HOW ODOM'S odyssey affects his game, and in turn the Lakers' chance to win the championship this season, is something Phil Jackson is still figuring out. Every player has swings in his stat line, but Odom can score 23 points in a game, as he did on Feb. 26 against the Suns, and then score four, as he did in Phoenix three days later. "Most of it with Lamar is internal," Jackson says. "It's part of his psyche. He's distracted at times. We try to work with him a lot on focus." Asked if Odom's lapses are connected to his personal saga, Jackson says, "Without a doubt."
Odom and Bryant have never duplicated the Pippen-Jordan dynamic that Jackson hoped to re-create, but their rapport is one reason L.A. is at the top of the Western Conference. The two first played together at Adidas ABCD camps in high school; after Parade magazine named Bryant its player of the year in 1996, Odom won the same honor in '97. When Odom was contemplating whether to skip college and go directly to the NBA, he flew to Los Angeles to seek Bryant's counsel, staying at Bryant's house. Says Kobe, "I told him there was no right or wrong decision."
Odom's career path would have been much simpler if he had followed Bryant straight to the pros, but he wasn't wired that way. Bryant is preternaturally assertive, Odom deferential. What makes them different makes them jibe. Odom's inconsistency invites outrage among talk-radio callers and message-board posters who clamor for him to be more aggressive, more like Bryant. But the last time the team had two players with the same self-interests, one of them had to be shipped to Miami. Odom was one of the key players acquired from the Heat in the 2004 trade of Shaq.
"A lot of people have wasted a lot of time thinking about who they want Lamar Odom to be rather than appreciating him for who he is," says Jeff Van Gundy, the ESPN analyst who was coaching the Knicks when Odom was making headlines as a New York City high school star. "I always look back at where he started. In stories like his, you don't see a lot of happy endings. So when you do see one, I think it should be celebrated."
Odom's clothing line includes scores of T-shirts depicting animals and religious images. But there is one emblazoned with a framed black-and-white photograph of a basketball court. It is the court at Lincoln Park where Odom played the night his mother died. Superimposed over the bottom right corner is a bright red rose. As Odom walks on the beach, about as far from that court as he can get in the continental U.S., he is asked if the rose is a symbol of his mom. "No," he says. "It's a symbol of what can grow, even from there."
The rose is Lamar.