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For Lamar Odom, basketball is the only thing that ever came easy

Lamar Odom remains hospitalized after a being found unconscious in a Nevada brothel. For the former Lakers star, it's merely the latest in a long line of tragic befallings that have marred a once-proud basketball legacy.

There are few to whom basketball seemed to come as easily as it had for Lamar Odom. Here was a style rapid-fluid and steeped in finesse—an effortless puzzle of moves and decisions stemmed, it often felt, through some preternatural understanding of, and need for, collaboration. For community. For belonging.

Hyperbole though it was, the “Next Magic” moniker nevertheless was rooted in a very real, sincere recognition. That Lamar Odom, when mind and eyes and soul were set to it, played the right way. That whatever his heart-hung baggage, basketball was a language Odom both spoke and understood. That he heard not just the game’s notes and solos, but the music itself.

SI Vault: The odyssey of Lamar Odom

"I just want to be Lamar Odom," he once told a cast of assembled media gathered to watch the 6'10" New York phenom during a 1996 high school practice. "Not anyone else."

So it seemed, even at 17, Odom knew the game’s mold was his to recast: a star-hot fusion of grace, guile, and pure floor-parting power. Here, at last, was a chance to transcend it all. The pulls of the past; the beckoning barks of the street; the heat enough to spoon-boil away the pain.

This—this game—was his to have. It belonged to him, and he to it. If only he could never let it go.

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They found him in a Nevada brothel, unconscious, on Tuesday afternoon. If you’re one to believe the words of those wont to twist them, he’d been there by himself for days. Rushed to a nearby hospital, he lies unresponsive still, intubated, his heart fighting for a respite it cannot know will come.

And that, really, is the sick-sad crux of it all: For as much of Odom’s misery’s been a self-sewn one, few have borne the sheer, being-gutting brunt of death’s flippant hand he has.

From a 2009 profile by SI’s Lee Jenkins:

The happiest Laker is one whose father was addicted to heroin; whose mother died of colon cancer when he was 12; who attended three high schools; had his first college scholarship revoked before the fall of his freshman year; became a subject of three college investigations; declared for the NBA draft; tried unsuccessfully to pull out of the draft; was picked by arguably the worst franchise in sports; violated the league’s antidrug policy twice within eight months; and, after finally getting his life together, went home to New York City for an aunt’s funeral and wound up burying his 6 ½-month-old-son, Jayden, then getting robbed at gunpoint.

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Far be it from anyone but the Tarot priests to speak of past lives and grand squares, of bad signs or karma uncontrolled. Still, there’s something disproportionately retributive about Odom’s story—a pall of punishment almost impossible to comprehend, let alone deem just. There will be many who try, of course; their sinister soapbox bile bellowed to daft applause by those for whom all tabloid woes are self-made graves. And they’ll all be wrong as rain, always and every time.

Because given the pick between forces unseen and a world’s rote-cruel workings, it’s only right—only human—to tally Odom’s pain upon the latter’s ledger. To an all-too-common, all-too-ancient story of good people plagued by awful things, and the infinite queue of victims that tale conscripts as characters.

Odom’s drug issues are, by now, living archeology. You can watch the videos, stare voyeur-jawed into vacant eyes not even cloudy pixels can hide. You can read the sordid, embarrassing accounts, the tera-fold living eulogies of those who care or pretend to care. You can see it all and, chances are, if you’re reading this, you probably have. We’ve always loved a good trainwreck, whether in sports or press or politics; all the better when it’s hewn to tracks we ourselves laid running down the highest hill we find.

To what extent drugs caused or contributed to Odom’s latest and very real fight for life is, barring some first-hand shrive, wholly speculative. That the Love Ranch would deny the presence of such is as predictable as gravity, even if the facts are bound to float in spite: The case is simply too high-profile, too page-click lucrative, to force all the blood under the rug.

Whatever the details, we want only, and quickly, that Odom gets the help he needs. Nay, given the mercury-cross burdens he’s suffered; the brushes with death at life’s every turn; the burn for life and love held aloft all the while, while he could, that he may one day again—it’s the help Lamar Odom deserves. So long as a life so often taken to taking it away finally allows him his own.

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Should you find yourself deigning around the Odom YouTube dregs for tales of lust and drugs, take a minute or two to mine a few old highlights. Right there atop the search box: “Lamar Odom triangle offense” and “Lamar Odom highlights” astride, for once, the one about the crack. Carabine down this hardwood wormhole, as deep as it lets you go, and behold.

Watch him glide down the floor with the Spalding on a string, floating like a soldier’s ghost across the Shiloh road. Watch him survey the paint with a dozen eyes and find the cutting man in pinpoint stride. See him spin opposing ankles into dust, only to lift but a hamlet's phone book off the floor for a rimless bank. See him switching just in time to stifle the shot, then leading the break in a lumber-graceful haze. See how much his teammates love and adore him, how much he means to these people, this process. How much he helped make those Lakers what they were.

See how it easy it is for him, this game, this thing above the death. Watch how he exorcises in exercise, making the right play or trying to—anything to tilt the world a little more away from night, to reap from life a moment or two of peace. Of community. Of belonging.

When basketball abandoned Lamar Odom, it’s as if life, long his jailor, had finally taken his Bible. As if there was little for which to live, save the fleeting fix of friends, or money, or maybe the fixes themselves. As if he’d aged in war years and wanted only to remember his antebellum self. Without basketball—professional basketball; the game at its most enveloping, its most comforting—life had to be hard again. There was no other way.

Watch how easy Lamar Odom makes this game look, and know that nothing else was ever given him—no love, no drug, no pain or loss wished gone—that time alone could take away.