THEY CALLED HIM the Package, because he contained so many gifts, and because people always seemed to be waiting for him. Lamar Odom would bolt unannounced from the University of Rhode Island's campus, turn off his cellphone and check into a hotel so he could be alone. Three days later he'd call head coach Jim Harrick. "This is the Package," he'd say. "The Package has arrived." One of those many gifts is his charm. Everybody laughed, as if the disappearances were a quirk and not a signal.
On Oct. 10, Odom vanished again, to a brothel 70 miles northwest of Las Vegas called the Love Ranch. But in truth he'd been gone much longer. For more than a year NBA sources who were once close to Odom had shared concerns about him. Among the laments: Nobody knows where he is.... He won't return anybody's calls.... He keeps changing his number.... He says we'll get together and he doesn't follow through.... I'm worried. Sightings on TMZ and at 24 Hour Fitness in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley did little to quell the anxiety.
The world waits again for the Package, feverishly refreshing gossip websites as he lies in intensive care at Sunrise Hospital in Las Vegas, reportedly breathing on his own and speaking after he was found unconscious in the brothel with cocaine, alcohol and herbal stimulants in his system. Trauma has followed Odom since he was 12 and his mother died of colon cancer, sending him sprinting into the streets of Queens, N.Y., until he reached Lincoln Park and shot jumpers all night. His father was a heroin addict, so he was raised by his Grandma Mildred, who died in 2003. Three years later, to the day, Odom's six-month-old son, Jayden, died of SIDS. Some people are able to push past their personal catastrophes. Odom clung to his ghosts, staring at photographs of dead relatives every morning, then scrawling their names on his sneakers in the locker room before games.
Beyond his 6'10" frame, his sublime handle and his joyful countenance, misfortune became his identity. He fashioned himself into a tragic figure, buying a white Mercedes because that was the car Lloyd Daniels drove the day they met. Daniels, one of the most celebrated players ever to come out of New York City, went to rehab three times, was arrested in one drug deal and survived a shooting in another. "People used to call me Little Lloyd," Odom once said from behind the wheel of his own pearly Benz.
He experienced the worst of urban America and grassroots basketball, that familiar but devastating one-two punch. A playground prodigy, bought and sold by coaches and runners before he turned 18, Odom attended three high schools and sparked two NCAA investigations. He declared for the draft after a year at Rhode Island—where he wore his first backpack—but reconsidered and tried to pull out, recognizing he wasn't ready. Alas, he'd already signed with an agent. In 1999, when he was 21, the Clippers made Odom a captain, and in 2001 he violated the NBA's antidrug policy twice in eight months.
Years later, during an autograph signing at an Orange County mall, a fan presented Odom with a card from his four years with the Clippers. Odom stared at the picture for a solid 20 seconds. "Look at that," he cooed. "That's me." By then he was a Laker, and four months later, in June 2009, he'd be a champion. But he didn't sell the story of his own transformation, perhaps because he didn't buy it. "There's a fine line between utopia and disaster," one of his high school coaches, Bob Oliva, once said. Odom tiptoed that line with his size-16 hightops.
"Be nice to everybody," his mother told him on her deathbed, and he followed those words as if they were gospel. He invited D-Leaguers to expensive dinners. He paid private school tuition for kids he'd never met. He incurred fines for holding up the Lakers' bus so he could sign more autographs. He invested in one long-shot project after another, from a T-shirt line to a fancy restaurant. "No was not in his vocabulary," an Odom confidant says.
His benevolent spirit earned him every benefit of the doubt. Questionable behavior was interpreted as lovable eccentricity. Blow off a meeting? Oh, that's just Lamar. Report to camp hopelessly out of shape? Oh, that's just Lamar. Skip out on the Mavericks following the All-Star break? Oh, that's just Lamar. I once heard him ask a locker-room attendant to fetch $60 worth of Red Bull. Again, Lamar.
He didn't fork over money simply because he was generous. He did it also because he was needy. He craved connection, and the Kardashians provided the family he'd never had, until he discovered that their dynamic was nearly as dysfunctional as his own. Odom thought he was ready for the reality show Keeping Up with the Kardashians and its spinoff, Khloé & Lamar, and all the tabloid mania that came with them. After all, he was a Laker, a New Yorker, famous since he was 16. But there is a big difference between sports celebrity and Hollywood celebrity, and he underestimated the gap.
Those who know Odom best debate the thing that started his spiral: the shows or the trade. In December 2011 the Lakers sent Odom to New Orleans in a deal that netted Chris Paul. But the move was promptly vetoed by the league office, and when the Lakers tried to welcome Odom back, he recoiled. L.A. shipped him to Dallas, and the plunge began. Over two frenzied weeks in '13, he went missing for 72 hours, was arrested for DUI and was in a car accident. He checked in and out of rehab. Around the NBA, where Odom is as beloved as any player, his name provoked dread: People worried that the next time they heard news, it would be worse.
He wound up in Las Vegas—appropriately, since that was where he entered the mainstream sports consciousness. He initially committed to play college basketball at UNLV, one of a thousand bad decisions, but he was kicked out before the fall semester of his freshman year over questions about the validity of his ACT score. Jerry DeGregorio, the college coach Odom calls "my white dad," once said, "Putting Lamar in Vegas is like putting Orson Welles in a bakery." The descriptions of Odom's weekend at the ranch recall the film Leaving Las Vegas, in which an alcoholic played by Nicolas Cage drinks himself to death in the company of a prostitute. "I don't know if I started drinking 'cause my wife left me or my wife left me 'cause I started drinking," Cage's character said. "But f--- it anyway."
Odom could never hurt anybody but himself. I remember interviewing him on the Lakers' practice court while E! cameramen flitted around us, filming for one of the Kardashian shows, in which he was featured as Khloé's husband and sidekick. Odom covered his mouth. "Do you want to be on the show?" he whispered.
"O.K.," I replied.
"Are you sure?" he asked.
Leave it to Lamar Odom to ask the follow-up question that everybody should have been posing to him. Strip away the size and the handle, the addictions and the demons, and you are left with the sweetest of souls.
It's all part of the Package.
ODOM TIPTOED THE "FINE LINE BETWEEN UTOPIA AND DISASTER" IN HIS SIZE-16 HIGHTOPS.
Photograph by Bob Rosato for Sports Illustrated
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
WALK OF FAME Odom, who memorialized his dead relatives by writing their names on his sneakers before games (above), found a family in the Kardashians but wasn't prepared for the spotlight that came with wife Khloé (left).
GILBERT CARRASQUILLO/FILMMAGIC/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]