ISTANBUL -- When last some of you saw Lamar Odom, he might've been passing through your consciousness, or semi-consciousness, on a clip from the reality-TV roll. Maybe he was looking perplexed as he learns that his then-fiancée has misplaced the $850,000 engagement ring he had bought for her. Or sheepish as he fails to pick up his now-wife's swimming tips. Or surprised when his spouse lays a $400,000 Rolls Royce on him, a bauble presented in recognition of the NBA title he won with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Such is the course of your 24/7 public life when you become a citizen of Kardashian World, as Odom has done with his marriage to Khloe, who is one of the Kardashians, though I know not which.
It all gives rise to the supposition that the man is a little, well, loopy.
Actually, he is.
But it also obscures the fact that Odom is an extremely cerebral and versatile player, a guy who during the NBA season might in one moment be on the perimeter getting the Lakers into their triangle offense and in the next be battling Tim Duncan underneath.
And there is this, too: Only one person in the basketball-playing universe managed to be a "world" champion twice within three months -- Lamar Odom.
Among the several members of the U.S. team who benefited greatly from the gold-medal showing in the FIBA World Championship that ended Sunday in Istanbul -- Russell Westbrook, Andre Iguodala and Rudy Gay come to mind -- Odom got as much out of it as anyone besides, of course, Kevin Durant, whose MVP play put him on a whole other planet. It wasn't about how many pairs of American eyes were watching the action: On Sunday, about 50 times more people watched the Dallas Cowboys-Washington Redskins game than the midday telecast of the U.S.-Turkey final. It was about what the 9-0 championship record meant internally to each player, what it did for his confidence level and his perception of himself as a player.
For we tend to think of pro athletes as finished products, masters of their own domain, supremely confident about their own talents. Certainly many of them act that way, some to the point of delusion. But inside, away from the chest-pounding surety, most are plagued by the same nagging self-doubts as all of us, the same necessity to prove themselves, notch an identity, figure out a way to either become somebody or stay on top just a little longer.
I think that describes Odom, who turns 31 around the 2010-11 season opener. For the first five years of his career (four with the Clippers, one with the Heat), his sackful of talents seduced GMs and coaches into believing that he could be The Guy. Well, he can't be The Guy. It's not Odom. He has spent the last six seasons safely in the shadow of Kobe Bryant and other Lakers teammates, and, while it's comfortable there, more in tune with his complementary game, he has sometimes gotten lost in the L.A. shuffle, his good-but-not-great-at-everything game overlooked in a town built on glitz.
This championship team gave him an identity. He was a leader, a rock, a tough guy and, predictably, a bastion of versatility who averaged 7.1 points (fifth on the team) and 7.7 rebounds (first), while averaging 22 minutes, fourth most behind only Durant, Chauncey Billups and Derrick Rose. He was at his best in the semis and finals against, respectively, Lithuania and Turkey when he registered games of 13 and 10, and 15 and 11.
Even as the U.S. struggled to finalize its roster a month ago, Odom's role was clear: Coach Mike Krzyzewski made him a co-captain and the leader of a defense that never quit. His collar would be blue. He would be asked to station himself near the basket, getting touches from time to time on offense but mostly serving as a defensive stalwart on a team bound to build its identity at that end of the floor. Krzyzewski even used the phrase "relegated Lamar to the post" in acknowledging that Odom was asked to sacrifice his body and a good portion of his offensive stats in the service of this guard-oriented team.
"If Lamar didn't play well for us down there, we don't win," U.S. assistant coach Jim Boeheim said after the victory over Turkey that brought the gold medal. "He rebounds, he rotates, he deflects more balls and helps more than any post player we've ever had. He's a great teammate. Lamar talks. He's fired up. He's done everything we've asked of him."
His backup at center, Tyson Chandler, said that the defensive emphasis didn't just happen.
"Nobody realizes it, but it's harder for an All-Star-type team to come together defensively than offensively," said Chandler, who mostly rode the pine in favor of Odom's experience in the final two U.S. games. "Offensively, you can always run a pick-and-roll or isolate somebody, but defensively you have to have a group that really buys into it and wants it. Coach preached it every day, and Lamar was a big part of that. He's a master at positioning, knowing where to be before the play gets started."
Odom tended to guard bigger players in the man-to-man defense the U.S. played most of the time. He invariably gave up a hoop or two in the beginning of the game, but he would make adjustments as the game went on, wearing them down with smarts and, as Chandler notes, positioning.
"What most people miss about guys like Lamar," said Boeheim, who has coached at Syracuse since 1976 and has never been with an NBA team, "is their ability to make adjustments on the fly. That's what the pro game is all about. These guys make game-to-game adjustments and even minute-to-minute adjustments. Lamar is as good as anyone I've been around in that part of the game."
Still, one could hardly expect a citizen of Kardashian World to be all work, no play, even during a tournament as grueling as the Worlds, and he concedes that "part of the deal in international play is increasing your brand."
And how would he do that?
"Well, you have to understand that the power of networking and meeting the right people is very important," Odom said. "There's no limit on how far you can take that thing. No one ever thought Magic Johnson would become this multimillion-dollar man off the court, right? Who's to say who you're going to meet at dinner over here, right? Maybe a sultan."
I asked Odom if that happened.
"I wouldn't tell you if it did," he answered.
If it did, I'm sure the Keeping Up With the Kardashians cameras were rolling and we'll see it down the road.