After our in-class discussion that touched on media framing last week, I would like to take a moment to provide the parts of Lamar Odom’s history that many entertainment driven media outlets missed. There is more to the man than the headlines. If you want to understand why people in the sports community care so much about an NBA/reality star, proper context is required. Odom’s story is among the saddest in professional sports. Fair warning: We’re going deep.
Odom grew up in South Jamaica, Queens, NYC with his mother. His father, struggling with heroin addiction, was largely absent from his life. When Odom was 12 years old, his mother died of colon cancer and he was sent to live with his grandmother. She was his emotional support through the hardest part of his childhood.
Three years later, Odom befriended soon-to-be NBA star Kobe Bryant at the 1995 Adidas ABCD Camp. The two would both go pro in their own time. On June 29, 2003, Odom’s grandmother died. Odom, 22 at the time, needed a new support system. He found one when he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers the following year, rejoining Bryant.
In 2005, Odom fathered his third child (Jayden) with then girlfriend Liza Morales. It seemed as if the reaper that shadowed him through his youth had let him be to enjoy his family. This was not the case. Odom was shaken when six-month-old Jayden died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome on the third anniversary of his grandmother’s passing.
Odom began writing the names of his dearly departed on his shoes as a pregame ritual: Cathy (mother), Mildred (grandmother), Jayden (son). Throughout his NBA career, he was widely known for being a warm and sensitive person. In 2009 and 2010, the Lakers won back-to-back championships. In 2011, Odom was voted NBA Sixth Man of the Year, but was traded to the Dallas Mavericks after the Lakers failed to 3-peat; a move that Bryant publicly criticized.
That July, Odom received word that his cousin, with whom he was close, had been murdered in Queens. He returned home for the funeral. The following day, Odom was involved in a traffic fatality when his chauffer struck a motorcyclist that knocked a 15-year-old boy off his scooter. The boy lay dying in the street, unaided as distracted bystanders requested Odom’s autograph.
Overcome by grief once more, and without any semblance of a support system, the once dominant forward struggled to perform at even a passable level in Dallas. He and the Mavericks mutually agreed to part ways before the completion of one full season. In 2012, he signed with the Los Angeles Clippers, only to struggle even more. It would be his last season in the NBA.
By 2013, Odom was pervasively rumored to be abusing cocaine as he spiraled into depression. He would attempt a number of NBA comebacks to no avail. He would also attempt to get clean with limited success. Spending life surrounded by death takes its toll, and it wasn’t done taking.
On June 14, 2015, Odom was devastated by the sudden death of best friend Jamie Sangouthai, who died of a heroin overdose. Odom barely had time to arrange the funeral before their mutual friend, Bobby Heyward, overdosed six days later. Without his family, his friends, his teammates, or his estranged wife, Odom hit rock bottom. It was a long, torturous trip to present day.
The events of the past few weeks are deeply saddening for many. Entertainment news coverage paints the picture of a coked up reality star that simply partied too hard, but the pattern of depression and self-destructive coping has been longstanding for Odom. His story is one that the basketball community has followed very closely for several years, hoping for a happy resolution, not the mockery brothel deathbed he narrowly escaped.
While fending off personal demons in the face of repeated loss is not a struggle unique to Odom, it is one that should be understood, and not trivialized. The man needs help just to live his life, as do others who are antithetically fortunate to evade the public eye. Behind the sexy headlines is a son without his mother, a father without his son, a husband without his wife, a friend without his comrades, and a champion without his dignity.