Mavs Exclusive: 1-On-1 With Lamar Odom
It wasn't supposed to take this long.
That's the bottom line in all of this. No matter how many extenuating circumstances play into Lamar Odom's nightmare of a season – and there are several – the fact remains that the Dallas Mavericks' marquee offseason acquisition should be at least some sort of steadying presence in the rotation by now. Instead, as the Mavs prepare to host his hometown Knicks tonight at the AAC tonight, Odom is averaging career lows across the board and fresh off a still unexplained four-game hiatus, he has been anything but that.
Accordingly, speculation has set in. There has to be some explanation for why a player with such a malleable game has looked so utterly out of place in his brief Mavericks tenure, and it's led to scores of armchair psychologists analyzing his every tic and twitch, gauging just how much or little he really wants to be here.
I don't really know Lamar Odom. I know him in the way a physician knows a patient: I'm cognizant of the overall nuts and bolts of his situation, a few personal details, and have enough familiarity with him to make good small talk. With occasional exception, that's the furthest extent any relationship between media members and athletes goes.
Know that as I attempt to delve into Odom's psyche and dissect the great unanswered question of this Mavericks season. I'm not in his W Hotel apartment when he comes home at night, or at the table when he goes to eat dinner, or in his inner circle throughout one of the more trying periods of his life following the shooting death of his cousin this summer and a car accident in which a 15 year-old pedestrian died in front of him.
But I think I've got a better handle on things than most. Odom opened up to me about that offseason turmoil a week-and-a-half before Chris Mannix's SI story, and almost two before Marc Stein revealed that Odom was close to taking a season off (something I was not privy to until that piece). I don't bring that up to try and match journalistic wits with two of the best basketball writers in the business, but rather as an illustration that Odom has been open with me. I've seen a few sides of his personality beyond Lamar Odom the basketball player.
Odom will be the first one to say that the season hasn't gone as planned, no small admission for one of the more optimistic people you're likely to come across. What's gotten it off track, though, isn't cut-and-dry. Nor is the narrative surrounding it – which increasingly often has become a portrayal of a disinterested, bitter player who never wanted to play here and who has little desire to give his best every night for his team.
What follows is what I believe is Odom's side of the story, parts of which are in his own words from our conversations together. With any luck, the resulting image of Lamar Odom is a more complicated one – and, perhaps, a more sympathetic figure as well.
Fiction: He Doesn't Want To Be Here
Stop me if you've heard this one before.
The story goes that Lamar Odom would rather be back in Los Angeles, living in Manhattan Beach, playing with the Lakers, and gearing up to get revenge against his new teammates after they dispatched him from the playoffs in early May. Instead, he's marooned here against his will, playing out a deal here that he would much rather fulfill there.
That might fly, too, except for one teensy detail: he was the one that demanded a trade out of Los Angeles.
Now, I don't doubt that if he had his choice, he never would have been included in that ill-fated Chris Paul trade and simply would have reported year after year to Laker training camp until the end of his days as an NBA player.
He was included in that Paul trade, though, and that's when things changed. Kobe Bryant hit the nail on the head when he publicly characterized Odom as "a sensitive guy" following the trade to Dallas, someone who doesn't always take business decisions as just that. In Odom's mind getting shipped out of town with nary a word of warning – which is what the New Orleans deal amounted to – after years of service on two title teams was a personal slap in the face and an irreparable breaking point in his relationship with the Lakers.
There was an element of choice in the aftermath, too; he could have brushed the incident off and played good soldier, attempting to weather the storm of trade rumors the same way Pau Gasol has this season. Instead, he walked into Mitch Kupchak's office and said he needed a fresh start. It's highly possible that Lamar Odom wished things never changed from the way they were in Los Angeles, and for all anyone knows, he may have second guessed that choice during the darker moments of this campaign.
But the bottom line in all of this is that if he still really wanted to be a part of the Lakers, he would be. He may be homesick, he may be nostalgic, but what he made abundantly clear was that he does not want to be Laker.
Similarly, for all the talk of wanting a buyout from Dallas, he is fully aware that his landing spots could have been far less cushy – i.e. New Orleans, or some equally futile anathema to a player so focused on winning.
"I'm happy I'm in a situation where we can win," he said. "You've got tools on this team, high-powered offensively. Great coach. Great owner.
"I can't complain."
Fact: He's Still Not Adjusted Off The Court
To many, this shouldn't be a factor at all. After all, Lamar Odom is paid to play basketball and being prepared to pack up at a moment's notice is an occupational hazard.
But it is a factor.
Remember, Odom had less than two weeks between when he arrived in Dallas and the Christmas Day renewal of unpleasantries with the Heat to get settled in, meet his teammates, and process the fallout of his sudden exodus from Los Angeles, the place where – make no mistake – he thought with every fiber of his being he would retire. That, in and of itself, had a profound effect on a guy who has spent 11 of his first 12 professional seasons putting down roots in LA as either a Clipper or a Laker, who still considers Los Angeles "[his] home for more than one reason."
"I mean, even though this is my fourth team, it's something I'm not used to," Odom said of being traded. "It wasn't like two years here, two years there, two years there, two years there. I'm actually used to being with one team. And it was something that took me by surprise."
So there's that.
But it also boils down to the simple nuts and bolts of a transaction. In addition to barely having played away from Los Angeles, Odom has never moved teams in season. That still isn't the case here, with 13 days to adjust to the move rather than a scant 24 hours, but in some ways it's even worse. Move at the trade deadline and you're at least in midseason form, fully adjusted to the rhythm of the campaign; move right before training camp and you're not only concerning yourself with how your new team plays, but first and foremost getting yourself in a rhythm as well.
That on-court adaptation becomes exponentially more challenging when coupled with uprooting your life on the fly, something Odom told me in January he had not been able to adjust to.
"Everything's been going by so fast already, from the first days of training camp to the New Orleans deal to the trade here," he marveled at the time, after only having stayed in his apartment at the W for two nights out of the month or so he had been in Dallas.
"I'm a little sleep deprived. I'm tired. I'm hungry. But, I mean, it's just the way it is right now. I have to get used to my new environment, being away from my home."
Trouble is, he conceded, "that won't happen probably until basketball is over." Given the hanging specter of the team holding the option on his contract (something we at DB.com covered well over a month ago), it probably isn't going happen this season – which means it probably isn't going to happen in his Dallas tenure.
Again, it's up for debate whether anyone should feel sympathetic on this front.
What's not is that it's having an effect on his performance.
Fiction: He Isn't Trying
The second major misconception in the Odom saga (or circus, or soap opera, or whatever other term you fancy): he doesn't care. You've certainly seen him labeled lazy, lackadaisical, a cancer, a prima donna or far, far worse in Mavs-land, Josh Howard or Tariq Abdul-Wahad.
I'd submit a different word: distracted. We'll get into the hows and whys of that shortly, but Odom's contention is that the events of this offseason are behind it all – why he came into camp out of shape, why he barely thought of basketball all offseason, why his effectiveness has fluctuated depending on the day. He knows he has to fix it, too.
"I've tried to maintain my focus, to keep my head on straight, so I can put myself in position to play hard for this team and play the right way," he insisted. "And I'm going to continue to try and do so. "
Yet that preoccupation has gotten twisted into a lack of investment. So too has his body language, which people have taken as testimony that he isn't giving a full effort on the court. Truth is, it doesn't take more than a couple minutes of observation to realize that his voice really only has one octave, just as his understated mannerisms really weren't all that more pronounced on Saturday during his comeback tour de force than at any other point this season; simply put, Odom is a real mellow guy.
Of course, the same argument has lingered ever since his Clipper days, resurfacing whenever the shoe fits. When he's playing well and winning, like he did with the Lakers, Odom's low key; now that he isn't in Dallas, he's loafing. Rick Carlisle's public roasting of L.O. was framed as effort-related. Down deep, Rick surely understands Odom's style, which suggests that the coach's desire that he "play like his pants are on fire'' was more about returning to the team than it is about collecing floor burns.
Lamar Odom has repeatedly demonstrated he is willing to do what is asked of him. He had no qualms about putting in a rehab appearance in the D-League and for the apparent struggles he's had adopting Rick's "Be Ready" mantra, he hasn't uttered so much as a peep about his reduced minutes or his amorphous role or the two-a-days the coach put him through.
"You can always get an extra workout in when you need it and right now I could use it," he said publicly at the time. "I go with the flow. I've always been a team player, I've always been coachable. Basketball is what I've been doing all my life so I've been coached all my life you know what I'm saying, so when I'm right, I keep it to myself and when I'm wrong I can listen and get better."
To that end, for all the understandable frustration the team has endured lately on account of Odom's struggles, it's still the same bunch that has respect for him as a player and person. It wasn't long ago that Carlisle was praising Odom for his hard work during those two-a-days, or that Jason Kidd – he of the recent trust comments – told me that Odom was "so unselfish" and "always trying to do the right thing" on the court.
After everything that's happened, the easy thing to do would be to slink home and get a buyout, to give up. But Odom is big on loyalty; it's why he was so revolted in the fallout of the Paul trade, and also why he's taking the hard road and attempting to right the ship now after everything that's happened. The sense I've gotten from him, no matter how it's manifested itself in his play, is that he truly feels indebted to the organization for trading for him and giving him a fresh start.
"I'm a loyal person, and so I owe it to the organization of the Mavericks, to Donnie and Mark and Coach Carlisle and all the players in this locker room to put [my personal issues] behind me as fast and as soon as possible," he told me before that game against the Thunder. It has taken far longer than anyone envisioned. But don't say he isn't trying.
Fact: The Events Of This Offseason Still Loom Over Everything
By now, you've heard the basic details of it all. In a nutshell, Odom's 24-year-old cousin was shot and killed over the summer in New York. Two days later, he was the passenger in car accident that saw a 15 year-old die in the street in front of him.
It's worth noting that this was no ordinary family member that passed away. Odom repeatedly referred to his cousin as "one of [his] favorite people in the world" during one of our conversations, and intimated that he was the one who pulled the plug on his cousin's respirator once it became evident that his condition was not going to improve.
Odom told the LA Times' Broderick Turner – the writer who first uncovered this story all the way back in August – that he feels like "death is always around [him]," and this was the latest addition to a staggering list. Just 32, he's lost members of three generations of family between his mother, the grandmother who raised him, multiple aunts, cousins, and a six month-old son.
I'll be the first to admit that I am nowhere near acquainted with that level of hardship, and very fortunate not to be. I'll go out on a limb, too, and presume that most people aren't – especially not when factoring in the absence of a heroin-addicted father for most of his childhood and growing up in crippling poverty in the housing projects of Queens on top of all of that. So while it's tempting to look at a situation that happened over seven months ago and write it off as something that should be behind him, the fact remains we haven't had to endure that level of loss. Nor have any of us likely had watch a kid die on the street in front of us so soon after ending the life of one of our closest relatives.
Odom told me that the incident caused him to barely think about basketball the entire offseason, and that it still weighs on him. He told Turner that he hardly ate for "eight or nine days" following those events, that he "thought he was breaking down mentally." The wounds are slow to heal, and may not for some time; of all the telling things in Turner's piece, Odom's admission that he didn't truly begin to grieve over his son Jayden's death until a year-and-a-half later ranks at the top. And if there's a defense to be offered for his leave of absence, I think it's in all of that. I don't think anyone knows just how sick Odom's father Joe truly was a couple of weeks ago; depending on whom you believe, it ranged anywhere from life-threatening to a tummy ache.
But even if it did fall more on the harmless end of the spectrum, I wonder if at some point, after all those funerals, something snaps and a protective instinct kicks in at the slightest sign of trouble to one of the few loved ones who have survived, like a soldier developing PTSD after one too many fire fights. Of course, that's presuming the still unnamed personal issue that kept Odom out of the lineup even pertains to that, and isn't a completely new issue on top of all of this.
In our quest to canonize our athletes as larger than life figures, we so often expect them to rise above personal suffering and triumph in spite of it. Kobe was lauded for scorching opponents amidst his rape trial in Colorado, while Dirk Nowitzki played one of the best series of his life as Crystal Taylor was hauled out of his house and thrown in jail. Somehow, they've become the standard but, in actuality, they are the exception. Odom has been chastised even by fans who are familiar with the story for being soft when he is merely human, prone to the same struggle to compartmentalize his grief that so many of us battle with – and, it's worth noting, when he grew up amidst far harsher circumstances than Kobe or Dirk ever did.
None of this detracts from the fact that Odom did leave his teammates in a lurch, that his play is dramatically below where it should be, or that the organization has a right to give him some tough love and make him prove his commitment to them.
But it does mitigate things, or at least it should. Lamar Odom isn't a "cancer'' or "lazy'' or the second coming of Josh Howard. He's a good player slogging through the worst season of his life, trying and often failing to fend off the off-court demons well enough to do his job and help his team to the best of his abilities.
Perhaps, if he is to be believed, we've finally reached the point where that can happen. Perhaps we haven't, and perhaps it isn't coming at all. But the sooner the narrative shifts to more of the latter instead of the former, the easier it will become to embrace a reluctant figure mired in his personal doldrums rather than needlessly vilify a man well-equipped to help bring the Mavericks out of theirs.
This is how we cover your Mavs. This is what we do, every day, with 28 years of experience on the beat! You get All-Access to what the Mavs are doing upstairs, down in the basement, in the locker room and on the court – and it's free to come inside for a 7-day tryout. Now more than ever, there's every reason to give it a go! Thanks for your support of the site at less than a dime-a-day! Go Mavs and Go Premium!