Editor's note: Months prior to Lamar Odom's recent life scare that has seen him hospitalized since he was found unconscious on Oct. 13, writer Chris Palmer sought out the enigmatic star to see what he was up to since he unceremoniously left the NBA after the 2012-13 season. This is that story.
The sweet brown liquid swirls hypnotically in the bottom of the glass. An intoxicating lava lamp of 80-proof goodness. No less than a swig remains. But this man doesn’t swig. He sips, preferring to let the spirit linger on his tongue, appreciating both its full body and complex palate.
The ambient hum of the dark room soothes. Our waitress is young and beautiful and attentive. This is as cozy as you can be in public. Vegas feels safe on a Tuesday night in August.
There are stares, of course, but he feels more insulated than anything.
We are at the back of the restaurant. The dim luminescence of the room and rhythmic flicker from the solitary candle on the table—an unexpected mashup of accidentally good lighting—frame his glowing face.
He stares at his phone. A text comes from Khloe. He replies then apologizes. Tucks his phone away.
We order another round.
“Where do you call home now?” I ask.
“My heart,” he says. “Wherever my heart is and I can have peace of mind. Life can seem nomadic because I don’t know if I’m embracing it or running from it. I can go anywhere, but I don’t know where I want to be.”
“I’m searching,” he says. “I’m searching, but I don’t know for what. I can’t see what I’m looking for. I just, like, reach out and hope I grab something. But I don’t know what it will be because I don’t know what I’m searching for.”
“Happiness?” I ask.
“More than that,” he replies. “But that would be real nice.”
“What do you think about on a daily basis?” I ask, lobbing up a question he’s free to take in any direction.
“I think about a lot,” he says as he strips the spicy chicken from its wooden skewer. “I think all the time—about everything. My kids, my wife. But mostly I think about the mind. My mind. There’s so much going on. So many thoughts. I think about this life. About me. Who I could be. Who I was. Who I am. Who am I?”
“Who are you?” I ask.
“I’m a dying breed,” he says. “There are no more Lamar Odoms. I’m the last one.”
I believe him. He swigs his drink.
The last of his kind.
I close my eyes in the back of an Uber. The sun drenches this Los Angeles highway disguised as a parking lot. It’s late August, and I’m heading to Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. I’m going to Las Vegas. And of course I’m late.
For months I have been chasing Lamar Odom. It has been a trail littered with disconnected phone numbers, unanswered emails and people who don’t talk to him anymore. I used to refer to him as “The Ghost” because he’s notoriously the hardest human being I know to get hold of. In the early 2000s, I would leave him voice mails. When I saw him days later, he would always sheepishly apologize for not getting back.
We’d make plans to do an interview or hangout, and I’d always say, “Don’t forget about me now.”
“Never,” he’d always reply.
I first met Lamar Odom about 16 years ago. He was a 20-year-old wunderkind with what was the first iteration of the New Clippers. Darius Miles, Quentin Richardson, Keyon Dooling and Corey Maggette were all under 21. They were going to take over the NBA. I was a young reporter not that far removed from AAU ball, flying across the country to the City of Angels to spend days and nights with the NBA’s next big things.
I walked into an otherwise empty Clippers locker room to find Odom by himself. There was a black uncapped Sharpie on the floor. He had just written the name Cathy on his right shoe, an homage to his beloved, deceased mother. He was so skinny then.
He was lacing up his red and white Nikes. He liked his shoelaces a certain way. He held the laces out in front of him.
“Does this look right to you?” he asked.
He recognized me from sitting on the baseline of the NBA’s old Pro-Am Summer League at the Pyramid in Long Beach a few months before. He knew I was friendly with D-Miles and Q-Rich and Keyon. He overheard Maggette telling me to come to his house for Thanksgiving dinner if I was in town and had nowhere to go.
On a road trip to Denver a few weeks later, we bonded in the visiting locker room singing along to Outkast’s newly released hit, “Ms. Jackson.” Later that year, not knowing NBA protocol, I walked into a Clippers practice through an open backdoor at Southwest College.
Clippers personnel were annoyed. Odom grabbed me. “Arrest this man!” he yelled. The players laughed. I think Alvin Gentry did, too. I got to watch the last 45 minutes of practice from a folding chair.
In the back of the Uber, my phone rings. I fumble with zippers and fish it out of my backpack. The name on the caller ID: Lamar Odom.
“Yo!” I say.
“It’s Lamar,” he responds. “What’s good? Where you at?”
“Bout to hit the airport,” I offer. “I’m there all week for you.”
“Bet,” says Odom. “We gonna take care of it. You know that. Hit me when you land.”
“Don’t forget about me,” I say.
After a bit of small talk, I hang up. The call lasts about two minutes. It’s the first time I’ve talked to Odom in nearly three years.
Odom is a complicated amalgam of peculiar layers, personality traits and quirks that juxtapose, clash and contradict—and yet ultimately mesh to create a curious blend of a man who always seems to be smiling.
He’s the epitome of New York cool. Something you can’t bottle. You have it or you don’t. A universally loved mix of tragedy and wonder.
“That’s why I’m Lamar,” he once told me over lunch in 2010. “I’m complex, funny, real. I’ve had hard times, but I’m an easygoing dude. I’m not perfect and people identify with that.”
After arriving in Vegas, I head directly to the final day of Team USA practice on the campus of UNLV five minutes away.
Later, when I check into my hotel room, I text Lamar and decide to nap until he replies. He doesn’t. Invariably, I sleep three hours too long. I wake up angry at myself. It’s 8:12 p.m. I scramble for my phone and call Lamar. He picks up on the second ring.
“Yo, bro, what’s the word?” I ask, trying to sound relaxed and cool.
“I’ve had a tough day,” he says. “I had a family emergency and I’m just trying to figure it out.”
“Is everything OK?”
“Nah, it’s good. How are you? I’m glad you called.”
I know what family emergency means. He just got off the phone with Khloe. And his head is swimming. He’s anxious. He needs to take the edge off.
“I’m good, man,” I respond. “What’s the plan?”
Odom tells me to meet him at a restaurant called Cleo at the SLS Hotel. “I’m waiting on you,” he says.
I get to the restaurant 20 minutes later. He greets me at the entrance wearing a black velvet Sean John sweatsuit and black and red low-top, patent leather Air Jordan 11s.
We take a seat in the back of the restaurant.
There is a minefield of things to cover. It’s not easy, so, like we always do, we start with the topic we love most: basketball.
He loves to reminisce. I tell him it seems like a lifetime ago when he starred for Christ the King in the New York Catholic League championship as a sophomore. The game that put him on the map.
“Nah, it feels like yesterday,” he says. “It’s still right here in my mind.”
“I remember you had 35.”
“Thirty-six,” he replies with a wink. “Tied Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record.”
But for him, those memories are synonymous with the pressure and turbulence that came with being Lamar Odom.
“Look at these athletes,” he says. “Some of them going through hard times. Broken homes, bad school systems. And just because you can play ball, they expect you to be perfect. It’s almost a setup. How the f--k you gonna expect him to be perfect?
“It’s a tricky situation,” I offer.
“It’s past tricky. The world’s not being honest. Just because that ball going in don’t mean it’s easy. What if it wasn’t going in?”
He digresses. He doesn’t want to focus on the negative. He already knows everyone else will.
“There’s so much in life, but you just have to remember the good,” he says.
“I loved the team I played for. Loved the city I was in. Loved the people I was with. Loved my teammates. I loved Kobe Bryant. I loved Derek Fisher. I loved Pau Gasol. I loved Phil [Jackson]. Loved Luke [Walton] and Sasha [Vujacic]. I loved being a Laker. I’d walk into a boxing gym and Mike Tyson would come up to me and say, ‘What’s up, champ?’ I got that from being a Laker. I got the Wheaties box, baby. Twice!”
“The good is fun to remember,” I concur.
“The Goods is fun to remember,” he playfully corrects, referencing his old nickname and laughing boisterously. “The Goods!”
“There wasn’t too many dudes 6’10”, crossing, putting it through the legs and throwing the no-look. Let’s just stop it! Me, LeBron and Magic. You feel me? And you trying to take that away from me?”
“But they can’t take that away from you,” I say.
“They can!” he counters. “Negative publicity makes people forget your best times. I see people and they say, ‘Lamar, you look good.’ But when was I ugly? Was I ever not handsome? TMZ, Star, all the tabloids. For whatever reason, those people are so powerful right now. They don’t want to come at me because it would be ugly.
“My mind is more aggressive than passive right now. If you take a dog and shoot at it and back it into a corner, what is he gonna do? He’s going to fight for his life.
“All this drug s--t. All this stuff with my wife…” he pauses. “First off, I’ma tell you...That’s my family, and I’m looking you in the eye, that’s my family—no matter what. No matter what man stands in the way, they know I would grip up, knuckle up, do whatever to protect them. Kendall, Kylie, Bruce, Brody, Kim, Kris, Rob, everybody. They know that nobody’s f--king with us. I will flip every table, break every lamp and roll with them no matter what. And what they [the media] trying to do is weaken that.”
“How does it not drive you crazy?” I ask.
“It does. But I don’t mind it. Because I’m a strong individual. Because I’m a 35-year-old man that buried a child. Because my mother died when I was 12. Because I had to fly from L.A. to New York to pull my cousin off a respirator. Because my grandmother is from Athens, Georgia, born in 1923. And that’s how she raised me.
“Because I’m a gladiator. I’m not a basketball player. I’m a gladiator.”
Kobe’s Ferrari was blocking us. It’s early in 2009, and we were headed to a party in Hollywood. Luke Walton’s 29th birthday was as good a cause as any to celebrate. But we had to go all the way down to Manhattan Beach first. So the sooner they could move it, the better. Lamar stood in the players’ parking lot in the bowels of Staples Center as a parking attendant he knew by name scrambled for the keys to Kobe’s $300,000 sports car.
The Italian coupe fires to life and backs up enough to free us from the grip of the luxury-car logjam. We jump in Odom’s white 2008 Mercedes CLK AMG 65 Sedan, and soon we’re racing down the 405 toward his house in a quiet seaside neighborhood. Odom is feeling a touch nostalgic and cues up Jay Z’s iconic Blueprint. Everyone in the car knows the words.
He had 16 and 12 as the Lakers dispatched the Warriors this night, but he was still frustrated by the refs’ quick whistles. We’re at his exit in no time. As we snake through the hilly neighborhood, Odom flips the CD changer and opts for Tupac’s All Eyez on Me. The first track, "Ambitionz Az A Ridah," pours from the premium sound system.
I won’t deny it I’m a straight rider/You don’t wanna f--k with me/Got the police bustin' at me/But they can’t do nothing to a G.
The music ricochets off the million-dollar houses on his sleepy street. The bass rattles my organs. Odom pulls into his driveway, blocking the sidewalk, and jumps out in a flash to head inside. Greg Nunn, longtime friend and former AAU teammate, pops out of the passenger seat and follows. I’m sitting in the backseat with a seat belt on, the front doors open and the music blasting.
Odom returns with a huge smile, amused at how silly I look.
Fifteen minutes later, we’re back on the 405 and dive-bombing the Wilshire Boulevard exit in Westwood like it’s pit row. We head east to a steakhouse in West Hollywood. As we cruise down the empty avenue, Odom lowers the music.
“This is all Donald Sterling,” he says pointing to the pristine luxury apartment buildings passing outside our windows.
The subject of his kids comes up. It frequently does.
His 10-year-old daughter, Destiny, told her father that one of the kids at school called her a negro. If it’s the worst thing that happened to her during the school year, says Odom, he’d take it. He took comfort in the fact that his kids’ lives were so different than his had been.
“I wish in a way I could have been more naive growing up,” he says. “Sometimes I wish that I didn’t have to live the kind of life where I had to rely on street smarts. I wish I didn’t have to grow up so fast.”
He took Destiny and Lamar Jr. to their favorite place, Barnes & Noble, and bought them books on Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama and taught them the meaning of pride and tolerance. He explained to them why they are beautiful.
“I felt like I had a moment with my kids that they would remember for the rest of their lives,” says Odom. “I really felt really proud of that.”
When we arrive, Walton’s party is in full swing. Luke is giddy and endearingly embarrassing himself on the dance floor. Jordan Farmar juggles twins. People flock to Lamar for hugs. Women stand outside of a roped-off area hoping to make eye contact. Odom asks everyone if they’re having a good time. He is in his element. His cool radiates.
Odom has always answered nightlife’s call. The heartbeat of the night thumps like the bass line of the siren’s song he could never resist.
“I’m a social person,” he says. “I’m Lamar.”
On the other side of 2 a.m., we’re back in the car headed down La Cienega Blvd. After dropping me off, Odom will head back home for a few hours of sleep before the Lakers' early-morning flight that will send them on their longest road trip of the season in which Odom will play some of his best basketball.
“I love this life,” he says. “I mean, look around you. Everything is beautiful. The only thing I can do is smile. I’m a lucky man. I’m the luckiest man in all of L.A.”
Video by Bleacher Report.
Few public figures have absorbed tragedy the way Odom has. Death follows him like a black cloak dangling from his broad shoulders in the wake of his quest for stability. The ensuing grief comes in waves and cruelly congeals around his heart, bent on suffocating the remainder of his fractured spirit.
Still Odom has endured—sometimes with grace, often with tears. At other times, it’s been by making ill-fated deals with his opportunistic demons who readily feed on his need to self-medicate.
The borough of Queens provides refuge. It’s always in his heart. Stays on his mind and his sleeve. It lets him get back to good.
Except for the time it almost killed him.
Back in the ragged, muggy summer of 2006, Odom and a couple of pals were sitting on a park bench in Long Island City, Queens, near basketball courts where he had played as a kid. It was like old times: a bag of sour cream and onion potato chips, a bottle of Hennessy at the ready, tucked discreetly behind one of his size 17s. But there was something in the sticky air.
His New York street senses tingled. His eyes darted.
A low-rent stick-up kid had spent the afternoon getting liquored up to muster the nerve to rob him. His casual approach was unnerving, gun in plain sight.
This is how it happens.
“You gonna rob me? Lamar Odom?” he asked incredulously.
“Yeah,” the man replied. “Now shut the f--k up.”
Odom’s first thought was to run.
“But I wasn’t going to let this guy shoot me in my back,” he says.
Bloodshot eyes, desperation coursing through a shaking body, one in the chamber. In this place, it’s a formula that ends lives. He put the gun an inch from Odom’s temple, turned it sideways. Cocked the hammer.
Odom saw Grandma Mildred. Felt the touch of her wrinkled hands. Remembered beautiful Destiny’s breath on his neck from when she would curl up and fall asleep on him. He could see LJ’s head in his palm. He was so small.
Odom clenched his eyes. His heart raced.
The man pulled the trigger.
Odom didn’t know whether the gun jammed or was empty. He wasn’t trying to find out.
“Gimme your s--t,” the gunman screamed. Odom pulled $7,000 in cash from his deep, baggy pockets along with his American Express Black Card and New York driver’s license. He handed over the $21,000 watch he was suddenly no longer attached to.
“Now walk away,” the robber said.
Friends demanded retribution, but Odom objected. “I was just happy to be alive.”
On our last night together in Vegas this summer, we agree to convene in Los Angeles to continue our talks.
“I have to go back and take care of some family stuff first,” he lets me know. “Tie up some loose ends.”
Less than six hours after we part company, Odom is back in Los Angeles for what he later insists to me was a planned early-morning meetup with Khloe outside a Soul Cycle in Beverly Hills. By any account, it did not go well.
TMZ cameras then chase down an exhausted and despondent Odom, who reluctantly gives a rambling interview.
“I don’t believe in what y’all do,” he started. “I don’t believe in following people around. ... Even if half the things were true...people know who I am. And y’all have discredited me, beat me down, took my confidence, took everything away from me. You will not do it again.”
It’s ugly and sad.
I imagined TMZ’s rogues celebrating what a coup they thought they had. Profiting on a man’s misery. Rushing the video over to the office. The nauseating high-fives. Their smug indifference. Their false concern. Their glee.
From my point of view, it was a strikingly cruel juxtaposition.
Hours before, he was extolling the joys of playing with Kobe Bryant, the patience Phil Jackson had taught him and talking about the need to find peace and stability in his life. And here he was being exploited yet again by an organization that had caused him so much grief over the years.
He was as emotionally defenseless as he’s ever been, spiraling headlong toward rock bottom. He was wearing the same clothes as the night before.
I could see he was powerless to stop it. It was infuriating. It was unfair.
But a line at the end of his rant was by far the most telling.
“Can’t nobody bounce a ball better than me and nobody want to f--k with me,” he said.
By nobody he meant NBA teams. Many front-office types felt his private life and public struggles made him unemployable. It was heartbreaking. He had just explained to me how they could take away the thing I thought no one could touch.
He was right.
Later that day, I called him, expecting voice mail. He picked up. I ask him if he’s OK. He brushes it off.
“Everything good with you?” he asks. “You OK?
He’s asking me if I’m OK. But that’s Lamar.
Back at home, I scrolled through the hours of audio looking for one thing. It was the thing that gave me the most hope. Odom wanted to play in the NBA again. He met with Phil Jackson during Las Vegas Summer League to talk about joining the Knicks. He was working out in Vegas, focusing on weights, conditioning and boxing with Zab Judah.
The game has been his life, and he wanted to leave it on his own terms.
I find the audio. This is what he said:
“If I can get ready to perform, I’ll give it another shot. The best situation would be for me to get in shape and for Phil and Fish to give me a chance. Phil is my teacher. He’s family. I learned the intricacies of basketball from him. If I can just get in shape. I’ve lost 30 pounds this summer. Maybe 40. In New York I can be a real father to my kids. Not a ‘phone call away’ father. I need to be with people I love. I don’t want to be in a situation where I have to prove myself as a person at 36. So that’s three places: New York, L.A. and Miami. This business is about relationships, and I know people all over the league. So we’ll see.”
I remember him leaning back in his chair, running his large palm over that camel-humped dome. He sighed. I tell myself that he smiled—even if he didn’t.
“They used to call me The Goods,” he said. “That was my name.”
This is not a eulogy. It is not a remembrance. This is the story of a man.
Lamar Odom’s life doesn’t just matter when he’s trending, when he’s lying in a hospital bed fighting for his life. Athletes are everyday people who happen to be capable of extraordinary things. But they were everyday people first. It will always be their most important quality.
He has never seen himself as anything but a kid from New York. Queens will never leave his heart or his sleeve. That they cannot take.
It's all bottled in tiny memories from every interaction that remain beautifully unscathed.
Take one afternoon after a practice during the Lakers championship years when I meet Odom at a Manhattan Beach bistro festooned with luscious tropical foliage and wood grain everything called Sloopy’s that Phil Jackson recommended to him. He orders a grilled chicken sandwich, fries and a bottle of apple juice. He finishes it off with a thick vanilla milkshake, his favorite.
Later out in the parking lot there is a glorious view of the Pacific three blocks away. The surface of the water is a kinetic array of brilliant dancing sparkles. Sailboats elegantly waft in the distance. The blues of the ocean and the sky meet on the infinite horizon.
“Just look around you,” Odom says. “How can you not love this?”
We sit in his car and chat for a bit listening to a 50 Cent/Frankie Beverly and Maze mashup I’ve never heard.
“I’ve been listening to it nonstop,” he says.
“Yeah, I like this,” I offer, nodding my head.
Odom ejects the CD and hands it to me.
“Here, you can have it,” he says. “Listen to the whole thing.”
That kind of small gesture defines him far more accurately than any tabloid, reality TV show or basketball skill set ever could. That unrelenting selflessness. The magic of Lamar Odom.
Back at the restaurant, it’s late, and we’re both tired. I tell him I’ll be heading back to L.A. tomorrow.
“You sure?” he asks quizzically. “If you want to stay the week, I’ll put you up.”
I tell him we should just meet in L.A. in two days. He agrees. I slip my iPhone in my back-right pocket. Swig the last of my drink.
“You good?” he asks. He always asks that. I always say “yes.”
I hug him and leave the restaurant. On my way to the cabstand, I stop by the front desk.
A few minutes later, Odom and his group pass me in the lobby. He is smiling wide. He sees me. He points at me.
“We gonna do this all week,” he says. “You know how we go.”
It’s reassuring, and it feels good. I hope it’s true. It feels like 2009 again.
“Don’t forget about me now,” I call out.
“Never,” he says over his shoulder. He smiles and turns away. He glides down the hallway.
There goes Lamar Odom. The last of his kind.