By Mike Piellucci
I was mildly terrified the first time I met Lamar Odom.
It was the situation that scared me, not the man. It was December, 2011, and I had just been assigned my first real feature story, a profile of Odom following his trade from the Lakers to the Mavericks. The assignment was simple enough -- unearth a few nuggets about the trade, learn about his adjustment to the city, find out how he'd fit in among the then-defending champions, that sort of thing -- but quickly grew larger. The bulk of our conversations came as he slogged through his first few games in Dallas, unknowingly starting the nightmare season that eventually would get him run out of town. I found him to be kind, accommodating, introspective and insightful.
This past spring, I attempted to do a follow-up on Odom, by then back in Los Angeles with the Clippers. A tentative meeting was scheduled by Clippers media relations, but Odom killed it at the last minute, without explanation. I was told later that the surprise wasn't that it fell through, but that it had gotten that far to begin with. Once regarded as an open book, Odom now had taken to stonewalling anything beyond postgame banter. When I corralled him after a game, at the team's suggestion, he was very different from the player I'd met the year before. He was aloof and distracted, mumbling, avoiding eye contact. I'm not sure he remembered me. There was nothing cold about it, none of the disdain that usually accompanies that sort of rebuff; there wasn't much of anything, really. He was vacant, a husk.
Neither of those anecdotes is especially groundbreaking. They are arbitrary endpoints on Lamar Odom's unexplained decline, a riddle that nobody has been able to solve in spite of much trying. So when salacious details trickled out last week -- about his allegedly going missing, then getting into a car accident a few days before being arrested for driving under the influence, all the while supposedly addicted to cocaine, or Oxycontin, or crack, or some or all of these -- many people went beyond absorbing that information for what it was -- namely, that Odom has a serious problem of some kind. Instead, many repurposed last week's reports as a means of connecting the dots between the person I interviewed in Dallas and the empty shell I encountered in L.A.
The particulars, nebulous as they are, shouldn't matter here. What ought to matter is that a human being who was slowly smoldering has now ignited in full public view. We now play a distorted game of Clue, competing to decipher how Odom killed his career, with what substances, in which cities. None of this is rooted in the public interest, much less Odom's interest, of course.
Granted, Odom is a public figure, and he decided long ago to sell his privacy for the E! Network's royalties checks. But the grisly details serve no one, and the people behind TMZ, who broke the story, know it. The story is packaged under the guise of trying to find him help, complete with embedded tweets from the latest Khloe Kardashian missive and the stratagems of the Kardashian brood to help Odom get clean. Yet listen closely, and there is no call to action. Nobody actually wants to help, because that would mean the end of the story, withering a valuable revenue stream.
Accordingly, provided the reports of his drug use are true, there has been no attempt to delve into the root causes of the addiction, or any other factors that may have contributed to the deterioration of his game. Odom has volunteered many revelations in the last two years that would be difficult to categorize as typical human experiences. For instance, sobbing face down on his couch on national television, after learning about the botched Chris Paul trade involving him. Or burying a close relative and being a passenger in a car wreck that killed a 15-year-old, on consecutive days.
Then there's the chilling interview he gave the LA Times' Broderick Turner, in which he admitted to suppressing the grief over the death of his infant son Jayden for well over a year, and that in the wake of his relative's death, he contemplated seeing a psychologist because he thought he was "breaking down mentally." Even speculating about these things can be incomplete and dangerous, of course, and that's with him cherry-picking them for us as catalysts of his personal strife. But the concerns over Odom's mental state were mostly discarded, as athlete maladies always are when we cannot boil them down to a clear diagnosis. It took a drug habit, real or imagined, for everyone finally to pay attention, long after a host of fairly audible cries for help fell on deaf ears.
That is the real tragedy, or at least part of it. The rest arrives in a tale that is mostly forgotten now, the gritty South Jamaica, Queens story subsumed by newly minted B-list sheen. For so long, Odom was the man who escaped his upbringing, the one who tiptoed around the headstones of too many relatives and sidestepped the addiction that crippled his father, Joe, a heroin-addled absentee for most of Lamar's childhood. The NBA riches are peripheral in the grand scheme of things; the real success was that Lamar Odom, seemingly doomed to become a statistic, instead became an outlier, one who long ago forsook the most immediate and treacherous path available to him. And maybe it was because he had been a model pro for so long -- or perhaps because we forget that 33 is old for an athlete but young for a man -- that it was so easy to brand him a permanent success without considering that it isn't that easy. Odom was no less susceptible to real life corroding his narrative than other star athletes, and probably more so by virtue of so much turmoil, both real and manufactured.
In that original story, a year and a half ago, I described the even keel of Odom's voice. "Spend a few minutes in conversation with him, with that voice," I wrote, "and you become convinced that no matter what situation Lamar Odom finds himself in, things will work out."
For a while, that refrain rang true. But things haven't worked out for almost two years now, and that shows no sign of abating.
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Mike Piellucci is a freelance writer from Dallas based in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter at@MikeLikesSports.