It has been eight long months since the Lakers last saw the Dallas Mavericks. The World Champion Dallas Mavericks. Most basketball fans know how that went. Every Lakers fan knows how that went. An ugly four-game sweep that brought Phil Jackson’s last stand to its end. Jackson retired, a lot of people were fired and Mike Brown was hired. The last time Lamar Odom wore a Lakers uniform he was ejected for a vicious hit on Dirk Nowitzki. Times have changed.
Lamar Odom was Sixth Man of the Year last season, the heart and soul of the Lakers. The off-season was long—an acrimonious lockout was broken only when the players filed suit against the league in federal court. Hours before training camp was set to begin, Odom was offered as a key piece in the Chris Paul trade with the New Orleans Hornets. It was the deal that never was—torpedoed at the final moment by Commissioner Stern.
Odom was shell shocked and did what scorned lovers do. He demanded a divorce. The Lakers shipped him off to Dallas for a trade exception that they haven’t yet, and may never, use.
One of the best books on basketball that I have read is Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed, and the Corruption of America’s Youth. Written by Dan Wetzel & Don Yaeger, it is the story of AAU and NCAA machinery, about the sneaker wars and broken promises. The chapter about Lamar Odom is unforgettable. From playground days in Queens to a recruitment scandal that got him booted from UNLV. In his own words, a life lesson about having “too much, too soon.”
To say Odom has been touched by tragedy is to say just a little. His father was a heroin addict whom Lamar rarely saw growing up. His mother Cathy died of colon cancer when he was 12. He went to live with his grandmother, Mildred Mercer, whom he adored. She passed away eight years ago. In 2006, Odom’s infant son Jayden died in his crib from SIDS. This past summer a favorite cousin was murdered. This past summer, a car that Lamar and wife Khloe were passengers in, struck and killed a 15 year-old boy.
Christmas day could have been a basketball sanctuary. But instead, Odom found himself adrift. He hasn’t yet found his way with the Mavericks, telling SI’s Chris Mannix, “I’m not prepared I guess, to play. I don’t know if there’s anything else to say.”
I remember Lamar as a rookie with the Los Angeles Clippers, romping coast-to-coast, silky-smooth and smiling. It was a fun squad to watch and like most Clipper lineups, it didn’t last. He was used for one season in Miami as a straight-up power forward and then dealt to the Lakers during the first Phil Jackson exodus. We debated it endlessly in threads, Jackson returned and tinkered and prodded, and eventually just let Odom do his thing. He became a leader, was beloved by his teammates. He led each pregame huddle, words said and felt in a circle.
Trade talk comes from the media and agents and executives and fans. Players get used to it, they deflect through mechanisms, they chalk it up to business. Each summer Odom’s name came up and each time he laughed it off. He said it was good to be wanted. He said, “We’re all rock stars in L.A.” But it’s like the little boy who cried wolf. The rumors never materialized and he took less money to come back to a team he loved. He got married and ignored those who said it wouldn’t work. He put down roots and made plans. He decided there wasn't any wolf after all.
The Lakers lost the other night to their cross-hallway rivals, the eventual winners of the CP3 sweepstakes. It was an ugly loss but no more ugly than most of their recent wins. The Lakers may no longer be a pretty team to watch but they’re effective enough to be in contention in the west. Kobe Bryant’s play this season has been nothing short of stunning—he adjusted to a torn wrist by becoming the league’s scoring leader. Odom’s replacement is an amalgam of big white guys who run real hard for big white guys.
Thomas Wolfe famously wrote, ‘you can’t go home again,’ meaning you can return to a building or a place but not to a place in time. It is never quite as we remember, and we ourselves are not the same. It has also been interpreted as meaning that you can’t go home without being deemed a failure.