It was a typically blissful day in the suddenly charmed life of Lamar Odom. After his postpractice massage one afternoon last week, he relaxed in the plush leather backseat of a Cadillac, oblivious to the Los Angeles traffic. His driver ferried him to lunch at Odom's favorite New York-style deli, then home to his new condo in Marina del Rey, where he lives with his girlfriend, Liza Morales, and their one-year-old daughter, Destiny. Odom, the Clippers' many-splendored rookie forward, has grown accustomed to traveling in such style, not because of his status as the league's hottest newcomer but because, as a native New Yorker who relied on the subway to get around, he never bothered to obtain a driver's license.
Odom, 20, is still in no hurry to line up at the DMV; after his nightmarish entanglements in NCAA bylaws and NBA predraft evaluations, the maze that is the L.A. freeway system holds little appeal. His journey to the pros wasn't nearly as smooth a ride as the ones he gets these days—he was labeled an academic outlaw and an indecisive, irresponsible head case along the way. But by the third week of his first season Odom had been so impressive that a Southern California columnist had already anointed him a better all-around player than the other prodigy at the Staples Center, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. At 6'10", with a variety of talents that include the ability to handle the ball as deftly as a point guard, Odom has already begun to inspire the obligatory comparisons to Magic Johnson. "Things are happening real fast," Odom says. "But for a change, they're happening right."
The Clippers have found Odom to be every bit the player they had hoped for, with a far more engaging and upbeat personality than his past troubles would suggest. Despite a 4-9 start, the team may finally have found a star with enough mass appeal to draw some local attention away from the Lakers. Odom, who was averaging 18.9 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists through Sunday, isn't quite the highlight-film acrobat that many of the league's other young hotshots are, but he is more polished than almost all of them, with a game that's as smooth as his baby face. He is a glider, rarely hurried or overeager, and though he's capable of hitting the three or beating a defender one-on-one and spinning into the lane for his lefthanded shot, he's just as content to draw double teams and set up teammates for easy opportunities. The Clippers have asked him to do all of that and more.
Coach Chris Ford essentially handed Odom the keys to the team's attack on the first day of practice, and he has been remarkably comfortable behind the wheel. He has thriven everywhere from the point to the post, quickly establishing himself as not only the early leader in the Rookie of the Year race, but also one of those players who makes the traditional concept of positions seem more out of date than a manual typewriter. Call him a small forward if you need to affix a label. Odom does not. "I'm just a basketball player, you know?" he says. "Just put me where you need me."
Odom developed his versatile game on the playgrounds of the South Ozone Park section of Queens, where he grew up as an only child. His mother, Kathy Mercer, died of colon cancer when he was 12, and he was raised by his grandmother, Mildred Mercer. Odom says that after his mother's death he was no longer motivated to do well in school, and his grades plummeted so badly that he transferred twice as a high school senior in an attempt to stay eligible. His weak academic record caused several top programs to steer clear of him, and a 1997 story in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED raising the possibility that someone had taken a standardized test for him persuaded UNLV to rescind its scholarship offer. (Odom denies that anyone took the test for him or gave him any improper help, but his test scores were invalidated by the NCAA, and he sat out a year at Rhode Island as a nonqualifier.) NBA teams would probably have overlooked his academic woes after his stellar freshman season, but Odom cost himself the probable top spot in the June draft—and the $2.5 million difference between the maximum contract for a No. 1 pick and a No. 4 pick—when he waffled last spring over his intentions to turn pro. After declaring himself eligible for the draft in May, he signed with R&D Sports Management, a company run by David Chapman, a Las Vegas dentist and UNLV booster, and Roger Peltyn, a Las Vegas engineer. He also hired an agent, Jeff Klein, whom he had met through Chapman.
Odom went through one workout, for the Vancouver Grizzlies, but then began to have second thoughts about his decision. "The business part of it just didn't feel right to me," he says. "I was putting my future in the hands of people I really didn't know very well. It scared me, to be honest. I was a kid, and I was scared."
While he was sorting out his thoughts, he was also skipping opportunities to showcase his skills, first missing the scouting combine in Chicago in June, then failing to show up for scheduled workouts in Charlotte for the Hornets and in Chicago for the Bulls. Finally Odom called Jerry DeGregorio, the former Rhode Island assistant who had taken over as head coach in mid-April after Jim Harrick had left for Georgia. Odom told DeGregorio he had changed his mind and wanted to return to school, but it was too late. Under NCAA rules, once an athlete signs with an agent, he permanently forfeits his eligibility. Odom argued for an exception, insisting that he had not received any money or services from Klein, but Rhode Island decided not to appeal to the NCAA on his behalf.
Now Odom was stuck. He had to enter the draft, but he had hurt his standing in the eyes of pro coaches and general managers. "They didn't know exactly what to make of me," he says. "I understand that. I think I also offended a lot of NBA people by not going to the combine in Chicago. That was kind of going against the system, and I don't think they take that lightly."
Odom hired a new agent, Jeff Schwartz, and worked out for four teams—the Bulls, Clippers, Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat. On the night before the draft he flew to Chicago and met with the Bulls, who had the first pick. "It didn't go great and it didn't go terribly," he says. "Teams will tell you if they love you, but they won't say anything if they don't. The Bulls didn't say much to me when it was over. It didn't surprise me when they didn't take me."
Instead Chicago chose Duke forward Elton Brand, citing his dependability. Odom was slightly more surprised when the Grizzlies used the second pick to select Maryland guard Steve Francis, whom they traded to Houston. The Hornets took UCLA point guard Baron Davis next, leaving Odom still on the board when the Clippers picked. Odom has no desire to pay back the teams that passed on him. "It's every player's dream to be the first pick of the draft," Odom says. "But it was 75 degrees here in L.A. today. It was about 30 in Chicago."