Editor’s Note: For as long as the NBA season is stopped, we’ll be taking a look back at players from Lakers history that we can’t stop thinking about. Today, we remember Lamar Odom.
I set up a Google alert in the summer of 2009 for the words “Lamar Odom”. It was the first time I had ever done that, and to this day, the only. Odom was a free agent, the Lakers had already lost Trevor Ariza after winning the NBA Finals (though they found quite an excellent replacement for him), and Miami was circling. And if I had learned anything from my Showtime-obsessed father, it’s that when Pat Riley wants something, Pat Riley usually gets it.
This was before Twitter was ubiquitous, and I was studying abroad in China, so I couldn’t rely on normal forms of communication to learn about Odom’s free agency decision. I was willing to sift through 11 alerts a day of anytime Odom appeared in the news if it meant immediately knowing if and when my favorite Laker was coming back (or at least immediately ripping the band-aid off if he was leaving).
And yes, favorite Laker was the appropriate moniker. Sure, the 2009 Lakers had Pau and Fish and Kobe, arguably the greatest of them all. Odom was at best the third-most important player on the team, he didn’t start, and he could disappear in games for long stretches. But he was also the Swiss army knife who could fit into any role, a precursor to positionless basketball, and a matchup nightmare for any opponent.
Most importantly, he was the heart of those Laker championship teams.
When Odom first got to the Lakers in 2004, it was impossible not to be enamored with the full complement of his talents. He could glide down the floor effortlessly, he moved the ball like a guard, he was so creative with his passing (sometimes unnecessarily so), and he could finish with authority. He was capable of doing everything on the floor, and he had such style.
Odom was the connective tissue that bridged the Lakers from O’Neal to Gasol. The chemistry he built with Kobe Bryant during those lean years allowed the team to flourish once more talent arrived. Odom was the measured, aloof counterpart to Kobe’s blistering intensity. He had a grace and agility with the way he moved — nothing seemed calculated, and how could it be? This was the same Odom who once inbounded the ball without passing to a teammate. (The look on Phil Jackson’s face still cracks me up).
There was always a lingering sense of what Odom could be if he put it all together at the same time, but then he wouldn’t be the same cool, mercurial Odom if he did. He was a little all over the place all the time, but in the best way.
I loved the way his jersey hung too loose on him, how it was always falling out of his shorts. I loved how he always finished with his left; it wasn’t necessarily a hindrance, he could still go right, but he had such unique touch around the basket that he could always bring the ball back to his left. I loved how he went behind the back so often in transition, not even with his dribble, sometimes just around his waist. I loved his exaggerated shot fake — everyone in the world knew he was a passer at the core of his being, so he had to sell that shot especially hard. I loved his one-touch passing with Pau Gasol.
It’s a shame he arrived in L.A. after Chick Hearn passed; only Chick would have been able to do justice to the spontaneity of Odom’s game.
With other players, there are indelible moments that stick out in their careers. With Odom, there was more of an emotional attachment. There was a certain anxiety in watching him play, never knowing what was about to come. But that was part of the thrill.
Knowing everything that he had been through in his personal life, it meant more to watch Odom succeed. This was a man who had been through real hell and was continuing to fight his own demons, but he could overcome them on the biggest stage. He wore his heart on his sleeve, and it was not impossible not to feel everything he was feeling when he took the court.
Odom was also just really, really good for the Lakers. He sacrificed a starting role in 2009 — in a contract year, no less — to allow Andrew Bynum to flourish, and the Lakers massacred opponents with him in the second unit. Odom was second in overall plus-minus that season (behind some dude named LeBron James, who led the league in that stat for five straight years), and sublimated his own offense to fill in the gaps for his teammates. He was a versatile defender against all of the combo forwards in the league. Even though his game was maddeningly inconsistent, he was always available; he rarely got injured or in foul trouble.
Odom had statistically better years, even winning Sixth Man of the Year in 2011, but that year felt the most special. He became exactly who the Lakers needed him to be and the best version of himself as a player all at once. There was no one in the league quite like him.
The Lakers played an epic playoff series in 2009 in the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets. At the end of Game 1, the Lakers are up two, the Nuggets have the ball, and Odom is guarding Anthony Carter on the inbounds. Carter turns it over, Ariza gets the steal, and Kobe makes the free throws. Odom doesn’t even show up in the play-by-play.
But he is as much a part of the moment as anyone. Odom is the one whose long arms make the pass hard for Carter, the one whose defensive pressure allows Ariza to gamble for the takeaway. He’s that Swiss army knife, fitting in exactly where the Lakers need him, acknowledgement be damned.
Even if he didn’t find his way into the box score, Odom found his way into our hearts. We loved him both because of and in spite of all of his flaws. Odom just wanted to be part of this Lakers family. And he made himself an irreplaceable piece of this franchise’s history by sacrificing, by dazzling, and by winning.
For that, he is a Laker worth appreciating.