me that this is a cut-throat business. I kind of went through this before with Orlando and being there with the Lakers for eight years... [That] you could cause the No. 1 player and the No. 1 executive [Jerry West] to leave, that should tell me you're cut-throat."£

After only one year with the Miami Heat, Lamar Odom was headed back to Los Angeles again, this time to play with the purple and gold forsaken by Shaq.

 

Laker Years in a Nutshell.

Lamar Odom gained recognition with many casual fans of basketball through his participation in the 2004 USA Olympic Team — a group which included both former and future teammates Dwayne Wade and Kobe Bryant. The Americans ultimately lost to gold medalist Argentina in the Semi-Final round and won a bronze medal in Greece.

Odom-story5_medium

Lamar Odom has been an essential piece to the Lakers'  return to NBA prominence, although that transformation was certainly neither smooth nor linear.

Lamar's first year with the Lakers saw the Shaq-free team at nadir — just 34 wins were accumulated by the boys in purple that season, tied for last in the Pacific Division and trailing even the lowly Clippers with their 37. Think about the implications of that, if you will... It was a time of angst and unhappiness, a fall of 22 games in the win column from the previous season that left the team and its biggest star frustrated and on the verge of lashing out. The truth be told, inexperience had as much to do with the Lakers' malaise as anything: the team featured young star of the future Caron Butler as well as youthful, not-ready-for-prime-time incarnations of future building blocks Luke Walton and Sasha Vujacic, with the team anchored by an aging Vlade Divac. Lamar averaged a double-double for the first time in his career, pulling down an average 10.2 boards to go with his 15 points a night.

In LO's second season with the Lakeshow, the team finally began to jell. The team's 45 wins allowed the team to make the playoffs again, this time as the 6-seed in the Western Conference. Lamar's scoring once again was in the ballpark of 15 points a night during the regular season and he turned in an outstanding performance in the post season, scoring 19 points a game in an average of nearly 45 minutes during the 7 game loss to the Phoenix Suns. Odom shot nearly 50% from the field in the playoffs and was the Lakers' second leading scorer, trailing Mr. Bryant, of course.

The 2005-06 season was a year in which Lamar and the Lakers marked time. Forty-two wins was still enough to make the post-season festivities, but the 7-seed Lakers once again met their demise in Phoenix, this time in just 5 games. Lamar was once again upped his healthy regular season averages (15.9 ppg, 9.8 rpg) in the bright lights of the playoffs, joining Kobe as the only Laker to average double figures in scoring in the playoffs.

Laker Year 4 for Lamar, the 2007-08 campaign, saw the midseason addition of Pau Gasol and a run all the way to the NBA Finals, where they were defeated by Pottymouth Kev and the aging rent-a-stars of The Team That Shall Not Be Named. Lamar was now relegated to the #3 scoring option for the Lakers, still racking over 14 points per game in the playoffs, although he was team-high for rebounds in the second season, averaging 10 a game.

Year 5, 2008-09 was Sixth Man Season for Lamar, as the return of Center Andrew Bynum to active duty moved Pau Gasol to Power Forward and LO to the bench. LO still managed to average 11 points and 8 rebounds in almost 30 minutes of action, but his 32 starts were the fewest since the ill-fated 2001-02 season with the Clips. Despite his being in a contract year, Lamar went to the bench without complaint and was instrumental in the Lakers' massive season, playing a particularly critical role when Bynum went down with a mid-season knee injury.

The World Championship 2008-09 season was highlighted by Lamar and the Lakers going into Cleveland and dealing the Eastern Conference favorite Cavs their first (and only legitimate) home loss of the season. Lamar was the big star of the game for the Lakers, racking up 28 points and an astounding 17 rebounds.¶ 

Lamar also hit the 10,000 point milestone for his career in an April 7, 2009, game against the Sacramento Kings.¶ For the year Lamar averaged 11.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game as the 6th man off the bench, playing Power Forward for Coach Phil Jackson.

 

Why are Ron Artest and Lamar Odom So Different?

And so we return to the question posited at the top of this article — why the difference in personality and temperament between Ron Artest and Lamar Odom, two men born almost exactly the same time in the same place, sharing the same approximate size, the same ethnic background, pursuing the same profession? Why?

The first difference appears familial. Ron Artest was one of many siblings raised in tough public housing projects, attending public school and honing his game on the streets. His father was a former Golden Gloves boxer and his early years anything but idyllic. Lamar Odom, despite the early death of his single parent, seems to have been carefully raised by his religious grandmother, went to Catholic schools, and was a product of the Catholic Youth Organization recreational and Catholic high school competitive leagues.

Same place — very different circumstances.

Both have had their share of issues to overcome: Artest, a violent temper and a series of on- and off-court incidents springing up as a result; Odom, an affection for herb smoking. Yet both have managed to persevere and have now, for the 2009-10 season, returned to the same place.

The coming year and the interaction and relationship of the two Forwards from Queens promises to be interesting.

 

But Wait, There's More!

A Golden Oldie Lamar Odom Video!

Lamar's buzzer-beating trey for Rhode Island that got the Rams into the 1999 NCAA Tournament. "That's why they call him 'The Package'!!!"

 

 

 

Footnotes:

* — Note that Lamar's birthday is precisely one week before that of his future teammate Ron Artest, who was born Nov. 13, 1979.

† — "Lamar Odom: Profile," ESPN DB. < http://espndb.go.com/nba/finals/profile/_/id/617/type/player/lamar-odom >

‡ — "Lamar Odom: Biography," LamarOdom.com  < http://www.lamarodom.com/?q=biography >

§ — "Lamar Odom," Jock Bio.com  < http://www.jockbio.com/Bios/Odom/Odom_bio.html >

∆ — Steve Carp, "NCAA Reveals Inquiry of UNLV," Las Vegas Review-Journal, March 15, 2000. < http://www.reviewjournal.com/lvrj_home/2000/Mar-15-Wed-2000/news/13173026.html >

◊ — "Lamar Odom," The Draft Review. < http://www.thedraftreview.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1845 >

∫ — Associated Press, "Odom, Rider Get Drug Bans: Both Violated NBA's Anti-Drug Policy," March 7, 2001. < http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2001/03/07/sports/main277128.shtml >

ß — Associated Press, "Odom Admits to Marijuana Use," Nov. 8, 2001. < http://www.michigandaily.com/content/clippers-odom-admits-marijuana-use >

∂ — "Lamar Odom: Career Stats," NBA.com. < http://www.nba.com/playerfile/lamar_odom/career_stats.html >

£ — Associated Press and ESPN.com, "O'Neal Already Showcasing Old Numbers," July 20, 2004. < http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/news/story?id=1839693 >

¶  — Ryan Eletto, "Lamar Odom: 2008-09 in Review," LamarOdom.com. < http://www.lamarodom.com/?q=node/496 >

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