In 1998, when Lamar Odom was forced to leave the University of Nevada-Las Vegas basketball program over a testing scandal before he ever played a game, Odom’s high school basketball coach told The Baltimore Sun that his move out of Nevada was a blessing in disguise.
“Too close to trouble,” Jerry DeGregorio said that year.
On Tuesday, almost two decades later, Odom was found unresponsive in a brothel an hour outside of UNLV’s campus. Gossip websites like E! Online cite a source who said he had “virtually every drug imaginable” in his system. Odom is on life support.
Instead of UNLV, Odom wound up back under the guidance of DeGregorio, who had taken a job as an assistant coach at the University of Rhode Island a year before.
He was one of several high-profile people—from coaches to fellow basketball players to celebrities—whom Odom viewed as “father figures” or “family” or “brothers,” in his words or theirs.
They all tried to save the NBA star from the inordinate amount of tragedy, heartbreak, discord, and addiction that has plagued his life.
When Odom was a senior in high school, DeGregorio took the teenager into his home. He wanted Odom to finish school where he coached at St. Thomas Aquinas in Connecticut.
Odom had already moved homes once before. After his mother, Cathy, died of colon cancer when Odom was 12, the boy was left to live with his father, a heroin addict—until his grandmother, Mildred Mercer, then in her eighties, took Odom in.
Despite the tragedy of losing his mother and his unstable living situation, Odom, a long and skilled point-forward, thrived at Christ the King High School in Queens, New York, alongside two future NBA point guards, Erick Barkley and Speedy Claxton.
By Odom’s senior year, he was playing at a private school in upstate New York—and was deeply unhappy there. So DeGregorio took him to New Britain, Connecticut, promising to let the 17-year-old Odom stay with his parents while he prepared him for Division 1 college basketball and, hopefully, the NBA.
A year later, in the summer before he started his college hoops career, Odom was alone again. Now 18 years old, he was busted for prostitution in Las Vegas. A national magazine exposé a few weeks later on his potentially fudged ACT scores forced the school to kick him off the team.
“I was depressed and down,” Odom told The Baltimore Sun. “I felt like I needed time to sort things out. I had to ask myself, ‘How much do you really want it?’ I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
DeGregorio was there again, this time playing recruiter for new URI coach Jim Harrick, who had just been booted himself from UCLA for faulty expense reports.
“He had his mishap, I had mine,” Odom told the Sun.
Over the next year, Harrick would take Odom under his wing. The two would win an Atlantic 10 championship together in Odom’s freshman year. Harrick called him a “genius on the floor.”
The URI coach made sure Odom sat down to study, and sometimes had him over for meals at his house. By the end of their year together, Harrick considered himself Odom’s father figure.
Even years later, Odom would spend weeks at a time at Harrick’s home. In 2013, however, after Odom went missing for days amid rumors of a drug-fueled bender, Harrick said he “feared for [Odom’s] life.”
“Twice I lost him for a week before I found him in New York City. I don’t know where he went or what he did,” Harrick told the Daily Mail. “No one had told him what to do, where to be. He had no father figure before me. We had to drum it into him at a later age.”
Odom was drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers after a year under Harrick’s tutelage. Talented but underutilized, Odom made the NBA All-Rookie first team and put up big numbers on his first Clippers roster, where he was a beloved teammate. But in L.A., his behavior began to slide again.
Just two years into the league, Odom was suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy twice in eight months.
Clippers Coach Alvin Gentry publicly excoriated Odom.
“It’s ridiculous that it’s happening,” Gentry said. “It shouldn’t be happening. We’re very disappointed.”
But his teammates rallied around him. His teammates called him “family.” Even in the time of NBA Commissioner David Stern’s infamous crackdown on crime in the league and anyone associated with it, his new family continually spoke of “support” for Odom.
“When families slip, you go there and try to help them out,” Clippers center Michael Olowokandi said. “This isn’t the time to be judgmental at all.”
In a 2001 column that repeatedly reiterated that Odom “has failed” and “let his team down,” then-LA Times columnist J.A. Adande offered this:
“But Odom is so likable that it’s hard to stay angry at him.”
Two years later, the Clippers declined to match a Heat offer sheet. Odom was off to Miami, where, for the first time, he played brother and mentor to an NBA superstar, Dwyane Wade.
Today, in a series of tweets asking for prayers and understanding, Wade called Odom his brother.
“PRAYERS all the way UP for my brother Lamar Odom!” he tweeted. “I pray this morning for my brother. Dear God he’s one of the good ones. PLEASE watch over him and listen to his heart speak. Everyone will ask why or say how could he do this or that. If you’re not walking in life thru his eyes you will never know what it’s like.”
After Miami, Odom was shipped back to Los Angeles, this time to the Lakers, where his life was again hit with terrible tragedy.
In 2006, his infant son Jayden died of SIDS.
“Lamar and I never really talked about our loss, which I know wasn’t healthy and also meant our relationship would never last. It couldn’t,” his then-wife Liza Morales once told The Daily Beast. “I found out soon after that he’d had a long-term relationship with another woman—a relationship he said he’d end but he didn’t—and that was that.”
That same summer, walking around his childhood neighborhood in Queens, Odom was robbed at gunpoint. The teen assailant first fired a warning shot, then pointed his gun at Odom. The basketball star made it out safe, and the robber made off with $5,000 and his watch.
“He told me: ‘Coach, I’ve already been through so much and I’ve survived it. I’ll be fine,’” DeGregorio told The New York Times in 2006.
His coach in L.A., Phil Jackson, echoed that sentiment.
“We just keep saying, ‘You’re a good person, good things will happen to you,’” said Jackson. “There are times when it doesn’t look that way, but we tell him there’s a karmic action in life that will work for you.”
But in 2011, disaster came again. Odom, now a celebrity TV star and married to Khloé Kardashian, was back in New York to attend his cousin’s funeral when the car he was in crashed and killed a 15-year-old boy in another vehicle.
Odom was devastated and thought about taking the year off. Instead, the Lakers traded him to Dallas for a first-round pick, despite protestations from stars like Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
“Now I’m getting pissed off,” said the famously reticent teammate Bryant after the trade.
In Dallas, Odom floundered. He fought with Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban about never getting into game shape and about his nights out partying. Away from Los Angeles, his TV deal wasn’t renewed. His relationship with Kardashian became tumultuous before they eventually divorced.
When Odom couldn’t find work in the NBA, it was Gasol who instructed him to go to his home in Barcelona.
When Odom said he was working his way back into shape, it was Jackson who gave Lamar his final contract last year. Odom had been out of the league for over a year, and many believed he was too out of shape to ever play again. Jackson signed him to the Knicks with one game left in the 2014 season with an option for the next year, hoping he’d take the summer to get back in shape and turn his life around.
A few months later, he was waived.
“Unfortunately, Lamar was unable to uphold the standards to return as an NBA player,” said Jackson.
When word of Odom’s overdose hit the Lakers last night, Kobe Bryant skipped the rest of a preseason game to fly to Odom’s bedside.
And when Odom disappeared for days in 2013, Jim Harrick told the Daily Mail that disappearing was how Odom coped, that “there were a couple of days where I couldn’t find him.”
“We used to joke that Lamar would say he’d call you Friday,” said Harrick. “But he didn’t tell you which Friday he’d call you.”
Odom’s family is almost everyone he’s ever met. But this time, he may have run too far away from them to be saved.