Lamar Joseph Odom was born on November 6, 1979 in Jamaica, New York. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His mother, Kathy Mercer, was one tough woman. A corrections officer on Rikers Island, she raised Lamar almost completely on her own. His father, Joseph, was a disabled veteran who faded from his son’s life at an early age.
Like many kids who grow up in single-parent homes, Lamar turned to sports as an escape. In South Ozone Park in Queens where he and his mother lived, basketball ruled. A smooth lefthander with a great handle, Lamar spent most of his days at the courts in nearby Lincoln Park. There he learned many of the subtleties of the game. In Lamar’s neighborhood, a paralyzing crossover dribble followed by a silky pull-up jumper was the skill most coveted.
Lamar was incredibly close to Kathy. She wasn’t just his mother; she was also his friend. Kathy sat him down as a child and told him to ignore the negative influences in his life. That was easier said than done. The youngster’s fragile world began to splinter when Kathy was diagnosed with cancer. She died after his 12th birthday. Feeling scared and alone, Lamar found solace in basketball. The day of his mother’s funeral he shot baskets long into the night, with only the street lamps lighting the court.
With his mother gone, Lamar was placed in the care of his grandmother Mildred. Basketball became his life. His idol was Magic Johnson. Though Lamar was not tall like the Lakers star, he shared many other traits with him. Most notable was his ability to see the court and understand how to get the ball to teammates for easy buckets.
Lamar’s first taste of organized ball came with the St. Benedict Joseph CYO team from Richmond Hill. He traveled around the five boroughs, playing with and against the best players in New York. Rafer “Skip” Alston—who years later would be his teammate on the Miami Heat—was the reigning playground legend. Stephon Marbury was another kid making a name for himself. There was also a girl who was good enough to run with the boys, Chamique Holdsclaw.
As Lamar reached his teens, he was regarded as a good player, but hardly anything special. Standing an inch or two taller than six feet, he didn’t blow away anyone with his physical tools. Lamar was cerebral. He often beat opponents by out-thinking them.
Lamar’s stock rose dramatically after his freshman year at Christ the King. He showed enough promise his first year to catch the eye of head coach Bob Oliva. In New York’s ultra-competitive Catholic High School Athletic Association, the Royals perennially challenged for the league title and the city-wide Federation championship. Earning a spot on Oliva’s squad was an accomplishment in and of itself. But Lamar vaulted into superstar status over the summer of 1994 when he shot up seven inches. In the course of a few months, he went from a nice 6-2 point guard to a do-everything 6-9 stud.
Though his frame had yet to fill out fully, Lamar was impossible to guard as a sophomore. He retained all the skills he had developed as a guard, but now like his idol Magic, his height allowed him to do things no one else on the court could. Lamar was unstoppable during his second season at Christ the King, leading the Royals to the CHSAA crown before falling to Marbury and Lincoln High School in the Federation tournament. By then, however, Lamar was a household name, thanks to his record-tying 36 points in the CHSAA championship game.
With his sudden burst of fame, it didn’t take too long for Lamar’s life to spin out of control. Mildred could no longer watch over him by herself, so his aunt JaNean also lent a hand. She already cared for four children from another sister who had passed away. Keeping the impressionable teen away from people who might exploit him was a losing battle. Lamar quit one AAU team, the Riverside Church Hawks, in favor of a more influential one, Gary Charles’s Long Island Panthers. He did the summer hoops camp circuit and was befriended by reps from all the major sneaker companies, including Sonny Vacaro of adidas.
ON THE RISE
Lamar enjoyed another scintillating season during his junior year. The New York City and Queens Player of the Year, he averaged 17 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and four blocks. Undefeated heading into the CHSAA playoffs, Christ the King lost to Rice in the final, 64-63. Lamar had a chance to win it at the buzzer, but his turnaround five-footer rimmed out.
Still, able to play all five positions, Lamar was heralded as New York’s next great player. Not only had he grown stronger in the paint, he had also improved the range on his jumper and could consistently knock down the three. The list of schools recruiting him included Kentucky, UNLV, UConn, Michigan, Kansas and UCLA. There was also the thought of turning pro, joining fellow high schooler Tracy McGrady.
All too eager to listen to those who projected NBA stardom for him, Lamar completely disregarded his school work. When JaNean learned he was failing two classes, she was furious. But the damage was already done. His poor grades prevented him from taking the court his senior year, and also threatened his college eligibility. On top of that, he had yet to meet his entrance exam requirement. Lamar toyed with the idea of enrolling at Maine Central Institute, but decided against it. Then he transferred to Redemption Christian Academy in upstate New York. That went sour, so Lamar turned to Jerry DeGregorio, the coach at St. Thomas Aquinas in Connecticut.
The two had met over the summer at the ABCD Camp in New Jersey. DeGregorio had become a father figure to Lamar. He promised to help him restore his academic standing, and then delivered on it. Amid all the controversy, college coaches were still hot and heavy after Lamar, and NBA teams waited to hear whether he would go pro. After playing in the McDonald’s All-American Game and Magic’s Roundball Classic, he announced his plans to play at UNLV.
Lamar never appeared in a game for the Runnin’ Rebels. In July of 1997, Sports Illustrated broke a story that questioned the validity of his score on the ACT college entrance test. Based on his academic history, his 22 seemed disproportionately high. A month later, Lamar, already in Las Vegas, was arrested for soliciting a prostitute. UNLV released him from his letter of intent.
Embarrassed and confused, Lamar reassessed his options. The CBA proffered a league-record $100,000 contract that gave him the power to choose the team he would play for. Offers also came in from Europe, including $500,000 from a club in Greece. Lamar called DeGregorio, who had another suggestion. He put the 17-year-old in touch with Jim Harrick, the former UCLA coach who was now the head man at Rhode Island. Never one to shy away from a messed-up kid with superstar potential, Harrick convinced Lamar to take a chance on the Rams and the administration to do the same with him.
DeGregorio was added to the URI coaching staff, and Lamar became a non-matriculating student. Living in an apartment off campus, he spent the 1997-98 season trying to earn the 24 credits necessary to restore his athletic eligibility. He was doing fine until he disappeared for two weeks around Christmas. The pressure on him was as intense as ever. The local media criticized Rhode Island for its decision to bring Lamar on board. As the spring approached, he again considered the NBA draft. But DeGregorio was among those who explained the problems with this strategy. At this point, no one would use a first-round pick on him.
Lamar enrolled in summer school, and when the fall rolled around, URI agreed to admit him as a full-time student for the second semester, provided he maintained a 2.4 GPA. This also meant the NCAA would grant him eligibility to play hoops.
That was music to Harrick’s ears, who had lost his two best players, guards Tyson Wheeler and Cuttino Mobley, to graduation. Thanks to their talented backcourt, the Rams had advanced to the Great Eight the previous spring. Harrick still had ta good nucleus, particularly with Luther Clay, Antonio Reynolds-Dean and David Arigbabu in the frontcourt. But he needed a go-to guy who could orchestrate the offense. Lamar was a perfect fit.
Lamar made his college debut in November against TCU. He was spectacular. In URI’s 87-85 victory, he scored 19 points, added 14 rebounds and nine assists, and canned the game-winning basket with 5.4 seconds remaining. Afterwards, Horned Frogs coach Billy Tubbs couldn’t find enough adjectives to describe Lamar’s performance. Utah coach Rick Majerus felt the same way weeks later, as the Rams beat the Utes 70-63. Though Lamar was quiet in the first half and much of the second, he dominated in crunch time, finishing with 15 points.
Through nine games, Lamar led his team in scoring, rebounding and assists. He got better as the season progressed. He dumped a career-high 28 points on St. Joe’s and dished out 11 assists against George Washington. His versatility made him a handful for every opponent URI faced. Harrick often used Lamar at the point, but he was also a ferocious rebounder on the defensive end. Selected First Team All-Atlantic 10 and conference Rookie of the Year, Lamar ended the regular season with averages of 17.6 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.8 assists.
In the Atlantic 10 tournament, he sent the Rams onto March Madness with a dramatic three-pointer at the buzzer that delivered a 62-59 win over Temple. The euphoria continued into the NCAA Tournament, as the Rams battled NC-Charlotte in the first round. The two teams were tied after regulation, but the wheels came of in OT. Rhode Island couldn’t stop the 49ers, who won 81-70.
Though disappointed to lose to a lesser team, Lamar had plenty to be proud of. Unfortunately, he didn’t handle success particularly well. In April, he left school without saying a word to anyone. Weeks earlier, Harrick had resigned to fill the coaching vacancy at Georgia. Afraid Lamar would bolt for the NBA, URI administrators named him part of the search committee to find Harrick’s replacement. Not surprisingly, Lamar pushed for DeGregorio.
Meanwhile, Lamar thought about his NBA prospects. But he gave mixed signals to the teams interested in him. He hired Jeff Klein as his agent, which nullified all his remaining college eligibility. Then he blew off meetings with several clubs and didn’t attend the league’s combine showcase. Klein became so frustrated that he resigned. Lamar next approached URI about reinstating him. The school said no.
In June, Lamar announced his decision to go pro. The question was who would gamble on him. The Chicago Bulls, Vancouver Grizzlies, and Charlotte Hornets all avoided him with the first three picks. Up next were the hapless Los Angeles Clippers, not known as shrewd judges of talent. Throwing caution to the wind, vice president of basketball operations Elgin Baylor went with Lamar. He fit into the rookie salary structure with a contract worth $11.4 million over four years.
The rookie boarded a sinking ship with the Clippers. Coming off a disastrous season, they went 9-41 in the strike-shortened 1999 campaign. Baylor and head coach Chris Ford hoped that Lamar and second-year center Michael Olowakandi would sow the seeds of franchise rebirth. Maurice Taylor and Derek Anderson were expected to provide veteran leadership.
The Clippers opened the season against Seattle in their new home, the Staples Center. Thanks to Lamar, a crowd of nearly 18,000 showed up, hoping to see the next Magic Johnson. They weren’t disappointed. Lamar went for 30 points, 12 rebounds and three assists. Of course, in typical Clipper fashion, the team lost to the Sonics, 104-92.
Over the next few months Lamar tried to settle into life as a pro. He moved into a condo with his girlfriend, Lisa Morales, and their daughter, Destiny. Used to riding the subways of New York, Lamar’s biggest adjustment might have been getting to and from work. He had never bothered to get his driver’s license, so he hired a car service to shuttle him around.
On the court, Lamar was in the driver’s seat. The NBA.com Rookie of the Month in November, he posted 22 points, 11 rebounds and seven blocks against the Golden State Warriors just before the New Year. Lamar continued his fine play into January and was named to the Schick Rookie All-Star Game. He dazzled with 15 points, eight rebounds, and four assists in 28 minutes. Unlike most NBA newcomers, Lamar never seemed to hit the rookie wall. Though he missed a handful of games with a variety of injuries, he ended the campaign with impressive numbers, including 16.6 ppg, 7.8 rpg, and 4.2 apg.
The Clippers weren’t quite as fortunate. Ford was fired after the first of the year and replaced by interim coach Jim Todd. He was equally ineffective at the helm, and LA limped home at 15-67.
The Clippers revamped the the club from top to bottom for the 2000-01 campaign. Alvin Gentry was brought in as the coach, Taylor and Anderson were allowed to walk as free agents, and Darius Miles, Keyon Dooling and Quentin Richardson were all added via the draft. Lamar immediately became the team’s de facto leader.
In the preseason,
he bragged that the young Clippers had the talent to make the playoffs.
Lamar backed up his bravado with one great performance after another in
the season’s first two months. With LA holding its own, he was establishing
himself as one of the league’s special players. But in March Lamar
tested positive for marijuana use and was suspended for five games.
Lamar played well upon his return, including three triple doubles over a torrid nine-day stretch. The Clippers won 10 of the final 11 home games, finishing at 31-50, a drastic improvement over the previous year. Lamar increased his production in virtually every statistical category, including scoring, rebounding and passing. The effects of his drug suspension still lingered, however, as some wondered whether the former problem child was headed down the wrong road.
Those concerns were echoed again in December of 2001 when Lamar was suspended again for marijuana use, this time for eight games. He admitted to his transgression in a tearful press conference. His management team, led by Jeff Schwartz, braced for the worst from Lamar's endorsment companies.
The Clippers, meanwhile, were struggling without their top player. The club had engineered a great deal over the summer, trading 18-year-old Tyson Chandler to Chicago for Elton Brand. With Cory Maggette, Richardson and Miles all showing signs of maturing, Gentry felt he had an excellent nucleus. But without Lamar, LA lacked cohesion. They wound up missing the playoffs once again with a 39-43 record.
Much of the blame for LA’s poor season was placed on Lamar. Appearing in just 29 games, his scoring dropped to 13.1 ppg, and he was also less effective on the boards. He shot terribly when he came back to the club in December, and then sprained a ligament in his right wrist, which landed him on the injured list. Distraught, Lamar pulled a disappearing act in February. By then the Clippers were getting fed up. Again, DeGregorio was there to pick up the pieces. Now the club’s director of player development, he located Lamar and helped him get his head back on straight.
LA tried to retool for the 2002-03 campaign. Miles was unloaded, point guard Andre Miller joined the starting lineup, and Maryland star Chris Wilcox was added via the draft. It was a big season for Lamar, who was in the walk year of his contract. But he squandered his opportunity at big money. He entered training camp with a sprained right ankle, which set the tone for the rest of the way. Lamar started less than 50 games for the second straight year, and though his production increased, it was hardly at an All-Star level. When the Clippers finished at 27-55, they decided to cut the cord with Lamar.
MAKING HIS MARK
Lamar found a somewhat
unlikely home in Miami with Pat Riley and the Heat, signing a six-year,
$65-million deal. Riley was thrilled to welcome Lamar. The former director
of the Lakers’ Showtime attack, he believed the 6-10 forward would
fit in nicely with swingman Caron Butler, shooting guard Eddie Jones and
first-round pick Dwyane Wade. As far as Lamar’s off-court problems
were concerned, Riley felt he was ready to accept the responsibility of
being a leader and one of the league’s top talents.
The 2003-04 season got off to a rocky start for the Heat. Riley stepped down as head coach right before the campaign began and was replaced by Stan Van Gundy. Miami went down to seven straight losses before turning things around. The team embarked on a daunting uphill climb to make the playoffs.
The Heat won about half their games from Van Gundy’s start until early March, leaving them on the fring of the playoff chase. Miami then then got hot, taking 17 of their last 21 games to finish at 42-40, good for second place in the Atlantic Division. Jones scored consistently and played good defense, Wade quickly established himself as a rookie star, and Butler had a nice year. But it was Lamar who assumed the role of team catalyst during this magnificent run. He averaged almost a double-double (17.1 points and 9.7 rebounds) for the year and was essential in keeping everyone involved on offense. Lamar also impressed with his good work on the defensive end.
The Heat entered the playoffs confident, especially at home, where they hadn’t lost in more than a month. The New Orleans Hornets took them to the limit, finally falling in a sold-out Game 7 at American Airlines Arena. Lamar scored 16 in the finale and chipped in nine boards, but his biggest contribution may have been steamrolling Baron Davis early in the game. Though whistled for a charge, Lamar put the Hornets’ leader out of action, and Miami built a comfortable lead and held it the rest of the way. Lamar’s childhood friend Rafer Alston chipped in 11 from the Heat bench, and Butler played the game of his life in an 85-77 victory.
Next up were the Indiana Pacers, whose strategy was to do whatever it took to shut down Lamar. In the opening game, they threw waves of defenders at him, and it proved effective. Lamar missed eight of his first 10 shots and had to work his butt off on the other end guarding Jermaine O’Neal. By the time Lamar got hot and began pouring in points, it was too little, too late. Indiana won 94-81. The teams split the next four games, with Miami keeping its home win streak alive. But Indiana ended the Heat’s title hopes with a 73-70 triumph in Game 6.
Lamar, who had never been to the playoffs before, proved he could lead a team through two brutal series and erased many of the doubts about his commitment and focus. Lamar was now one of the NBA’s solid citizens. He was back on the map.
And then back in LA! The Lakers, unable to sign Shaquille O’Neal to a contract extension, dealt the big center to Miami in the off-season for Lamar, Butler, Brian Grant and a draft pick. Laker coach Rudy Tomjanovich actually got to see the new Lamar up close that summer after he and Dwyane Wade were named as replacements to Team USA for the Olympics. Even though the Americans suffered three embarrassing losses, Lamar was a consistently positive force on the squad.
The Lakers looked for more of the same from their new power forward. Lamar had been Plan A on every team he ever played for, but with Kobe Bryant wearing the same uniform, he would now be LA's second option. His role with was to support Bryant’s all-around game and supply veteran leadership for a club in transition. On paper, it was a terrific opportunity for Lamar to show NBA fans what kind of player he could be.
D-ing up against the league’s top power forwards, Lamar spent the year taking one for the team. He absorbed a lot of punishment and was often in foul trouble, but he held his own and did not complain. The trade-off for the mismatches Lamar often faced was that his man usually couldn’t guard him at the other end. But the Lakers rarely ran plays for him and Bryant exhibited little interest in getting him the ball. Lamar still got his points most nights, which was quite an accompliment considering that Butler wasn't eager to give up his shots, either.
The 2004-05 season was a wasted one in LA. The Lakers were horrible, finishing 34-48, which was three games behind the Clippers. Lamar’s campaign ended in March, after he tore the labrum in his left shoulder in a game against Indiana. He had surgery in April and was ready to go in 2005-06. That season was a far better one, both for Lamar and the Lakers. His play improved, and he became more consistent as the year wore on. He ended up logging a career-best 3,221 minutes.
The Lakers returned to the postseason with a 45–37 record, getting good years out of young guns Smush Parker and Kwame Brown. After opening up a two-game lead on the Suns in the opening round, LA collapsed and lost the series to Phoenix in seven games. This disappointment was followed by a far worse development when Lamar’s infant son, Jayden, died in his crib. The cause was SIDS, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
The 2006–07 campaign combined the worst of the previous two years, as Lamar was hurt much of the season, and the Lakers lost again in the first round of the playoffs to Phoenix. On the bright side, Lamar had his best scoring year in LA, averaging 15.9 points. He also pulled down 9.8 rebounds per game.
2007–08 looked like it might be another disappointing year for the Lakers, especially after center Andrew Bynum was lost for the year with a knee injury. But a slick pick-up of Pau Gasol transformed the club in the second half. Free from rebounding and inside scoring responsibilities, Lamar played well. He, Gasol and Bryant got the bulk of the team’s points as LA finished with 57 wins.
In the playoffs, the Lakers swept the Nuggets in the first round. Lamar registered a pair of double-doubles against Denver. Next up were the Jazz. With the series knotted at two games apiece, Lamar posted 22 points and 11 rebounds in a clutch 111–104 victory. The Lakers closed out Utah in Game 6 to advance to the Western Conference Finals. There they demolished the Spurs in five games. Lamar contributed a 20-point, 12-rebound performance in a Game 2 blowout that set the tone for the remainder of the series.
The Lakers lined up against the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. Among the many subplots was the challenge for Bryant to win a championship “without Shaq,” proving once and for all his enduring greatness. Of course, Kobe needed a little help from his friends, specifically Lamar, who would be responsible at least part of the time to contain Boston’s Paul Pierce.
Lamar’s play ran hot and cold during the series, which was a surprising struggle for LA. He led the team in scoring and rebounding in a Game 4 loss, and then scored 20 points and swatted four shots in a Game 5 victory. Despite Lamar’s third straight double-double, the Lakers fell in Game 6 to lose the series. Pierce, meanwhile, walked off with the MVP award.
The year wasn’t a total loss for Lamar. He had struck up a romance with Khloe Kardashian. He eventually married the reality TV star.
With Bynum back on the court, Phil Jackson opted to go with a Twin Towers approach in 2008–09, moving Lamar into a sixth man role. He adapted very well to it, often supplying clutch points and grabbing key rebounds. When Bynum went back on the injured list, Lamar became the team’s starting power forward and was a monster on the offensive boards. After Bynum returned to the lineup at season’s end, Lamar re-assumed his bench role. The Lakers had a brilliant year with 65 wins and were odds-on favorites to win the NBA championship.
The Lakers began their 2009 playoff run against the Jazz. Lamar saw plenty of action, and LA took the series in five games. He scored in double figures in each contest. Lamar got fewer minutes against the Rockets in the next round, as the Lakers had to slug out a seven-game victory. His best effort came in Game 3, when he had 16 points and 13 rebounds in a 108–94 win over Houston.
The Lakers had an easier go of it in the Western Conference Finals, defeating the Nuggets in six games. With the series knotted heading into Game 5, Lamar scored 19 points and pulled down 14 rebounds in a momentum-changing win for LA. He scored 20 points in Game 6, as the Lakers advanced to the NBA Finals for the second year in a row.
LA faced the surprising Orlando Magic, who had overcome the Celtics to reach the Finals. The Lakers knew they had the upper hand in terms of experience and explosive scoring. Jackson preached defense and rebounding, and Lamar listened. He was one of the stars of Game 1, playing great D and leading the team with 14 boards in a 100–75 wipeout. Game 2 also went LA’s way, this time in OT. Lamar played 45 minutes, blocked three shots and scored 19 points.
After Orlando won Game 3, the Lakers finished them off with two more wins. Lamar had 17 points in the finale, including a perfect 3-for-3 shooting performance from beyond the arc. Two of those buckets came on back-to-back possessions after the Magic had whittled LA’s lead down to five points in the third quarter. The Lakers never looked back, surging to a 99–86 victory.
With a championship ring on his finger and a summer of free agency ahead of him, Lamar could look forward to a major paycheck come the 2009–10 season. The Heat wanted him back in the worst way, with Dwyane Wade putting on his own personal fullcourt press. But the Lakers would not let Lamar go without a fight. In fact, they signed Ron Artest as a further incentive—not only was he another big mobile player, he was also a fellow New Yorker. That did the trick, and after some intense negotiation, Lamar agreed to again wear the purple and gold.
Lamar proved to be the perfect sixth man again in 2009–10. He averaged close to 10 rebounds a game and topped 20 points six times—twice off the bench and four times as a starter. He continued his solid play in playoff wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder and Jazz, and then absolutely sparkled in the Conference Finals against the Suns. In six games against Phoenix, Lamar reached double figures in points and rebounds five times, including four double-doubles.
Lamar saw fewer minutes against the Celtics in the NBA Finals, particularly in the opening games in Boston. The Lakers found themselves down a game heading back to LA. They survived Game 6 with help from Lamar, who had 10 rebounds, a block and two steals in an epic defensive effort. The Lakers won 89–67 to force Game 7.
In the deciding contest, Lamar helped pick up the slack as Bryant had a poor shooting night. He also defended Pierce beautifully and helped drive Boston to the point of exhaustion with his rebounding and end-to-end breaks. LA erased a 13-point deficit to win 83–79.
To say that Lamar’s talent transcends his statistics only scratches the surface of the type of player and person he is. Always upbeat, always ready with a joke, he has kept the Lakers loose—and competitive—since he came to town. One wonders what a team of five Lamars might accomplish in the NBA, but also whether a team could have survive with more than one. Although Lamar never lived up to his impossibly high advanced billing as an individual talent, in the end he accomplished the most important thing a pro player can—he was an integral part of a remarkable championship team.
LAMAR THE PLAYER
Since the day Lamar arrived in the NBA, the only things lacking in his game were consistency and maturity. It is no coincidence that he found them together. He went from space cadet to boy scout during the 2003-04 season in one of the most remarkable hoops transformations in recent memory. The Lakers bet that his second stint in Los Angeles would be more successful than his first, and they hit the NBA jackpot.
Lamar has the tools to play every position on the floor, not just on offense but on defense, too. He can handle the point or cover an opponent’s center and often will do both during the course of a game. Lamar’s court vision is exceptional, his first step and ballhandling skills make him a dangerous penetrator, and he runs the floor as well as anyone his size. Unlike most forwards who excel in the transition game, he is also an effective halfcourt player. Lamar has learned to move without the ball, and he has always been able to create his own shot, whether he’s facing up or has his back to the basket.
Lamar’s personal and professional life changed when he stopped running away from his problems. He has embraced the mantle of leadership and recognized that his body is a gift not to be squandered—and not a moment too soon. Rather than being remembered as a legendary flop, he will go down in basketball lore as his own unique kind of NBA legend.
© Copyright 2010 Black Book Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.