Lamar Odom was their leader. He pointed the way, setting a tone for a group of Lakers reserves that helped win two straight NBA titles. By embracing his role coming off the bench, he showed teammates like Jordan Farmar, Josh Powell and Shannon Brown what it meant to be part of a championship team.
Now, nearly five seasons removed from the first of the Lakers' back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010, those who followed the lefty with the easy smile and smooth game hope he can find his way out of some dark days.
"It sucks to hear," Farmar said in a phone interview this week when asked about the string of misfortunes following Odom these days, from alleged drug use to an arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence.
"It's unfortunate. A couple of us have reached out to him and haven't heard back. That's just a sign of him going through some tough times."
Tough times are nothing new for Odom.
As Lee Jenkins wrote poignantly in a 2009 Sports Illustrated profile:
"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 1/2-month-old son, Jayden, then getting robbed at gunpoint."
And in the summer of 2011, Odom experienced more tragedy when, while home in New York City for a cousin's funeral, the driver of the car service Odom was a passenger in struck a motorcyclist, who in turn ended up colliding with and killing a 15-year-old boy.
Later that year, Odom was traded from the Lakers to the Dallas Mavericks at the end of the NBA lockout, a move he was very unhappy about. And in Dallas, and last season with the Clippers, he was a shell of the player who had won the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year as a Laker in 2010-11.
Odom is a 14-year veteran who turns 34 in November. Athletes break down. Maybe he had peaked. Maybe he got everything out of himself that he possibly could have expected with those two rings, a Sixth Man award and a FIBA gold medal over the course of 22 months from June 2009 to April 2011. But his former bench mates see something more emotional than physical happening with him now. And they feel for him.
"It's so crazy," Powell said. "You look at all of the stuff he's been through, that's just some of the stuff that we know from the years that he's been in the league, not to mention the stuff he's been through in life, period. A lot of times people handle those things differently. Sometimes that weight can get too heavy on a person's shoulders. Granted, you don't want to see people handle it in the way that they handle it, but sometimes people just don't have another way to go.
"It's just really sad, man. You just want to wish the best for him. You want for the people that are part of his circle, you would hope that they are doing any and everything to try to be supportive and try to help him get back to being that old Lamar that everybody is used to seeing."
That old Lamar, with a playful manner and rare skill set (Lakers PR director John Black used to call him "the human Swiss Army knife"), was an ideal counterpoint to the fiery leadership of Kobe Bryant. "It was kind of like good cop, bad cop with him and Kobe," Farmar said. "Kobe was the serious, determined one, and Lamar was just as talented and able to help us on that level but also could keep everybody's spirits high over a long, tough season." But his teammates wonder now whether perhaps lifting others' spirits sometimes was a cover for how Odom really felt inside.
"He's an emotional guy who wears his emotions on his sleeves," Brown said. "He's one of those guys who always tries to stay upbeat with an uplifting spirit. You ain't really going to see him down too much. I think sometimes that can wear on a person if they don't show it.
"I think he's the type of person where when he's out in public, when he's hanging out with his friends and trying to have a good time, that's exactly what he does, but sometimes when people get by themselves and they get alone, that's when it weighs on them the most because their mind isn't occupied on other things, it's strictly occupied on what's hurting them. So he's one of those guys. He didn't really talk much about it, and if he did, it was very, very, very brief."
Powell remembers one of those moments with Odom when the veil was lifted and he understood how much pain Odom carried around.
"He opened up," Powell said. "I remember me and him had a conversation one time, I think we were lifting weights. He was saying how he lost his son, and I shared that pain with him because I lost a child too, a long, long time ago when I first got out of school. I lost a child too. I had a little boy who died two days after birth. We just shared it.
"I was talking to him about how I tried to deal with it and use it in a positive [way]. Motivate myself to try to do more, be a better person. Even now, with the kids that I have now, how I use that in a way to motivate myself in a way to be a good parent to them. We just shared those things, and I guess that was one of our moments that we had where he kind of opened up. Every other time it was just about jokes and keeping it light and stuff like that. That was one of the real times that I got a chance to really see and get to know the person that he is."
In covering the Lakers the last few years, I too have come to know Odom as someone who feels things deeply.
There was the time late one day when I was writing in the Lakers' practice facility (most of the media had already cleared out), and Odom came into the media work area to watch a bit of the Yankees game on TV as he got a haircut from his barber, who often would meet him at the facility. We chatted about sports, and our conversation led to the AAU team he sponsors and the state of college basketball. He was invested in helping kids succeed in navigating the recruiting system. "I was bought and sold three times by the time I was 17," Odom told me that day.
There was the time I spoke to him on the phone late in September 2011, after he had been involved in the accident in New York. He told me that he had such a hard time finding energy for the game at the time that he hoped the NBA lockout would drag into the new year, because if he had to report to camp, he "probably would be disconnected from it."
Then there was the time when my younger brother, Brian, died tragically during the 2010-11 season. It was suicide. It was devastating. I took myself off the Lakers beat and was back with my family in Philadelphia for several weeks. Eventually, I returned to cover a Lakers game against the Charlotte Bobcats, because it was all I knew to do. But how was I going to go back to covering basketball as if it mattered? What was I doing back in L.A.? Odom approached me in the locker room before the game, put his arm on my shoulder and looked me in the eye and said, "Are you OK, bro? We missed you."
I'll never forget it.
And it's those reach-outs and connections that Odom established with so many teammates that have his former Lakers family hoping he finds a way home now.
"As a teammate, as a friend, whatever the case is, he's always been great to me," Brown said. "He's one of those guys who want to see other guys succeed, and he'll do whatever it takes to help them, whether it's giving them some words of encouragement or passing them the ball if they're open. Little stuff like that, it makes a huge difference."
"He just has a great spirit and energy and vibe about himself," Powell said. "It's attractive, it's addictive. People want to be around him and be in his space."
I asked Farmar what his message to Odom would be if he had one thing to say to him.
"I'm here for him," Farmar said. "We're all here for him, really. We know what kind of guy he really is. Everybody goes through tough times in life, and if he needs anybody, he can always reach out to us."
That goes for me, too. Lamar, are you OK, bro? We miss you.