Back in Los Angeles As a Clipper Again, Lamar Odom Has Another Chance At Redemption

[h3]With Last Year’s Fiasco in Dallas Behind Him, The Versatile Talent Needs To Remind Everyone That He’s Much More Than Mere Tabloid Fodder[/h3]

It seems hard to fathom that a mere 18 months ago, Lamar Odom finished the 2011 season by playing in all 82 games for the Los Angeles Lakers while walking away with the league’s coveted Sixth Man Award.

After last year’s ruinous 50-game train wreck with the Dallas Mavericks, where the once feared, multitalented weapon put up numbers that Mike Sweetney, Charles Shackleford and Kwame Brown were snickering at, Odom finds himself at the precipice of either an improbable comeback, or on the last legs of his career.

If this is the closing act to his story as an athlete, I’m personally hurt that more people currently view him as tabloid fodder due to his marriage into the Kardashian circus. In actuality, they should be recognizing the unique and accomplished basketball player he’s been for over a decade.

I was always amused when some would take umbrage at my assertion that Odom, not long ago, was among the league’s best players. As an essential element in the Lakers’ back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010, I argued that his superior skills and overall brilliance were unfairly overshadowed by Phil Jackson, Kobe, Pau Gasol and the artist formerly known as Ron Artest’s therapist.

I found it humorous that many could not see the validity in my argument, the basis of which was simply that Lamar was the hoops equivalent of Denzel, Don Cheadle, Robert De Niro, Idris Elba, Christian Bale, Jeffrey Wright, Al Pacino, Jamie Foxx or Johnny Depp, well rounded artists who turn in stunning performances through the astonishing conversions that their roles require.

The thing that made Lamar so special, in my eyes, was the ease with which he excelled in so many disparate elements of the game. Other than LeBron, name another guy, today, with that type of size and versatility, someone whose game spits in the face of the limited skill levels that many of today’s players walk into the league with, guys who probably think that “drop-step, pivot, pump fake, head fake, up-and-under, backboard!” are the newest lyrics to the Cha-Cha Slide re-mix.

My love of Lamar’s game is due to his competence in so many facets, how quickly and easily he transforms, within the flow of each situation, into a threatening shape shifter as a rebounder, ball-handler, passer, and scorer, either with his back to the basket or squaring up, how his mind and body meld to adapt and perform so many functions on the court.

For years, the pundits have considered him an enigma, a player who never truly, according to their thought process, lived up to his considerable gifts. From my perspective, that’s a specious argument.

Instead of accepting and appreciating him, many have erroneously wasted precious time and energy telling others what he should be or what he should have accomplished.

They saw the mind-boggling athleticism for someone who stands 6-foot-10, the defensive prowess, the rebounding, the scoring, the ball handling, the floor generalship, the vision and lovely passing skills, both on the break and attacking rim in the half-court, and got seduced into greediness.

Maybe years down the road, when the filter of time will undeniably lead to a sincere appreciation of his gifts, people finally give him his props.

I don’t think many people truly understand how rare it is for a cat to battle Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan on the blocks one minute, and then facilitate the Lakers triangle offense the next. Maybe they’ll appreciate his cerebral approach, the serene confidence and extent to which he magnified and pulled greatness out of those around him on those championship teams a few short years ago.

Maybe one day, last year’s debacle with the Mavericks aside, the dummies will smarten up and finally comprehend the subtle brilliance of Lamar Odom’s skills.

Wise folks will tell you that the destination cannot fully be appreciated without the experience of the journey. And Lamar Odom’s journey is quite a story.

His father was not around, a victim of a heroin addiction within the larger drug epidemic that devastated the South Side neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens in the 1980’s.

Always tall for his age, Lamar became mesmerized by the point guard-play of Magic Johnson during the height of the Lakers’ Showtime extravaganza. He furthered that interest on the Queens playgrounds before suiting up for a local CYO squad, where he began stockpiling the weapons in his arsenal, spending countless hours perfecting the silky ball-handling skills, devastating crossover moves and smooth, mid-range pull-up jump shots.

When he was twelve years old, his mother, Cathy Mercer, a corrections officer at Rikers Island, died of colon cancer. To cope with his profound loss, Odom mourned on the Lincoln Park basketball courts, lofting jumpers into the city sky until the wee hours of the morning. He was raised thereafter by his grandmother, Mildred Mercer.

Lamar was tutored by the point guard Svengali of the city, Vincent Smith, the older brother of University of North Carolina legend, world champion floor general with the Houston Rockets, and TNT’s current brilliant and hilarious analyst, Kenny Smith.

In addition to training his little brother, Vince also mentored Kenny Anderson and a host of other elite city prospects in the art of playing the most difficult position in basketball.

As a 6-foot-2 high school freshman, Lamar ran the point for Christ the King High School, coming in as a substitute off the bench. But after a ridiculous growth spurt over the summer, Odom became a household name on the national hoops circuit. As a 6-foot-9 sophomore, he scored 36 points in the CHSAA championship game and solidified his status as one of the country’s premier talents.

His AAU teams, some of which included Elton Brand and Ron Artest, are still talked about with a sense of awe on the summer circuit. And his teammates loved playing with him because, being a disciple of Magic, his preference was to share ball, not dominate it.

“When we had college scouts come watch us, he wouldn’t shoot,” his former high school teammate Joseph Arbitello told Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins. “He wanted to make everybody else look good.”

“Lamar is not the kind of guy who will ever say, ‘F— this, give me the ball,’” Gary Charles, Odom’s former AAU coach with the Long Island Panthers, told Jenkins. “He could not score a point and be happy as heck.”

“[Lamar] wants to throw you an alley-oop and give you a pound on the way back down”, his personal trainer Robbie Davis told Jenkins.

But when the dark side of the game visited, Odom was not fully prepared. With cash-flush street runners fronting for agents, a few sleazy college recruiters promising the same dreams that some dude named Lil’ Fillmore Slim is now mesmerizing a voluptuous bus station runaway with, and with the loud whispers, from folks who had their own agendas, that he could cash in his own personal lottery ticket by jumping straight to the NBA, Lamar’s head swam like most other teenagers’ would have.

Coming off of a stellar junior season at Christ the King, he found himself ineligible to compete as a senior because of his academic disregard. He bounced on to Redemption Christian Academy in upstate New York briefly, before playing his final season at a prep school, St. Thomas Aquinas in Connecticut, where he was eventually named Parade Magazine’s National Player of the Year and a prestigious McDonald’s All-American.

Odom at URI.

He took his game out to Las Vegas, accepting UNLV’s scholarship offer, over other schools like Kentucky, UCONN, Michigan, Kansas and UCLA. But before he appeared in a Runnin’ Rebels uniform, his standardized test score was called into question. With NCAA investigators hot on his trail, amidst other allegations that he’d pocketed some cash from an overzealous booster, the school withdrew its scholarship offer.

People started calling him “Little Lloyd”, referring to the former New York City legend who became the poster child for opportunity squandered and wasted potential, the troubled Lloyd Daniels aka Swee’ Pea. Lloyd, if you’re unfamiliar, was a spectacularly gifted 6-foot-7 talent with Hall of Fame potential who nearly drowned in an abyss of self-destruction. Daniels was dismissed from UNLV in 1987, prior to ever playing a college game, after a being arrested in a crack house. In 1989, he survived being shot three teams in the chest, after a drug deal gone sour.

After sitting out for one year while considering some sizable offers from European pro teams, Odom wound up at the University of Rhode Island. He only played one year of college ball, but anyone who saw him play in the NCAA quickly realized that they were watching the equivalent of Albert Einstein in an eighth grade geometry class.

In Rhode Island’s 87-85 victory against TCU in the season’s first game, Lamar scored 19 points, snagged 14 rebounds and dished out nine assists. He hit the game-winning bucket with 5.4 seconds remaining and went on to average 18 points, nine rebounds and four assists for the season. And yet, his impact went beyond those stellar numbers.

Playing with the flu in the Atlantic 10 tournament, with the Rams on the March Madness bubble, he dismissed LaSalle with a nonchalant 21 points and 10 rebounds, and then dispatched George Washington with a slick 17 point, 11 rebound gem. Against Temple in the title game, he showed his flair for the dramatic by splashing the game-winning 25-footer at the buzzer, punching Rhode Island’s ticket to the Big Dance.

After being selected as the fourth overall pick in the 1999 draft by the Los Angeles Clippers, behind his friend and former AAU teammate Elton Brand, Steve Francis and Baron Davis, Odom came out with all guns blazing like Tom Hanks in the classic film Road to Perdition.

In his first NBA game, he notched 30 points and 12 rebounds against Seattle. He went on to average 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists for the season. By his second year, playing with other emerging talents like Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson, the Clippers looked to be an exciting team on the rise.

In 2001, he led the team to 10 wins in its final 11 home games, tossing up three triple-doubles during that incredible stretch. But he continued to bump his head off the court, enduring some embarrassing marijuana suspensions.

When the Miami Heat’s legendary coach and General Manager Pat Riley offered him a fresh start, Odom responded with some fantastic play, leading an unseasoned Heat team to the playoffs in 2003-2004.

Do you remember the 17 points and 10 rebounds he averaged while establishing himself as the most feared weapon on a team that included Eddie Jones, his childhood buddy from Queens, Rafer “Skip To My Lou” Alston, Caron Butler and an unpolished rookie out of Marquette University named Dwayne Wade?

That season in Miami solidified his commitment to being a pro and having the focus and determination to not become “Little Lloyd”, but rather one of the most valued, important pieces to a team’s championship puzzle. When Shaq was traded to Miami, Odom was one of the assets that the Lakers demanded in return.

People easily succumb to Romnesia and forget that he initially walked into a bare cupboard as a new member of the Lakers. He was one of the essential building blocks of their later back-to-back championships.

There was no Shaq, and Phil Jackson was a year away from assuming his bench duties in Los Angeles. Other than Kobe and Caron Butler, the Lakers were populated with underwhelming talents like Stanislav Medvedenko, Jumaine Joines and Tierre Brown.

And now, look at where he stands today, through the pitfalls of his young adulthood, which was laid bare for the world to ridicule, the death of his beloved child due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in 2006, the recent murder of his cousin and the idiotic rhetoric of those who called him a failure.

Odom back in LA.

Last year was not his finest hour, but I’m hoping that Lamar can re-establish himself this year, playing for the team that originally drafted him. He has a golden opportunity, given that his versatility will be called upon to help propel Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to heights the franchise has never known.

With the departures of Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin, and the team’s yawning additions of Ronnie Turiaf and Ryan Hollins, Lamar’s rebounding and ability to generate his own offense should benefit the team when he comes in off the bench. And playing with a talented backcourt and wing roster with Paul, Chauncey Billups, Grant Hill, Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford and Willie Green, I’m sure that Lamar can add much more to the team construct than a stat sheet can truly quantify.

I’m hoping that as the season progresses, he finds himself in shape and focused on recapturing the essence of who he truly is as a player.

For all of those screaming about the Dallas fiasco and the reality shows with Khloe, speaking about my man in pejorative terms while using disparaging innuendo, just review his resume, see what he’s accomplished and appreciate how far he’s come.

He may not have achieved the status of a Magic, Larry Bird or Jordan, as some demanded, but when it’s all said and done, history will absolve him as one of the best, most versatile team champions to ever play.

Give him his props!!! And if you really want to do some research, review the dynamics of the Lakers recent championships, and then ask yourself, not what Kobe, Pau or Ron Artest’s therapist did for Lamar Odom. The more intelligent question would be – What did Lamar Odom do for them?