In early October 2008, I stopped by the Lakers practice facility in El Segundo, Calif., to talk to Lamar Odom. This was a fairly ordinary thing, as I worked for him. My digital agency handled Lamar’s website (social media was just starting to really get off the ground), so I came to practices from time to time—sometimes alone, sometimes with a camera crew—to gather content for the site, or just to catch up for a few minutes with Lamar.
When practice ended that day and they let the media and the rest of us in, I spotted Lamar talking with Luke Walton in the far corner of the gym, some distance away. Lamar wore a look of frustration on his face, and Luke seemed to be trying to make him feel better about whatever the problem was. When Lamar spotted me, he nodded in my direction, acknowledging me the way he always did, then slowly walked over to speak to reporters.
I waited for him at a courtside table that coach Phil Jackson and his staff had been sitting at minutes earlier. After the media disbanded and everyone else was gone, Lamar fell into a metal folding chair across from me. He sighed deeply and shook his head.
"What’s wrong?" I asked him.
I already knew the answer. Pau Gasol had joined the Lakers the previous season, and Jackson had started training camp off with a public declaration: Lamar would be coming off the bench to bolster L.A.'s second unit. Lamar had pushed back in the press, but it looked like today was the day he’d lost the battle.
“It’s bulls---, man,” he said. For the next 45 minutes, Lamar vented. He broke down how frustrated he was with Phil, how going to the bench was going to cripple him financially because it would impact his numbers, all the implications that this change would mean for him. He talked about his fears and frustrations and his teammates, the kinds of things that one would only tell a close friend. Then we both went our separate ways.
None of this would have been particularly noteworthy except for one thing: Outside of short casual conversations I had with Lamar when I came to see him—"What’s up, man? How’s it going?"—we barely knew each other. In my mind, I was little more than a familiar face to him. That he saw me as something more, someone worth trusting with what essentially were personal secrets, revealed a lot more about Lamar Odom and how he saw the world than I realized at the time.
I had actually met Lamar two years earlier in the very same place under very different circumstances. At the time, I had been a freelance sportswriter, and I was writing a profile on Lamar for the team's official publication, Lakers Magazine. To that point, most of my work had been feature pieces and game coverage for the Washington Post, so I wanted the profile on Lamar—my first magazine piece—to be great.
When Lamar and I sat down for our interview, I experienced the same thing that every reporter who ever spent significant time with Lamar experienced. Most athletes are incredibly guarded when they speak to the media. They’re trained to say as little as possible, and to fall back on safe cliches. Even when they’re not, many athletes fall flat when it comes to expressing themselves in a compelling way. Lamar was something entirely different, especially if you had any kind of connection with him at all, and for whatever reason, we seemed to have that right from the first question. The longer we talked, the more open he became. He was at turns funny, insightful, honest, self-deprecating, humble. I loved talking with him; even now, thinking about that first conversation brings a smile to my face.
There was nothing contrived about him. Our interview went nearly a hour, and there wasn’t a topic he shied away from. What made his candor all the more remarkable was that he was reeling emotionally. His infant son Jayden had died in his crib of SIDS months earlier, adding another member to a heartbreaking list that included his mother, dead of cancer when Odom was 12, and his grandmother, who passed in 2003. His father, an itinerant drug addict, had all but died in Odom's youth, too.
I interviewed a number of other people who knew Lamar for that story, people who he said he was close to. They included a coach, Jerry DeGregorio, who had known him since high school; Jim Harrick, who had coached him at Rhode Island; and Robbie Davis, his trainer at the time, who Lamar described as his best friend. What I came to understand was that the people he had surrounded himself with had become his makeshift family, and that all of them had come to him through basketball.
I never had another conversation with Lamar like the one we had about joining the second unit, but from that point forward, I was a tangential part of his basketball family, too. We weren’t friends, but there was a connection, and it came out whenever I saw him: a knowing look, a dap, an "I appreciate you." It filtered down to the people who worked for me on his behalf. We all loved Lamar, and rooted for him—especially me, a lifelong Lakers fan. My two young daughters fell in love with him, too. (To this day, both of them wear the number seven when they play sports, thanks to their early infatuation with him.)
It’s become commonplace for people to say that Lamar never realized his potential as a basketball player, and it's an easy mistake to make from the outside. He was overflowing with ability, and never seemed to take over games the way other supremely gifted players did. But his physical abilities weren’t his true gift. Ask anyone on those teams and they will tell you: Kobe was the embodiment of the talent; Derek Fisher, the voice of responsibility; and Lamar, the team’s heart and soul. The 2008–09 season turned out to be a magical one. With a reluctant Lamar putting his own feelings aside for the benefit of the team and heading the second unit, the Lakers won the NBA championship—the first of two straight he would win with the team. He followed the titles up by winning the Sixth Man of the Year in 2011. It truly was the best of times.
When I first heard that Lamar was marrying Khloe Kardashian, I didn’t know what to think. It came completely out of the blue—after all, they had only been dating a month before they decided to become engaged. It seemed, at best, a rash romantic decision. But the more I thought about it, the more I could see Khloe's appeal. Whatever Lamar’s connection was with her, she also brought him something he had never experienced before: a family. Not a family of former coaches and trainers and agents strung together over a lifetime of basketball, but a nuclear family (perhaps, in retrospect, all of the variations of the word 'nuclear.') Admittedly, I was skeptical about the benefits of joining the Kardashian clan, but one of Lamar’s closest friends and protectors told me at the time that Khloe was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
If anything catalyzed Lamar’s downward spiral, though, it may have been the failed Chris Paul trade. The Lakers were more than just Lamar’s team. They were his on-the-court family, the culmination of a professional basketball life that began in the dysfunction of Donald Sterling’s Clippers, improved in a season with the Miami Heat, and then blossomed in Los Angeles. No one ever loved being part of the Lakers more than Lamar Odom. I don’t think the Lakers' management—or anyone else, for the matter—really grasped how deep his feelings were for the franchise, how profoundly he felt part of something meaningful, until Los Angeles attempted to trade him to New Orleans without any warning. He might as well have been stabbed in the heart.
Feeling hurt and betrayed, Lamar asked to traded, and I’ve always wondered whether he really wanted that, or if he simply wanted the Lakers to tell him, "We’re sorry, Lamar. We really want you here." Either way, Los Angeles made good on his request, sending him to Dallas, and from there, things begin to unravel.
The last time I saw Lamar Odom was early in the summer of 2014. I was driving with my younger daughter through Beverly Hills when I spotted him coming out of restaurant. It had been at least three years since I had seen him, but I had kept up with all the ups and downs of Lamar's personal and professional life, getting updates from friends of his from time to time. Like anyone who cared about him, I was worried, but Lamar had endured more tragedy by his early 20s than most people do in a lifetime, and in some strange logic, I thought that might help him. He was a survivor.
We drove around the block, hoping to catch Lamar before he got to his car and drove away, and sure enough, we did. We pulled over and I yelled his name out the window. At first, I think he thought I was a fan or a photographer, and he just waved back.
"Lamar," I said. "Look up."
He did, and instantly, there was a flash of recognition in his eyes. A huge smile broke across his face, and he walked over to the car. We talked for a little while. A month or two earlier, he had signed a new contract with the New York Knicks, where Phil Jackson had become the team president, and Lamar was really excited. He’d be going back home to New York. He’d be playing in the Garden. He was working hard to get back into basketball shape, he said, and he was confident he was going to get there. Looking at him, I was, too. He looked good, much healthier than some of the pictures I’d seen of him months before.
I introduced him to my daughter, and he reached into the backseat of our SUV and gave her a fist bump. She was six at the time, and she looked at him in disbelief. She had been hearing about Lamar Odom for literally as long as she could remember, and now, here he was, right in front of her.
"You’re Lamar?" she asked. He laughed. "Yeah," he said, "I’m Lamar."
We chatted a little longer, and by the time we said our goodbyes, I couldn’t help feeling optimistic. He really did seem better, like the old Lamar. Maybe he really would have a second life in New York.
"Good luck," I told him. "I can’t wait to see you back on the court."
"Appreciate you," he said, and then he was gone.