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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, Jayden, 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 seven-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 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.
WHILE KOBE BRYANT IS THE KING OF THE 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. Topics in his interviews range from his favorite TV show (MacGyver) to his alter ego ("There's Lamar, who's humble, and then there's Odom") to his unconventional wardrobe. 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. 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. 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 even their second-best player. 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.
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 Joseph Arbitello, a former teammate of Odom's at Christ the King, in Queens, N.Y., and now the coach and athletic director there. "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."
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.