Wounds run deep for Lamar Odom
Exit from L.A. hurt, but tragedies off the court left first-year Mav pondering his future
DALLAS -- Lamar Odom isn't courting sympathy. He's not seeking pity, or for anyone even to care.
If he's asking for anything at all during arguably his most uninspired stretch of basketball as a professional -- three weeks that have not only coincided with, but are manifested in yet another tragic chapter in his 32 years -- it is simply patience.
As the streaking Dallas Mavericks and the struggling Odom return to Los Angeles on Monday night to face Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, the group that ungracefully exited last season's playoffs via a second-round sweep by the reigning champion Mavs, Odom has at least maintained some measure of a sense of humor as he drags a tattered spirit alongside the worst statistics of his 13-year career.
"Yeah, no," Odom answered softly when asked Friday night if he's allowed himself to imagine what it will be like to return to Staples Center. "I'm at the point where, it's funny, I've got to focus on the next play -- you know what I'm saying? -- to try to put a good game together. So, I mean, yeah, but no; yeah, but no. It's going to be weird. It's going to be weird."
Odom doesn't deny that leaving L.A. cut deeply, but yet not in the way so many apparently believe. The deepest wounds occurred months earlier. To put in perspective the debilitating effects of two deaths in the span of two days in July, understand that Odom, by all accounts a highly sensitive and emotionally driven individual, lost his mother to colon cancer at age 12. His grandmother, who reared him, died in 2004.
His second son, Jayden, just six months old, died in his crib of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in 2006.
In July, Odom's 24-year-old cousin, a person Odom described as "one of my favorite people in the world," had been shot and lay in a New York hospital bed on life support. Odom was scheduled to travel to New York, where he was born and raised, for a Nike commercial. He flew to New York be by his cousin's side.
"I went to see my cousin and tell his mother that they had to let him go, that they had to pull the plug on him," said Odom, who unsuspectingly was about to be rocked by yet another horrific situation.
Two days later, Odom sat in the back of a chauffeur-driven SUV on his way to get a haircut when he heard the unforgettable noise.
"This guy was riding a motorcycle, he started to skid, he hits us," Odom said. "He slides into a pedestrian right on the street and kills him right there."
The pedestrian, a 15-year-old boy, was rushed to a hospital and soon after was pronounced dead.
Odom fell apart. He said he didn't eat for days. He didn't work out. He didn't pick up a basketball. He retreated into his mind and seriously considered disappearing from the game long before any inkling of a trade.
"I had to ask myself, 'Could I and would I go through a season? Could I, would I go through the grind of playing, of being criticized? Was I in a place mentally where I could overcome things that you can usually normally overcome,' " Odom said. "But when you're in that certain place and you're a little bit down, being critiqued or just going through the whole grind of a season, going through the whole grind of what it takes to perform at the high level of what I'm used to playing, I didn't know.
"It was something that I had to talk about with my family. I even went back to his [cousin's] brothers and sisters and was like, 'What would you all think if I said enough's enough?' They were like, 'No, Lamar, you can't do that. You've got to stick with it. We want you to play.' I think it was a process, a process that I'm still going through."
It is evident on the court. Odom is averaging 6.7 points and 5.0 rebounds in 20 minutes a game. The reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year has been criticized for perceived sagging body language, a lack of aggression and essentially looking lost.
It was a very long grieving process and I probably took it [the death of his cousin], in a sense, just as hard as I took losing my son, and I guess maybe it brought feelings that maybe I wasn't really recovered from other incidents in my life.” -- Mavs F/C Lamar Odom
He's had more encouraging play during the Mavs' impressive home sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks and Sacramento Kings, but overall, his struggles stem from a total confluence of events: The tragic deaths, the trade -- the major impact of which was taking Odom away from his comfort zone in Los Angeles days after the lockout ended, "because that was going to help me kind of like prepare to overcome what I had to overcome" -- moving to Dallas, learning a new system on the fly and primarily playing a new position, small forward instead of power forward with the Lakers.
"I haven't played the 3 in about six years, seven years," Odom said. "[The Lakers] never really played Drew [Andrew Bynum] and Pau [Gasol] and me. And there's a little difference. The timing of the game is a little different. You kind of realize the differences on how to guard, how to move your feet."
Last week Charles Barkley joined the criticism, blasting Odom on ESPN Dallas 103.3 FM's Galloway and Co. for being unable to accept leaving the Lakers, saying, "It seems like he went through a divorce ... and he's just out of it. He's not even close to being the same guy& I thought he'd snap out of it by now. It's frustrating to watch because guys get traded all the time."
Odom said he's OK with the criticism because, "I kind of know what to expect and, again, most people don't know or care, nor should they. It's sports."
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle has mostly tried to praise Odom publicly. Early on, he called upon Odom to learn coverages, understand the system and be more aggressive. After the 90-85 win at Boston last Wednesday, Carlisle said he loved Odom's energy in the second half even though Odom played just eight minutes of it. Prior to Friday's game, Carlisle said, "He's just got to keep pushing. We'll keep working with him, but I think he's very close to making a real quantum step up."
Even Odom isn't quite prepared to make such a claim, saying he believes his game can continue to improve as he works to clear his mind, a job he admits he has difficulty monitoring the progress.
"You know who would be able to tell you is probably my wife. She could probably tell you. I think I'm still a ways away because she's the one that encourages me to, 'Come on, you need to get back,' " Odom said. "It was a very long grieving process and I probably took it [the death of his cousin], in a sense, just as hard as I took losing my son, and I guess maybe it brought feelings that maybe I wasn't really recovered from other incidents in my life.
"Here, playing basketball, I use it as no excuse. A bad game is a bad game."
Taking steps forward
Odom said his wife, reality TV star Khloe Kardashian, who has become an instant fan favorite as she cheers the team at every home game from seats a few rows up at center court, helped convince him to play this season when he considered taking a hiatus well before the trade from the Lakers.
After Friday night's blowout win over the Milwaukee Bucks in which Odom had six points, all in the first half, Carlisle met Khloe for the first time outside the door to the court-level bunker suites. She told Carlisle that Odom is getting better. Carlisle told her to "Stay on his ass."
"Definitely I see a major progression in Lamar. He's been in the league 13 seasons, this is his passion and this is where his heart is and where his head is and it's hard because of what the quote-unquote public; not everybody knows about the events that happened this summer and that took a very traumatic toll on him mentally," Khloe said. "And then what I've heard people say, the quote-unquote, the divorce Lamar's had with the Lakers, it takes a minute, but Lamar, I know he loves his teammates, he loves his coaches; this is an amazing environment to be in.
"I know he'll be fine, it just takes a minute, but it's not so much of him being traded -- yeah, he loved being with the Lakers and he was there for seven years and he said it's like going to a new school; it's like getting to know your classmates again and a new teacher, that's kind of the analogy. So it will take time, but I don't think too long. Lamar has suffered a lot of losses, a lot of tragedy, and I think this summer having two very hard tragedies so fast, I think that would take a toll on anyone, but I don't think a lot of people know about that."
Odom said he is gradually regaining mental and physical stamina and that advice left on a voice message from former Lakers coach Phil Jackson has helped him find greater balance.
"He told me just to be strong and get myself together and get myself in that place mentally where I can use basketball as my sanctuary," Odom said. "He said relearn to do that through meditation and other forms to get to a place where you kind of leave everything else behind and focus on the now, the moment. And that's what I have to work on in order to put myself in a place where I can go out here and actually play the game like I used to play it."
Former Lakers assistant and current ESPN analyst Kurt Rambis used the same analogy as Khloe said Odom used, that he sees himself as the new kid in school. At each NBA stop -- four seasons with the Clippers, one in Miami, seven with the Lakers and now Dallas -- Odom has always been a player who thrives in situations of acceptance, and he produces best when provided detailed instructions of what is expected and he needs those details to be continually reinforced.
Rambis, who often worked after practice sessions with Odom, said he expects him to "snap out of it," as long as he's delivered clear-cut instructions pertaining to his role. Odom said Carlisle, who works one-on-one with him after shootarounds and put him through a conditioning regimen during the season's opening weeks, has done that, saying it's up to him to get it right and to "bounce back."
In the Mavs' locker room, teammates with varying levels of knowledge of Odom's past have been accepting and patient. Shawn Marion, who for years with the Phoenix Suns was division rivals with Odom and a 2004 teammate on the U.S. Olympic squad, is hosting an elegant dinner party at his Dallas mansion in a couple of weeks for the team as an official welcome to Lamar and Khloe.
"We've got a veteran team here. That's one thing about having a veteran team, we're going to make you feel like you're home," Marion said. "But it's still not the same as getting into a groove, catching the system and learning everything that we're doing and how we're doing it, so that's been a process. I've known him for a long time and there's definitely a lot of emotions tied into when he left L.A.
"It's a business, but there are emotions involved in there. We are people, don't get it twisted. I know it's a job and you've got to be ready for your job. At the same time we do have feelings and we do have emotions, so don't discredit that."
And so as Odom heads back to L.A. tonight for the first time, where emotions will run high as he hugs Kobe and laughs with Jack Nicholson, he continues to sort out his difficult past in order to move forward in this all-consuming present.
"Honestly, I'm trying to play basketball the right way and play hard for the team," Odom said. "I'm so past what numbers I've got to have or I don't have for me to play well. There's so many different things I can do and so many different ways I can affect the game on this team.
"Of course I know I can play better, but I will as I start to be a little bit more prepared and get into the shape I'm used to playing at and playing my style and my rhythm, playing my style of basketball."
Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.