As the Lakers head back to L.A. to either win or lose the NBA championship, more than Kobe Bryant‘s legacy is on the line: Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, Andrew Bynum … all of them face career-defining games (or just one game) this week. As does Lamar Odom. Arguably the best all-around talent on the Lakers after Kobe, Odom has averaged 7.6 points and 5.8 rebounds through the first five games against Boston, compared to 14 and 11 per night in the Western Conference Finals. Should the Lakers fall short of a title, the knock on Odom that he often falls short of his potential will only gain credibility. But if L.A. can win two straight games to give them two straight championships, Odom joins a class of players like Michael Cooper and Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson as invaluable sixth men who contributed to multiple championships.
In Dime #57, available on newsstands now, I spoke to Odom in an interview about his game, his legacy, and his life as one of the NBA’s most unlikely paparazzi targets.
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Coming from tragedy in New York City to the charmed life in Los Angeles, nobody would have predicted the kind of fortune that has been afforded to Lamar Odom. Nobody but L.O. himself.
On the final day of the NBA regular season, Lamar Odom sits down for a pre-game meal at Bottega Louie, one of his go-to diners in downtown Los Angeles, the one that always seems to be loud and crowded.
In about six hours, his L.A. Lakers will play the last meaningless game of the schedule (against the cross-town “rival” Clippers) before their real season begins and they set about defending their 2009 NBA championship. With Kobe Bryant sitting out to rest his battle-scarred body, Odom will lead the Lakers in scoring on this night, putting up 21 points and eight rebounds in a loss. But for now, he’s focused on the “slammin’ piece of salmon” that draws him to this relatively new L.A. eatery whose name sounds like a hole-in-the-wall spot in New York.
“You know what’s so funny? It’s kind of set up like a New York spot,” says Odom, the 30-year-old born and bred in Queens. “The flow, the ambiance … that’s probably why I like it so much. I never really thought about that.”
Despite his status as a key contributor on the City of Angels’ 15-man resident rock band — not to mention being a 6-foot-10 Black man with a shining bald head and NYC swagger emanating from his pores like strong cologne — there was a time when Odom could sneak into a spot like this in the middle of the day and have a relatively uninterrupted meal.
Not so much now. In September 2009, Odom married reality-television star Khloe Kardashian, and suddenly his Q-rating jumped to another level. Already known to sports fans, Odom now had an audience that included Midwestern housewives, text-crazed teenyboppers and grocery-store grandmas who read US Weekly and watch “Entertainment Tonight,” a crowd who is more familiar with Perez Hilton than DimeMag.com. No stranger to fame, Odom wasn’t used to paparazzi and gossip pages like this.
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Dime: How has your level of fame changed since …
Lamar Odom: Since I married Shorty? I mean, the Lakers have always been a popular team and I’ve always done well on the basketball court. I’ve always had a strong following out here, but when I got married it was just a different demographic of people that realized who I am. I’ve always been pretty recognizable as a basketball player, but now it’s the person that’s not into basketball that knows me.
Dime: Celebrities in L.A. deal with a different kind of fame than in other cities, but your situation is unique for an L.A. athlete. Manny Ramirez doesn’t necessarily have paparazzi following him wherever he goes.
LO: It’s two different worlds. Like, if I went out before, there might have been paparazzi, but definitely not at the level it is now, you know what I’m saying? There’s not too many basketball players — even some of the most popular ones — where paparazzi would actually follow them. Of course with what my wife does, with her business and her family, it’s a little different for me.
But I’ve been living in L.A. since 1999. I played with the Clippers with Darius Miles, Elton Brand and those guys; that team was kind of the hip-hop generation’s team for a little bit because we were so young. Then I played in Miami with Dwyane Wade and our team was really popular. So there’s always been that popularity, but now people who aren’t into basketball see you on TV a lot more.
Dime: Is it ever annoying when people acknowledge you as “Khloe Kardashian’s husband” and not as Lamar Odom the NBA player?
LO: Nah, I take that more as a compliment than an insult, know what I’m saying? I’ve always remained humble; maybe it’s because of my beginnings, but I stay grounded. I don’t expect for people to know me everywhere I go. I understand that’s a compliment to my wife and to her family for what they do.
Dime: Does it take a while to get used to seeing yourself on magazines and websites you wouldn’t have been on before?
LO: Well, I’m very in-tune to everything going on around me. I’m always very in-tune with pop culture and the media. I’m from New York City, know what I’m saying? I understood what was gonna happen when me and Shorty made this move, you know? It is a little different, as opposed to doing Dime Magazine or seeing yourself on ESPN. What’s different is you might be in one of those (gossip) magazines and you know you didn’t even do an interview, but there’s still a story.
Dime: What’s some of the stuff you’ve read about yourself that was news to you?
LO: (Laughs) Oh man … A lot of that stuff, I know it’s just used to sell magazines, but a lot of it is misconstrued and a lot of it is just completely false. From our relationship to what’s going on with us to how we feel about each other, all kinds of stuff. I don’t really read up on it unless it’s positive.
Dime: How close is your marriage to a “normal” marriage?
LO: It’s extremely normal, dude. It’s extremely normal. We get up, brush our teeth, wash our face, take a shower … just like everybody else, bro. We both care about family a lot. We’re both extremely loyal people. We try to spend as much time together as we can even though we both have pretty busy schedules. We sit down and eat together, watch movies. That’s probably our favorite pastime, just sitting down watching a movie and enjoying each other’s company.
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He can say this because he has never really known “normal.”
Lamar’s story has been well documented: His father was hooked on heroin, his mother died when he was 12 years old. The grandmother who raised him passed away in 2003, and three years later to the day, Lamar lost his six-month-old son Jayden to SIDS. That same summer Lamar was robbed and shot at in Queens by somebody he knew.
That’s not normal. Neither is the fact that he was blessed with talents unique to only a handful of men his size that the NBA has seen. Posting career averages of 14.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists as a pro, Odom is arguably the most versatile power forward of his era. His ball-handling and passing ability exceeds some NBA point guards, meanwhile he finished 11th in the League with 9.8 rebounds per game this season to go with 10.8 points a night.
So that in one summer he could win an NBA championship, sign a four-year contract worth a reported $33 million, then meet and marry a Hollywood TV star isn’t out of the ordinary for Lamar Odom. That he could be the only basketball player besides LeBron, Dwight Howard and Barkley to appear in a commercial (Taco Bell) during this year’s Super Bowl when he’s never even made an All-Star team isn’t out of the ordinary. Lamar re-defines “ordinary” on a daily basis.
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Dime: What does winning a championship mean for you as a player?
LO: It kind of changes your mindset as far as how the game is supposed to be played. It’s like after winning the championship, I no longer play games for personal accolades. I play for wins. As a sportsman, that’s the feeling you want to feel over and over again. It’s a feeling that you really can’t get enough of. You do it one time and it’s something you want to keep continuously doing. For me, in my career, winning is how I wanna be remembered.
Dime: A couple years ago I asked Tony Parker what keeps him going after winning three championships. He said it was winning a fourth, a fifth, a sixth ring.
LO: It’s crazy because it’s never enough, dude. After winning the championship once, I don’t want to see nobody else doing it. Especially when you play on a team like the Lakers that’s known for doing it. We’re known for being the best.
Dime: You grew up following the Knicks, so you know about teams with tradition. What is it like being a Laker and being part of that lineage?
LO: As far as notoriety the Lakers are probably the most talked-about professional sports team. When people talk about baseball, it’s the Yankees. With football, it’s the Cowboys. With basketball, it’s the Lakers. Around the world, not just America, you ask people about the NBA and they know the Lakers, you know what I mean?
There’s really nothing like playing on the big stage here in front of the stars. When I first got here I was in awe. The people that you just watched on TV or the last movie you rented, they’re at the game rooting for you. It’s crazy. That’s part of the reason the energy in our arena is just unbelievable.
Dime: What did you do with the ’09 championship ring?
LO: I gave it to my son. He’s eight years old and crazy about basketball. It’s his championship ring. The next one, that’ll be for me. I’ll get it fitted for my pinky or something; I’ll probably wear that one every day. The first one was for him, though. The next one is for me.
Dime: How do you see your role on the Lakers?
LO: “Mr. Everything,” you know what I mean? Control the tempo, play point guard, play power forward, score the ball, rebound the ball, defend — that’s my game. Some guys shoot threes, some guys rebound; my role is to do a little bit of everything.
Dime: What is a good game for you? Ten points and 10 boards? Twenty, 10 and seven assists?
LO: Double-digit points, double-digit rebounds … anywhere from three to six to seven assists. Not turning the ball over and relieving the pressure for our guards. Statistically, it depends on the game and the situation. It might be eight, eight and four, but that could be a really strong game depending on certain parts of the game I controlled.
Dime: Of all the things you can do on the court, what do you do best?
LO: Definitely my ability to defensive rebound and start the fast break. First of all, our crowd loves that style of basketball, because that’s how they played here in the ’80s. It ignites the crowd and ignites the team.
Dime: Your off-the-court portfolio has always been impressive. You’ve got the Rich Soil clothing line, music, movies, now there’s national TV commercials. How do you balance everything?
LO: That’s part of just being a businessman. At the end of the day we’re athletes, but this is also a business. I’m in a great place in L.A. where I can take advantage of a big market and get endorsements. This is one of the strongest media capitals in the world, you know? L.A. is a great place to be more than just a basketball player. I’ve always been very creative, always thinking of new ideas. I never wanted to be just a basketball player.
Dime: What do you see yourself doing when you’re done playing?
LO: Having a successful fashion line. Dabbling in all types of things: Producing moves, being behind the scenes in the music industry, real estate. Basically being a mogul.
Dime: During the season do you have to put all of that on the backburner? How active can you be in business when you’ve got games to play?
LO: You can be active with it, but like anything, there’s only so much time in your day. With any business you’re always gonna have people working with you and working for you. I have an incredible team of people around me; they help me with the day-to-day stuff. I call ‘em Team Odom. That’s the name of my AAU team as well.
Dime: You would think a lot more players would sponsor AAU programs, but really the only ones we hear about often are you and Carmelo. What did you want to get out of having an AAU program?
LO: AAU was a big part of my life. It’s turned into a business, so I wanted to take some of the pressure off these kids from it being a business. Just let them have fun, let them be kids. When I was coming up, Kevin Garnett had just went to the NBA, Kobe had just went to the NBA — amateur athletics was changing. It’s important for me to give back and give kids a way to express themselves.
Dime: Do you ever just sit back and consider where you came from, then look at what you’ve done? You’ve met the President, married a TV star, playing for the Lakers, winning rings…
LO: It’s almost like in that book The Secret. There are things you have to envision for yourself in order to make them happen. If you take a kid who wants to be a doctor, he has to envision himself being a doctor. If you wanna be a designer or an artist, somewhere along the line you see yourself being a designer or painting that picture that’s one of the best paintings, you know what I’m saying?
Sometimes it’s just what you put in the atmosphere. I always felt like my energy has always been positive, that my outlook on life is always positive. I’ve seen a lot of death. I’ve seen a lot of hard times at an early age, but I always saw myself rising to the top. When I was six, seven years old, I envisioned myself in the NBA. I saw myself winning championships. I saw myself making a lot of things happen.