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We don't really know Lamar Odom's pain

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Shelburne: Odom making significant improvements (1:28)

Ramona Shelburne reports from Las Vegas on the status of Lamar Odom, who a source says is conscious and breathing on his own, and has even spoken a few words. (1:28)

If all you know about Lamar Odom's life is that he played with Kobe and married Khloe, you don't really know him.

If all you know about Lamar Odom's troubles are cocaine, cognac and a Nevada cathouse via TMZ, you don't know his troubles really began years ago.

"That wasn't who he was, that whole reality world out there," says his old friend Anthony "Mac" McNair.

Mac knows Lamar, long before he emerged from a coma in a Las Vegas hospital bed Friday, hooked to intravenous tubes after being found unconscious Tuesday at a Nevada brothel.

Mac knows all of Odom's supposedly milestone achievements between adolescence and age 35 -- millionaire status, two NBA championships with the Lakers, Sixth Man of the Year award, the air-kiss nothingness of reality TV -- only masked the pain.

The pain of losing your mother at 12 to colon cancer, the pain of losing a 6-month-old son to SIDS in 2006, the pain of drugs claiming your best friend a year ago -- the pain of knowing the same demons that made your father stab heroin-filled needles into his arms might also be in your genes.

Lamar Odom never wanted to keep up with the Kardashians as much as he just wanted to get away from himself.

He medicated with drugs. And women. And fame. He camouflaged the scars with an I-got-this smile, big, kind eyes -- so disarming, making sure no one on the outside really knew the hurt inside.

"That wasn't the Lamar you know and I know," says McNair. "He was outgoing, funny. Biggest heart you could imagine."

For seven years in Los Angeles, Mac was Odom's cook, personal driver, wake-up call. Like many trusted friends of big-time athletes from the neighborhood, Mac was doer of all things that needed to be done for an NBA millionaire who seemed to have everything.

And nothing.

Mac has already been told: "If you were there, that wouldn't have happened to Lamar." But he knows better. Mac was there in 2013 when Lamar began "roaming around" -- the three days he went missing, followed by a DUI arrest. Mac first helped the late Anthony Mason get things done 20 years ago while Mason played with the Knicks, then worked for Allan Houston and Glen Rice. Mac didn't tell any of the players what they wanted to hear; he wasn't an enabler. Mac always told them what they needed to hear.

Like the time Lamar got up one morning, realized the Lakers didn't have practice and took Mac to the Mercedes-Benz dealership in Southgate, where he bought two new S-class rides, a gray coupe and a white sedan.

"I asked him why are you buying two? You don't need them both. He said, 'I have nothing I own in my name. So these are mine. I deserve it. I put in hard-earned years.' Took out his black card and bought 'em."

Mac baked chicken and fish for Lamar. Made mac and cheese for him. Yams. "He mostly ate healthy except for candy -- he loved his candy," he says.

Beyond NBA players, Mac had also worked for Master P and Russell Simmons. He never knew anyone more gracious with his time than Lamar, which Mac said was part of the problem. "I never heard him say no. Never got upset about anything. Non-confrontational."

Do you think Lamar took care of others better than himself? "That's a true statement right there," Mac says. Look, Lamar Odom isn't a victim as much as he is a volunteer. Whatever addictions he battles, whatever he uses to fill the hollowness, these were his choices, his path.

But he has had help on the way down.

Reality television is one of modern society's greatest oxymorons. Lamar didn't belong in that artificially sweetened world. He tried to play it off as natural, but anyone who ever saw an episode of "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" realized he was doing it for a woman he loved and her fame-addicted family.

Which is why this tweet on Thursday makes the skin crawl: " 'KUWTK' is NOT filming at the hospital Lamar Odom is being treated at." This is where we are: An exploitive, cable bottom-feeder, celebrated for keeping nothing familial sacred, was inexplicably being congratulated for its rare stab at human decency.

The brothel smells of complicity, too. The owner says Lamar paid $75,000 for the company of two women for a three-day stay. Lamar reportedly took 10 herbal male-performance-enhancing supplements, which while improving a man's staying power also increases a Love Ranch prostitute's earning power.

Leaving Las Vegas, falling off the map, always makes for a more bustling American economy than finding your authentic self. Still, even at 35, Lamar Odom has such a childlike innocence to him, as if he could be talked into most anything by anyone.

Mac last spoke to Lamar more than a year ago, driving him to Phil Jackson's office as he tried to make a comeback with the Knicks. Everything seemed good again.

Then Lamar went silent. No calls. No texts. Nothing.

Off the deep end. Again.

"If the guy didn't want help, no one was going to help him," Mac says. "He had tons of offers from different teams. Chauncey Billups was trying to reach out to him. He didn't even return his phone calls.

"I'd like to think I could have done something, but I don't need that guilt. At some point, Lamar had to take care of himself. It's just so damn sad that . . . "

Mac's voice trails off.

Before Lamar woke from his coma, the mourning had prematurely begun. At Chuck Taylor's barbershop in Westchester, California, where Lamar got his hair trimmed for eight years, the master barber says it's all anyone has spoken about.

"Of all the athletes I've had in here -- and I've had them all -- none brought the rookies by to be taken care of," Chuck says. "Every year he was with the Lakers, Lamar brought all the young guys by and took care of their tabs. He was just a . . . I mean, he is just a wonderful human being that people just love being around."

Everyone who knows Lamar has a similar version of the same story today. He promised to be somewhere. He never showed or called. He just . . . checked out.

They say that between the Lakers trading him and the reality-show spinoff that chronicled Khloe and Lamar's breakup, Lamar never truly climbed out of the hole. The almost simultaneous end of his marriage and his NBA career sent him spiraling.

Someone from every piece of his life is blaming another faction for not helping him more today, for not seeing how a big, sweet kid from Christ the King High School in Queens -- who at 6-foot-11, with a Magic-like handle, was considered a New York schoolboy legend -- could descend into such an emotionally vacant place.

But what if it's not the fault of the hangers-on, the warped Kardashian fame culture or even a vice-filled brothel in the desert? What if, somewhere in the neuro cortex of a man's brain, he is constantly told his life is worse off than it really is?

Lamar Odom's eyes are open now. Here's hoping he can regain all his senses and cognitive abilities, see all the people he touched, see the people who want to genuinely know him. So that he never goes that far again to escape his pain.