High life took its toll as Odom's life unravelled

Former NBA player Lamar Odom, pictured while living the Hollywood lifestyle as the subject of the 2011 reality TV show Khloe and Lamar. The one-time Lakers forward remains in a coma after a drug overdose, after being found unconscious in a brothel.
Former NBA player Lamar Odom, pictured while living the Hollywood lifestyle as the subject of the 2011 reality TV show Khloe and Lamar. The one-time Lakers forward remains in a coma after a drug overdose, after being found unconscious in a brothel.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • A youth basketball coach in New York City received a phone call in July. One of his former players was looking for him.

The player was Lamar Odom, the former high school basketball star who went on to win two National Basketball Association titles with the Los Angeles Lakers.

His professional basketball career was finished, and his private struggles were playing out for public consumption on reality television.

Odom hoped to patch things up with his former coach. He also wanted help. "Then why did you move to Las Vegas?" the coach, Gary Charles, recalled asking him.

Odom assured Charles he was committed to regaining his fitness and playing basketball again. So Charles made arrangements for Odom to work out later that week at a Las Vegas high school.

Charles was optimistic. Perhaps this was the fresh start Odom desperately needed.

But, when that day came, Odom did not show up.

On Thursday, Odom, 35, remained hospitalised in Las Vegas, two days after he was found unconscious in a Nevada brothel.

The hospital has not released information about his condition, but news reports said he was in a medically induced coma after a drug-fuelled binge. "I can't lie," Charles said. "A lot of us were afraid of this day."

Many athletes fade from public view and struggle to find a purpose once their playing days are over.

Odom, however, has had a quintessentially modern late-career and post-career existence.

He was married to, and later estranged from, the reality TV celebrity Khloe Kardashian. Their marriage and its demise were chronicled for the masses.

Even those who had never met him could watch his decline. "I wish he had just come home and surrounded himself with the genuine, loving people who have been there for you from the beginning," said Erick Barkley, a former team-mate at Christ the King Regional High School in Queens.

The Lakers have always thrown their arms around the entertainment world. But in Odom's final season with the team in 2010-11, they may as well have played under the Hollywood sign.

Sasha Vujacic, a back-up guard, was engaged to the telegenic tennis star Maria Sharapova. Shannon Brown, another back-up guard, was married to the pop star Monica.

Matt Barnes, a reserve forward, was married to Gloria Govan, who starred on the reality show Basketball Wives.

And then there was Odom, who had met Kardashian at an August 2009 party thrown for his team-mate Ron Artest. A month later, they were married.

The wedding was featured on an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and Odom quickly became a fixture in the US' first family of reality television.

When the E! network unveiled its plans for a spin-off series called Khloe and Lamar in January 2011, Odom did not appear to be an ingenue along for the ride. It was a calculated business decision made by someone who grew up aware of life's hard realities.

"As an athlete, you've got to take advantage of opportunities," Odom said at the time. "When the ball stops bouncing, it stops bouncing."

He also appreciated that this was a different type of opportunity, not one that availed itself often to basketball players.

He hoped that the series would showcase what his team-mates saw regularly - his wry humour and ability to poke fun at himself - and that it would be an opportunity for him to evolve, to show that he was worth paying attention to for something more than sticking a ball in a hoop.

That did not stop others from raising their eyebrows - or their arms. The show came in the midst of the Lakers' drive for a third consecutive NBA championship, at a time when the coach, Phil Jackson, had wondered aloud about the attention span of many of his players, whose performance in the first half of the season suggested they were conserving their energy for the playoffs.

But, while Jackson backed Odom's involvement, he barred the camera crew from the toilets, the showers, the trainer's room and the coaches' office. "There are some things we won't be doing," he said.

Odom welcomed the opportunity to do the show - and the public scrutiny. Knowing his attention and effort sometimes flagged over the course of the season, he hoped the show would help hold him accountable.

Even a mini-slump would raise questions about his priorities. "That's almost like the added incentive a little bit," he said. "I'll make sure I remain sharp and stay in the gym, but basketball is basketball. I won't tire myself out. Of course, if I don't play well, it's easy to take a shot at me."

There was little reason to do so that season, among the finest of Odom's career. A 2.08m power forward, he set career highs in shooting and three-point shooting percentage and averaged 14.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists, contributions that earned him the NBA's Sixth Man Award.

So he never could have anticipated what was to come for him.

"When he got traded from the Lakers, I think he took that hard," said former NBA player Speedy Claxton, a high school team-mate. "He really liked it in LA. He felt like he had a family there, with the Kardashians. I think that was kind of the start of it, when everything went bad."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2015, with the headline 'High life took its toll as Odom's life unravelled'. Print Edition | Subscribe