The Lakers are paying Odom $14.6 million this year, and he gives a fair amount back. "I saw him signing autographs after a game and told him to hurry up and get on the bus or he'd be fined," says Robert Lara, the Lakers' head of security "He told me he'd take the hit. He couldn't say no to the kids." Odom has a hard time saying no to parents as well. "I know one boy who doesn't even play basketball, but Lamar pays his tuition," says Joseph Arbitello, a former teammate of Odom's at Christ the King in Queens, N.Y., and now the coach and athletic director there. "His mother was struggling, so she called Lamar and he took care of it."
Sharing has long been part of his game. Growing up, Odom's idol was Magic, not Michael. He preferred to dish rather than dunk. "When we had college scouts come watch us, he wouldn't shoot," says Arbitello. "He wanted to make everybody else look good." Odom's reluctance to score drove coaches crazy but made him beloved by teammates. "Lamar is not the kind of guy who will ever say, 'F--- this, give me the ball,'" says Gary Charles, who coached Odom's AAU team, the Long Island Panthers. "He could not score a point and be happy as heck." Of course, players change when they get to the NBA, where salary is often proportional to scoring average. "Lamar's a pleaser," says his personal trainer, Robbie Davis. "He wants to throw you an alley-oop and give you a pound on the way back down."
ODOM'S YOU-FIRST mentality would not seem suited to showbiz, but Hollywood is drawn to him. He has appeared on HBO's Entourage (Johnny Drama lusts after his calf muscles) and MTV's Rob Dyrdek's Fantasy Factory (Odom plays one-on-one against Dyrdek, who is wearing stilts for the showdown). He has his own clothing line (Rich Soil), his own record label (Rich Soil Entertainment) and is part-owner of a restaurant called East that's due to open this spring in Hollywood. "He surrounds himself with cutting-edge-thinking people," says Dyrdek, who's also an investor in the restaurant. Odom has been romantically linked to Taraji P. Henson, the Oscar-nominated actress from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. There is a long history of athletes dating actresses, but few have been of Henson's caliber. She is 38 and the mother of a 14-year-old boy, a star rather than a starlet. "I think about her sometimes on the court, about what she's done," Odom said. "It makes me want to play better."
When Odom learned before this season that he'd be coming off the bench for the first time since ninth grade—in a contract year no less—he wondered aloud if Jackson had "bumped his head." But soon after, Odom said he would accept the diminished role, insisting it was Odom who had balked and not his better angel Lamar.
"I sometimes have to stop and remind myself how much this guy has been through and how much he's lost," Fisher says. "I'm sure there is anger and disappointment inside of him, but to have his spirit, to have his approach to everyday life, I don't know how he does it."
HE MAY have inherited his good nature from Grandma Mildred, but he gets his perspective from personal experience. He sat at his mother's bedside as she took her final breath. He held his son's body for three hours after young Jayden succumbed to sudden infant death syndrome. Odom was kicked out of UNLV before he'd played a single game—a graduate assistant knocked on his door and informed him that he was being released from his scholarship because his ACT score had come into question. He was admitted to Rhode Island only as "a nonmatriculating student" and was not allowed to play so much as intramural basketball. He wept at a press conference with the Clippers after the league had suspended him a second time for smoking marijuana. "People used to call me Little Lloyd," Odom says, referring to Lloyd Daniels, a fun-loving, ball handling big man from the New York City playgrounds who went to UNLV, was arrested for buying cocaine and later was shot three times in a drug dispute. Daniels survived and kept playing basketball, but his name is synonymous with talent wasted.
Odom's name, on the other hand, is synonymous with talent salvaged. In the past five years he has overhauled his reputation, proving that he is not the slacker who left Christ the King because of poor grades ("stupid, stupid, stupid," he says) or the mercenary who took $5,600 from a UNLV booster, landing the school on probation after he left, or the enigma who would take off from Rhode Island's campus for days at a time, turning off his phone and checking into a hotel to find a little solitude. After signing a six-year, $65 million free-agent deal with the Heat in 2003, he started an AAU basketball program called Team Odom, so that the next generation of prodigies might receive better guidance than he did. He also renovated the family's row house in Queens where he grew up and added a studio apartment where he can stay when he's in town. He even apologized recently to his coach with the Clippers, Alvin Gentry, believing he was somehow responsible for Gentry's firing in 2003.
"Lamar came to see me a few years ago, and he told me he was lucky he survived," says Bob Oliva, Odom's coach at Christ the King. "I told him his mother must have been looking down on him from heaven."
To an outsider, it may seem that Odom hides his grief beneath a veil of humor, but in fact he confronts it first thing every morning. Besides the traditional memorials—tattoos of family members and names scrawled on sneakers—his bedroom in Manhattan Beach is filled with photographs of his mom, Cathy Mercer, and of Jayden. Odom does not like cemeteries, but he loves pictures. "I look at them right when I wake up," he says. "That's when I like to reflect on things." When Mercer died, Odom ran to the basketball court at Lincoln Park in Queens and shot jumpers all night. But when Jayden died, Odom recognized that he would need more than blacktop to heal. He spent two years seeing William Parham, a psychologist from UCLA, and after sessions he would walk out and tell the Lakers' trainers, "I feel like I just went to the bathroom." He meant it in the most therapeutic way.
Odom has reconnected with his father, Joe, who is now drug-free, but he remains closer to another man he calls his dad. Jerry DeGregorio coached Odom in high school (at St. Thomas Aquinas Prep), college (as an assistant at URI) and the NBA (as a front-office staffer with the Clippers) but taught him more about family and faith. DeGregorio is the godfather to Destiny and Lamar Jr., and he sits with them in the first row behind the basket at Staples Center. (The kids live about 20 minutes from Lamar with their mother, Liza Morales, who was also Jayden's mom.) Odom winks at them during timeouts and rolls his eyes at them if he misses a free throw. When Odom and DeGregorio are together, they hold hands and pray for wisdom, protection, guidance and peace. When they are apart, they pray over the phone. "Lamar has lived two lives, one full of blessings and one full of tragedies," says DeGregorio. "Everything bad about amateur basketball happened to him—street agents, sneaker companies, college boosters. How many people go through that grinder and come out the other side?"