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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 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 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. "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.
HOW ODOM'S ODYSSEY affects his game 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'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 has a clothing line (Rich Soil) that 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.