THE HAPPIEST Laker is the one whose father was addicted to heroin, whose mother died of colon cancer when he was 12, who attended three high schools, had his first college scholarship revoked before the fall semester of his freshman year, became a subject of three college investigations, declared for the NBA draft, tried unsuccessfully to pull out of the draft, was picked by arguably the worst franchise in sports, violated the league's antidrug policy twice within eight months and after finally getting his life together, went home to New York City for an aunt's funeral and wound up burying his 6½-month-old son, then getting robbed at gunpoint.
"That's my book," says Lamar Odom. "That's my movie. It's a big bowl of gumbo."
As he ponders working titles for his life story—"This is L.A., so you never know," he says—he is wearing a white sweat suit and driving a white Mercedes down Interstate 405 to an autograph signing in Orange County, one hand on the steering wheel and another deep inside a bag of potato chips. Every few minutes, he turns and glances at the backseat, where his 10-year-old daughter, Destiny, and 7-year-old son, Lamar Jr., are occupied with their own snacks.
"My grandmother was always upbeat, a naturally happy person," he says, chomping on the chips. "I think I got that from her." His grandmother was Mildred Mercer, who raised him when his parents were gone. She died on June 28, 2003, three years to the day before his baby boy.
Maybe Grandma Mildred is to thank for one of the most irrepressible personalities in the NBA, a 6'10" forward who, at 29, has been in the league for 10 seasons and famous for nearly half his life, and yet still wears his mitt when he goes to baseball games in the hope of catching a foul ball, collects pro wrestling figurines as a hobby and asks the staffer behind him on the team's plane for permission to recline his seat because "my legs are kind of long." More than an hour into the autograph signing in Huntington Beach, Destiny spotted a bulge in her dad's left sneaker. "What's that?" she asked. Odom reached into his size-16 hightop and pulled out the crumpled potato chip bag. "I didn't know what else to do with it," he said. Destiny smiled and shook her head.
IF YOU WERE going to build a basketball player in a lab, it might look like Lamar Odom, a broad-shouldered Stretch Armstrong. He's a point guard in a power forward's body, long enough to anchor the post but coordinated enough to lead the break. The problem with trying to engineer another Odom is programming what he's going to say. After his best game of this season, when he scored 28 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in Cleveland in February, capping a 6--0 road trip and dealing the Cavaliers their first home loss of the season, he said in a postgame interview, "I'm ready to go home and put my feet in the sand." A month later, as he walked barefoot down Manhattan Beach, sweatpants hiked up to his knees, view clear to Catalina Island, he cooed, "This is the Laker lifestyle." He is an unrestricted free agent after the season and cannot fathom a move inland.
While Kobe Bryant is the king of Staples Center, Odom is a gifted and versatile court jester. "I've heard fans yell to him in the middle of games, 'Nice shot!' and he'll turn around and say, 'Thanks, man,'" says John Ireland, sideline reporter for Lakers telecasts on KCAL 9. Before the Dec. 25 game against the Celtics at Staples, Odom was wishing fans in the courtside seats Merry Christmas when he stopped at Adam Sandler. "Happy Hanukkah," he said. Topics in his interviews range from his favorite TV show (MacGyver) to his favorite tourist destination ("Paris," he says. "I can smell the wine in the air") to his alter ego ("There's Lamar, who's humble, and then there's Odom") to his unconventional wardrobe, including a Sergeant Pepper--style ensemble that prompted coach Phil Jackson to ask Odom if he had come to the arena straight from band practice. Says point guard Derek Fisher, "He's our new Shaquille O'Neal."
Odom carries himself with an ease and optimism reminiscent of O'Neal and before that Magic Johnson, but he is an original. The person he calls Dad is a 47-year-old white man of no relation. He signed with UNLV in part because he stopped in a Las Vegas nightclub on his recruiting visit and saw a rap group from New York City, which he interpreted as an omen. He would wind up at Rhode Island, where in his first meeting with coach Jim Harrick he asked for a backpack. "I don't think he'd ever had a backpack before," Harrick says. Odom declared for the draft after one season at Rhode Island, but he had such misgivings about the move that he hatched a plan to play for the Celtics while commuting to URI to continue his class work. "It would have been groundbreaking," he says. After it became clear that the NBA is indeed a full-time job—Odom was taken fourth by the Clippers in 1999—he hired a tennis agent who had never represented a basketball player before. Don't question his intuition, though. That tennis agent, Jeff Schwartz, is now one of the premier agents in the NBA, with a client list that includes Paul Pierce, Jason Kidd and Josh Howard.
BEFORE EVERY game the Lakers lock arms and form a circle around Odom. He is an unusual centerpiece: not their captain, not their best player, not their second best player, and when center Andrew Bynum returns from his knee injury, maybe not even their third best player. (At week's end Odom was averaging a career-low 10.6 points and 8.0 rebounds, though his adjusted plus-minus was fourth in the league.) But when the lights dim and the decibels rise and Odom starts bouncing up and down in the middle of the circle—"We're the best team in the NBA!" he shouts—the Lakers bounce with him.
Lakers G.M. Mitch Kupchak says Odom is the most popular player in L.A.'s locker room, but he also might be the most popular player in the locker room next door. The Los Angeles D-Fenders are the Lakers' developmental-league affiliate; they practice in the same gym and play on the same court as the NBA players but reap few of the other benefits. "Most guys at that level don't have time for us," says guard Brandon Heath. "But L.O. is always telling us to come over to his house, offering to take us out to dinner. We could damn near go over there in our drawers, and he'd probably take us to buy clothes."