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Heady Lamar With poise and polish that belie his spotty past, rookie Lamar Odom has opened big in L.A.

It was a typically blissful day in the suddenly charmed life of
Lamar Odom. After his postpractice massage one afternoon last
week, he relaxed in the plush leather backseat of a Cadillac,
oblivious to the Los Angeles traffic. His driver ferried him to
lunch at Odom's favorite New York-style deli, then home to his
new condo in Marina del Rey, where he lives with his girlfriend,
Liza Morales, and their one-year-old daughter, Destiny. Odom,
the Clippers' many-splendored rookie forward, has grown
accustomed to traveling in such style, not because of his status
as the league's hottest newcomer but because, as a native New
Yorker who relied on the subway to get around, he never bothered
to obtain a driver's license.

Odom, 20, is still in no hurry to line up at the DMV; after his
nightmarish entanglements in NCAA bylaws and NBA predraft
evaluations, the maze that is the L.A. freeway system holds
little appeal. His journey to the pros wasn't nearly as smooth a
ride as the ones he gets these days--he was labeled an academic
outlaw and an indecisive, irresponsible head case along the way.
But by the third week of his first season Odom had been so
impressive that a Southern California columnist had already
anointed him a better all-around player than the other prodigy
at the Staples Center, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. At 6'10", with
a variety of talents that include the ability to handle the ball
as deftly as a point guard, Odom has already begun to inspire
the obligatory comparisons to Magic Johnson. "Things are
happening real fast," Odom says. "But for a change, they're
happening right."

The Clippers have found Odom to be every bit the player they had
hoped for, with a far more engaging and upbeat personality than
his past troubles would suggest. Despite a 4-9 start, the team
may finally have found a star with enough mass appeal to draw
some local attention away from the Lakers. Odom, who was
averaging 18.9 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists through
Sunday, isn't quite the highlight-film acrobat that many of the
league's other young hotshots are, but he is more polished than
almost all of them, with a game that's as smooth as his baby
face. He is a glider, rarely hurried or overeager, and though
he's capable of hitting the three or beating a defender
one-on-one and spinning into the lane for his lefthanded shot,
he's just as content to draw double teams and set up teammates
for easy opportunities. The Clippers have asked him to do all of
that and more.

Coach Chris Ford essentially handed Odom the keys to the team's
attack on the first day of practice, and he has been remarkably
comfortable behind the wheel. He has thriven everywhere from the
point to the post, quickly establishing himself as not only the
early leader in the Rookie of the Year race, but also one of
those players who makes the traditional concept of positions
seem more out of date than a manual typewriter. Call him a small
forward if you need to affix a label. Odom does not. "I'm just a
basketball player, you know?" he says. "Just put me where you
need me."

Odom developed his versatile game on the playgrounds of the
South Ozone Park section of Queens, where he grew up as an only
child. His mother, Kathy Mercer, died of colon cancer when he
was 12, and he was raised by his grandmother, Mildred Mercer.
Odom says that after his mother's death he was no longer
motivated to do well in school, and his grades plummeted so
badly that he transferred twice as a high school senior in an
attempt to stay eligible. His weak academic record caused
several top programs to steer clear of him, and a 1997 story in
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED raising the possibility that someone had
taken a standardized test for him persuaded UNLV to rescind its
scholarship offer. (Odom denies that anyone took the test for
him or gave him any improper help, but his test scores were
invalidated by the NCAA, and he sat out a year at Rhode Island
as a nonqualifier.) NBA teams would probably have overlooked his
academic woes after his stellar freshman season, but Odom cost
himself the probable top spot in the June draft--and the $2.5
million difference between the maximum contract for a No. 1 pick
and a No. 4 pick--when he waffled last spring over his
intentions to turn pro. After declaring himself eligible for the
draft in May, he signed with R&D Sports Management, a company
run by David Chapman, a Las Vegas dentist and UNLV booster, and
Roger Peltyn, a Las Vegas engineer. He also hired an agent, Jeff
Klein, whom he had met through Chapman.

Odom went through one workout, for the Vancouver Grizzlies, but
then began to have second thoughts about his decision. "The
business part of it just didn't feel right to me," he says. "I
was putting my future in the hands of people I really didn't
know very well. It scared me, to be honest. I was a kid, and I
was scared."

While he was sorting out his thoughts, he was also skipping
opportunities to showcase his skills, first missing the scouting
combine in Chicago in June, then failing to show up for
scheduled workouts in Charlotte for the Hornets and in Chicago
for the Bulls. Finally Odom called Jerry DeGregorio, the former
Rhode Island assistant who had taken over as head coach in
mid-April after Jim Harrick had left for Georgia. Odom told
DeGregorio he had changed his mind and wanted to return to
school, but it was too late. Under NCAA rules, once an athlete
signs with an agent, he permanently forfeits his eligibility.
Odom argued for an exception, insisting that he had not received
any money or services from Klein, but Rhode Island decided not
to appeal to the NCAA on his behalf.

Now Odom was stuck. He had to enter the draft, but he had hurt
his standing in the eyes of pro coaches and general managers.
"They didn't know exactly what to make of me," he says. "I
understand that. I think I also offended a lot of NBA people by
not going to the combine in Chicago. That was kind of going
against the system, and I don't think they take that lightly."

Odom hired a new agent, Jeff Schwartz, and worked out for four
teams--the Bulls, Clippers, Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat. On
the night before the draft he flew to Chicago and met with the
Bulls, who had the first pick. "It didn't go great and it didn't
go terribly," he says. "Teams will tell you if they love you,
but they won't say anything if they don't. The Bulls didn't say
much to me when it was over. It didn't surprise me when they
didn't take me."

Instead Chicago chose Duke forward Elton Brand, citing his
dependability. Odom was slightly more surprised when the
Grizzlies used the second pick to select Maryland guard Steve
Francis, whom they traded to Houston. The Hornets took UCLA
point guard Baron Davis next, leaving Odom still on the board
when the Clippers picked. Odom has no desire to pay back the
teams that passed on him. "It's every player's dream to be the
first pick of the draft," Odom says. "But it was 75 degrees here
in L.A. today. It was about 30 in Chicago."

That's the kind of bright outlook that makes it hard to believe
Odom has such a dark past. "He's a fun-loving kid who does all
the things we make rookies do, like carry the bags and place the
veterans' orders when we're in a restaurant," says Clippers
forward Maurice Taylor. "I think people meet him and are
surprised to find out he's nothing like what they thought."

As a player, Odom comes as advertised. It usually takes only a
brief look at him to appreciate the full range of his skills. In
a 100-95 home win over the New York Knicks on Nov. 23, his
statistical line was stuffed by the end of the first quarter,
which he finished with 13 points, three assists, three rebounds
and a steal. He was simply too tall for 6'5" Knicks forward
Latrell Sprewell, over whom Odom shot for most of the game, and
too quick for 6'9" power forward Kurt Thomas, around whom he
drove as if Thomas were a detour sign on a couple of
possessions. "There aren't many teams who really can match up
with him," says Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "Maybe Minnesota,
with Kevin Garnett, but not many others. He's going to cause a
lot of headaches for people."

Stats don't reflect the way Odom often takes over at point guard
late in close games, or the way the Clippers come out of
timeouts in crucial moments and immediately try to get the ball
into his hands. It's not unusual to see Odom bring the ball down
and initiate the offense, then drop into the low post to take an
entry pass. "I have to remind myself sometimes that he's only a
20-year-old rookie," Ford says. "He's just so gifted that we
want the ball in his hands as often as we can get it there. He's
already become the kind of player that defenses have to
double-team or they'll get killed, and when that happens, it
opens things up for everyone else."

Although the comparisons to Magic are apt--Heat coach Pat Riley
was even moved to pull out old tapes of Johnson to show Odom a
few days before the draft--Odom doesn't have Magic's
halogen-bulb smile. He tends to flash sly, playful ones, which
are more in keeping with his personality. He'll catch a pass
near midcourt and pretend he's thinking about taking a
40-footer, then wink at his defender. His wit is as quick as his
first step. After the victory over the Knicks, Clippers owner
Donald Sterling came into the locker room to congratulate Odom,
who finished with 24 points, six rebounds, five assists, two
blocked shots and a steal. "We're not letting you go, even if it
takes $300 million," Sterling said, referring to the riches Odom
will command when his three-year contract expires. "Just
remember you said that," Odom shot back, smiling.

Nicknames don't seem to stick to Odom any better than defenders
do, which is a shame, because the Package, the tag that was
briefly applied to him during his season at Rhode Island, seems
to fit perfectly. Not only does he seem to have a full bundle of
skills, but he also might as well have arrived on the Clippers'
doorstep wrapped up and tied in a bow, courtesy of the teams who
bypassed him in the draft. "I'd never tell my owner this, but we
had a pretty good chance to move up and take him, and I thought
he was too big a character risk," says a Western Conference
general manager. "I've already seen enough to know now that his
talent makes him worth almost any risk. I've got a feeling he's
going to have me kicking myself for the next 10 or 15 years."

Odom won't look that far ahead. He even recoils at the mention
of the Rookie of the Year award. "How can anybody be thinking 70
games down the line?" he asks. For now, Odom is satisfied that
things are finally going his way. "This is how I saw it
unfolding when I was 10 years old on the playground, waiting for
the street lamps to come on for extra light," he says. It would
be tempting to call Odom's success a happy ending, if it didn't
feel so much like a beginning.

COLOR PHOTO: NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBA PHOTOS Heady Lamar With polish belying his past, top NBA rookie Lamar Odom has opened big for the Clippers [T of C]

B/W PHOTO: NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBA PHOTOS A handful Able to dominate at the point or in the post, the 6'10" Odom is proving to be a nightmare matchup for NBA opponents.

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Air mail Odom, a.k.a. the Package, often delivers with his left hand.

"It's every player's dream to be picked first," Odom says. "But
it was 75 degrees here in L.A. today. It was about 30 in Chicago."