Lamar Odom Beyond the Bright Lights

I have seen two versions of Lamar Odom in my life.

The first was the one I grew up watching in the NBA. The showboat. The flamboyant baller. He found joy in entertaining the crowd, be it in a nationally televised game or a summer league match at the local blacktop courts. It didn’t matter if his opponent was a pro or just a normal dude. He would look at his defenders straight in the eyes as if to say, “I’ll feast on your soul”. Then he would pull the craziest moves. Shammgod between the other guy’s legs. Ball around his waist before throwing an alley-oop pass. Poster dunk over the D’s head. Those moves probably didn’t even exist in video games during his prime, but he somehow pulled those off.

Then he would celebrate with the crowd. A vicious stare to the stands. A gleeful, carefree shimmy. Anything that would make the guy who was in front of him just five seconds ago feel that his existence was completely wiped out off the court.

That’s who he was for me. The showboat. The flamboyant baller. Whether he was with the Baby Clippers or the Championship Lakers, he was all about the flair.

That’s why when I got a hold of the news that Lamar signed to play for the Philippines, for Mighty Sports in particular, I was honest to goodness confused as to why he would be invited. Damn, is this setup gonna work out? Yes, he played in the best league in the world. But he’s now years removed from any form of basketball. I thought I would meet the flashy shell of the player I knew. One with all the baggage from the celebrity treatment that he usually received.

That was the Lamar that I expected to meet at the Titan Fort one Tuesday night. I painted him as a man who would draw a huge crowd once he walked into the room. After all, he probably missed all the attention that he lost after spending time away from the limelight.

I was surprised when a totally different Lamar entered the store. Still carrying that 6’10” frame, he walked into the venue wearing a relatively simple outfit: a pair of Jordan 11s, black pants, and a plain white tee with the words “EARN IT” emblazoned on his chest. No Gucci, no long gold chains around his neck. I swear if you didn’t know him, you’d just think of him as a another customer who was in for some window shopping. Even the way he greeted everyone was very basic. “Hey man,” he told me with his deep voice as he reached out to me for a formal handshake.

This wasn’t the player who I saw on TV a few years back. The one on TV had “Hollywood” written all over him. The guy in front of me? Reserved, timid, kept mostly to himself.

As soon as he was done with all the greetings, Lamar went straight to the racks to check out some kicks. He reached out to the Why Not Zer0.2 on display. The vibrant colors and the loud design of the shoe perfectly contrasted his quiet, somber demeanor. It’s as if he was holding a piece of himself—his old self.

Being a sneakerhead myself, I approached him without much thought and asked, “Do you like sneakers?” That was probably the worst question that I could ever muster given the gravity of the situation I was into. I mean, how many times in my life would I meet an actual NBA Champion? Probably not a lot. I could have asked him anything. How was it like playing with Kobe? How did it feel when you won your first title? I threw all those questions out of the window asked him about shoes instead.

“Yeah, a lot,” he replied. It was a straightforward answer, yet it sparked something inside of him. He looked straight into my eyes and followed up, “Back in Queens, it’s part of our culture. Growing up, we had large sneaker stores over there. It’s part of who I am.” That was the longest response he gave to me.

It became apparent to me that he was deeply rooted to the place where he was born and raised. When he said that it’s part of who he was, maybe he wasn’t just talking about sneakers or the huge stores, but to Queens, New York as a whole.

Anyone who saw Lamar play in the NBA might think that he had it easy throughout his life. He had all the physical tools and the talent to thrive in basketball. He was built with success tagged in him. That could not be any farther from the truth. Far from the luxurious life that he lived back in LA, his hometown in Queens was a tough neighborhood to be in. He was born at a time when New York and the rest of the US waged war against the epidemic of drugs. His father was a heroin addict himself. Adding the fact that his mother died of cancer when he was 12, it can be told that Lamar’s childhood was horrific, far from desirable.

Despite his troubled childhood, Lamar found a silver lining as he seeked refuge in basketball. He juggled playing for Christ the King Academy and the AAU, where he was teammates with Elton Brand and Ron Artest.

Contrary to the celebrity persona that he had in LA, the young Lamar loved to dish out rather than take the spotlight for himself. In one of the stories written by Lee Jenkins, Lamar was described as someone with a ‘you-first mentality’. His AAU coach back then thought that it didn’t matter to him if he went scoreless in the game as long as he made his teammates look good.

On court, it was evident that he was someone special. He was destined to make it big in basketball and in life. However, the situation was different once he stepped outside the hardwood. As a young boy, he constantly struggled with his academics, which prompted his transfer to a different high school, and later on the forfeiture of his scholarship at UNLV.

Even as he jumped into the pros, life just kept on throwing haymakers in his way. He was suspended multiple times early in his pro career for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy. Then in 2003, he mourned the death of Mildred Mercer, his grandmother who took care of him, and Jayden, his six-month old son.

Every mishap, every tragedy that he experience could have caused him to change, to break down, to stop fighting and give in to the sorrow. But Lamar chose to fight, to continue to give, to stay true to who he was. He continued to grind knowing that he had basketball to turn back to during times of trouble.

In the NBA, he thrived in whatever role was given to him. Starter or bench, second or fifth-best, probably even the most underrated player of the team. He willingly did what he had to do. At the peak of his career, he often stood proudly at the center of the Lakers’ huddle as he pumped up his team for the game ahead. He would interact with everyone in the organization, even those from their D-League affiliate. He willingly signed autographs for the fans. He would do everything in his power to take care of the people close to him.

That was the Lamar that I met in person, the kid who lived and fought every day. With every hit that he took, he found a way to bounce back, and he gave more and more to the people around him. Even as he fitted his new size 16 shoes back at Titan, he occasionally shouted ‘Papi’, referring to his new teammate Papi Sarr. He often checked on everyone from his small entourage if they’re doing fine as he roamed around the store.

Perhaps, this is the real Lamar Odom. The celebrity, the showboat, the flamboyant baller of LA is just a facade. Away from the cameras, he is and will always be the kid from Queens. Grounded. Reserved. Gritty. Selfless enough to share whatever he can to everyone he holds dear. Courageous enough to take one more shot at playing competitive basketball, even if it’s thousands of miles away from where he used to be.

Maybe Mighty Sports is the best way for Lamar to return to basketball. Beyond his talent level, his character fits perfectly to a team that plays the Filipino way of basketball. He’s the perfect glue guy, one that’s willing to blend into the background and make everyone look good.

Who knows, maybe he’ll find a new home here in Manila, just like how he found one in Los Angeles. Just like the one he always had in Queens.

Photos from Titan