Lamar Odom's initial success in the NBA was ultimately marred by off-the-court issues

By Michael Miller
Updated October 16, 2015 12:35 PM
Credit: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty

Amid the attention and fame that went along with his life in the Kardashian clan, it’s easy to overlook what was once an immensely successful (and lucrative) basketball career for Lamar Odom.

The game was a natural escape for the Queens, New York native, who’s mother died of cancer when he was 12. His father, Joe Odom, was a disabled veteran and a heroin addict, leaving Odom to be raised by his grandmother, Mildred Mercer.

At 6 feet 10 inches tall and with the ball handling skills of a point guard, Odom’s talents made him famous at a young age in his home town and beyond. College scouts flocked to watch him play at Christ the King high school, where his basketball intelligence and selfless play made him one of the most sought-after young talents in the country.

The outpouring of support from his former teammates after he was found unconscious in a Nevada brothel this week is a testament to his popularity as a player. Several NBA stars including Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, Dwyane Wade and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak have wished him well.

His road to the NBA was cemented during his senior year of high school in 1997, when he was named Parade Magazine Player of the Year, made USA Today‘s All-USA first team and was picked to play in the McDonald’s High School All-American Game – alongside future NBA stars Tracy McGrady, Ron Artest and Elton Brand.

“L.O. was a point forward,” NBA star Carmelo Anthony told the Associated Press of Odom. “A lot of people will tell you he was one of my favorite players coming out of high school, one of the best high school players I’ve seen as a kid.”

As one of the top recruits in the country, doors began to open quickly for Odom. He was soon faced with the decision to continue his schooling as a collegiate athlete, or make an early transition to the NBA. He even flew to Los Angeles to consult with Kobe Bryant, who had made the jump from high school to the pros himself years earlier.

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He eventually decided to play ball at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, but his scholarship was revoked after a Sports Illustrated article questioned the validity of his ACT scores and brought attention to a previous arrest for soliciting a prostitute.

Odom was soon taken in by the University of Rhode Island, where he would spend the 1997 98 season as a non-matriculating student working to regain his NCAA eligibility. When he returned to the court the next year, Odom led the team to their first Atlantic 10 Tournament title.

The Los Angeles Clippers drafted Odom fourth overall in 1999, and signed him to an $8 million rookie contract. At the time, the Clippers were one of the worst teams in the league, but Odom played well and earned first-team All-Rookie honors.

Over his next two seasons in Los Angeles, Odom was suspended twice for substance abuse after testing positive for marijuana. Another major blow came in the summer of 2003 with the death of his grandmother.

Devastated by the loss, Odom entered free agency in July and decided to make a change. He signed with the Miami Heat and accepted their six-year, $65 million offer.

“I thought it was time to find something new,” he told ESPN about the move. “Being here is a great opportunity for me to prove all the doubters wrong. I don’t think nobody’s doubting I can play basketball. They’re making doubts on other things.”

After having one his best seasons in the NBA, he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in July 2004. He found immediate success with the team, but suffered another tragedy when his 7-month-old son died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in 2006 – three years to the day after his grandmother died.

When the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol in 2008, Odom found himself relegated to a supporting role. He was moved to the bench for the first time in his career when Andrew Bynum returned to the team, after regaining his health during the 2008-09 season.

While Odom’s star in the NBA began to fall, his off court fame was about to skyrocket. After a month long whirlwind romance, he married Khloé Kardashian in 2009.

Although the Lakers went on to win back-to-back NBA titles in 2009 and 2010, Odom saw his role steadily reduced. “It humbles you. But being humbled has been a part of my life for a long time,” Odom told the Los Angeles Times in 2008.

Odom adapted well to his new position on the team and provided a valuable boost from the bench. He decided to re-sign with the Lakers in 2009 for four years and $33 million, and was awarded the coveted Sixth Man of the Year award for the 2010 11 season.

The beginning of the end for Odom came the following season during the NBA lockout. The day after his cousin’s funeral, Odom was involved in a car accident that killed at 15-year-old boy named Awsaf Alvi Islam. “I think the effects of seeing [my cousin] die and then watching this kid die, it beat me down,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I consider myself a little weak. I thought I was breaking down mentally.”

The tragedy and the NBA lockout caused Odom to take a break from basketball. He returned to Lakers camp out-of-shape and mentally distraught. After demanding a trade, the team shipped him to the Dallas Mavericks.

RELATED VIDEO: Khloé Kardashian Is Forced to Make Medical Decisions for Lamar Odom

His next season with Dallas was the worst of his career, and saw a dramatic drop in numbers and effort. At one point, Odom disappeared from the team for 10 days amid reports his father was ill.

“It was really personal and it was something I had to tend to,” he said when he returned. “There are times when we have to fix what is going on off the basketball court in order to fix what’s going on on the court.”

After a reported shouting match with team owner Mark Cuban in the locker room in 2012, Odom was dismissed for the remainder of the season.

Despite an alleged attempt to apologize to Cuban, Odom was traded away from Dallas and back to the Los Angeles Clippers. Although the team was talented, winning a record 56 games, Odom contributed little to their success. At 33, his poor play and mounting off-the-court issues made Odom a difficult sell for prospective teams.

His drug problems came to a head in the summer of 2013, when he allegedly disappeared for three days after his wife staged an intervention. He was also arrested for DUI and had his license suspended for a year after failing to submit to a drug test.

Kardashian filed for divorce from Odom in December 2013 after four years of marriage. The two were estranged for some time before divorce papers were finally signed in mid-July. They technically remain married, since a judgment has not yet been entered in court.

In 2014, Odom signed overseas with Laboral Kutxa of the Spanish ACB League on a two-month deal with an optional extension. He returned to the United States just a month later after suffering a back injury.

His final signing was to the New York Knicks for a two-year, $1.5 million contract in April 2014, but he was waived by the team in July after seeing minimal playing time.

Although many believe he could have accomplished more had it not been for his off the court issues, Odom finished his career as a two-time NBA champion, amassing over $100 million in his 14 years in the league.

“The problem with Lamar is that things came too easy, too fast,” Jerry DeGregorio, former assistant coach at the University of Rhode Island and one of Odom’s closest mentors told The Baltimore Sun in 1998, after Odom’s early troubles. “To some degree you can classify him as a victim – but he was a willing victim.”