LOS ANGELES -- After burying his child in New York on July 5, Lakers forward Lamar Odom returned to L.A. for an under-the-radar show of support for Baron Davis and Paul Pierce's charity event, A Midsummer Night's Dream, at Hollywood's House of Blues.
Speaking publicly for the first time following the tragic death of his infant son Jayden -- who suffocated while sleeping in his crib on June 29 -- the 26-year-old native of the Jamaica neighborhood in Queens says he's touched by the show of support given by his friends and teammates during his time of need.
"This has been the hardest time of my life," Odom says. "It's hard for a parent to bury a child, particularly one so young. My son was only 7 months old and so full of energy, so bright.
"But there are things that you go through in life that make you better. I'm definitely more mature than yesterday."
While Odom is mustering the strength to march on, he admits that the events of the last month have him on his heels, forcing him to make difficult choices. "I had to give up my spot on the Olympic team and that was a hard decision to make," Odom said, referring to August's World Championships in Japan. "I hope they understand and have me back because I'd love to continue to play for my country and with that great group of guys."
Rather than spend the summer abroad, Odom chose to stay close to his family and lay low, but if his appearance Saturday night at the charity event was any indication, the latter might be difficult.
As he stands outside the Hollywood club, his lanky shadow cutting a swath through a moonlit alley, word of Odom's arrival has spread. He's soon met by friends and graciously accepts heartfelt hugs and words of encouragement from the likes of Davis, Sam Cassell and Darius Miles, among others.
At the night's charity, attendees aren't alone in propping up the grieving star. In accordance with the family's wishes, well-wishers including Davis, Shaquille O'Neal, the Lakers' organization and the NBA have made generous donations in Jayden's name to Cathy's Kids, Odom's charity. Hundreds of fans have offered their thoughts and prayers on the L.A. Times' Lakers blog.
It appears this type of support will help Odom through a difficult summer, and seems to have strengthened his resolve and reaffirmed his priorities. Odom's actions indicate that friends and family will always come first.
This might strongly suggest why Odom felt it was important to keep his promise to Davis and Pierce, and to a childhood friend, rapper Ali Vegas -- the man Odom affectionately refers to as his cousin -- in what is possibly the most important night of the young artist's career. Just minutes before, Vegas performed before a bevy of NBA All-Stars as the opening act for rap legend Snoop Dogg.
"Vegas and I grew up in the same neighborhood," Odom says of the rapper, who is set to release his first album in October through Odom's Rich Soil Entertainment. "We're like family, and nothing is more important to me than that. We trust each other, I believe in him, and I'm here to support him."
Jayden, which is a Hebrew name, was born on Dec. 15, 2005, and in his honor, Vegas says he'd like to change the title of the soon-to-be released album to "Hebrew 12:15."
"It's a small gesture," Vegas says. "But Lamar knows I'm here for him, as he's here for me, and there's nothing his friends and family won't do for him."
Odom, who has two older children, a boy and a girl, says helping to launch Vegas' career has proven to be an effective outlet to channel his energy. Recently, he may have found another.
In a new project that seems inspired in part by his strengthened spirituality, the budding entrepreneur has commissioned several artists to create new and innovative depictions of Jesus to be used in a T-shirt line he plans to launch in the fall.
"We've all seen so many pictures of Jesus but none of them fit the description that's in the Bible," Odom says. "I told [the artists] to read the Bible carefully and come up with something. It's important that we let people know how our man really looked. I'm really focused on this right now."
Still, come October, Odom says he'll be more than ready to serve with the purple and gold. Despite the trying summer, Odom -- who came to the Lakers in July 2004 in a trade that sent O'Neal to the Miami Heat -- admits his thoughts have never turned away from the Lakers. While Lakers fans continue to clamor for a big-ticket acquisition -- preferably The Big Ticket himself, Minnesota's Kevin Garnett -- Odom doesn't think the team needs a savior. It just needs time.
"We're not really missing any pieces," Odom says. "We just need a little more time to grow together. We signed Vladimir [Radmanovic], and we have the greatest player in the game. But we're a young squad. [Kwame Brown is] coming along, and the other young guys are only getting better.
"We'll be playing for a championship. We're not that far. We were up 3-1 and if we would have beat Phoenix, we'd have been favored in the next series."
But with no big-ticket acquisition on the way and little cap space, the pressure remains on the Lakers' returning stars -- Odom and Kobe Bryant -- to lead the team back to prominence, even if it invites more comparisons to Phil Jackson's previous guard/forward tandem, an expectation that Odom dismisses.
"I hear that comparison a lot," Odom admits. "If you consider Kobe 'Jordan' then, yeah, you could call me 'Scottie Pippen.' I've got no problem with that. Of course, we watched those guys and maybe modeled our games after them a little. But I've developed my own style and I'm my own person.
"I'm Lamar Odom first."
For his friends, fans, and all those who grieve with Odom in this difficult time, that is more than enough.
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles and writes the Media Blitz column for ESPN The Magazine.