The superlatives followed—at light speed. Everyone went bonkers about the then-6-6 kid with the guard’s skills and big-game heroics. You couldn’t blame them. Odom was a phenom. “I’ve been around a long time and seen a lot of kids, but he was way ahead of everybody else,” Christ the King coach Bob Oliva says. That’s what has Rhode Island fans so excited. In many ways, Odom is still ahead of the pack, although now we’re dealing with potential, rather than working off a proven body of collegiate work. DeGregorio sounds almost silly when he ways the Rams could use Odom at the point this year. Then you hear Harrick talk, and you understand the idea isn’t merely a pipe dream. These guys are serious. “[Lamar] keeps telling me he can play the point,” Harrick says. “I’ll have to watch him in practice and see the decisions he makes. Can he handle the ball against a quick guy? Can he get into the operational area against pressure and make plays?” Harrick may be skeptical, but he knows what’s possible.
He should. Had Harrick not been bounced from UCLA before the ’96-97 season, Odom could very well have been playing for the Bruins. “In the summer before my senior year, I had taken an unofficial visit to UCLA, and I knew I was going to go there,” Odom says. Once Harrick left, Westwood was no longer a possibility, and Odom began to look more closely at UNLV and Kentucky. The Rebels won in the end, partly because Odom was afraid Rick Pitino was leaving Lexington for the NBA—a good instinct, as it turns out—and also because fellow New Yorker Kevin Simmons was headed to Sin City. “UNLV was the place for me,” Odom says.
Not exactly. When allegations (nothing was ever proven, of course) surfaced that Odom had cheated on the ACT exam, the Rebels backed off. Big time. Odom says head coach Bill Bayno didn’t even personally deliver the news that the recruit wasn’t welcome anymore, instead dispatching a lieutenant to cut the cord. In a town where the fun never ends, Odom’s hadn’t even started. “I knew then I had no control, absolutely no control,” Odom says. Worse yet, he had to remain in Vegas to finish a course at a local community college that would give him his high school diploma. Talk about a crap-out.
“It was probably one of the worst days of my life,” Odom says about learning he wouldn’t lay at Vegas. “If we ever meet [UNLV] in a tournament, I’m going to let a lot of anger out. If I play against them, I think I have a 60-point game waiting for them.”
It ain’t bragging if you can do it. And during his prep and AAU careers, Odom did it, flashing the skills necessary to dominate any game he wanted to—if he wanted to. About the only on-court criticism leveled against him is that he’s too generous with his talents. He enjoys setting up teammates, often at the expense of making the right play himself. Like many big people, Odom fancies himself a guard. It’s something of a disease that afflicts many of the tall. Remember Ralph Sampson? Life just isn’t fair. While all these flesh-and-blood skyscrapers want to shrink, hundreds of 5-8 power forwards get laughed at. Okay, enough of that.
Odom’s multiple talents and big-time pedigree actually hurt him when he first came to Rhode Island. because he was so good, the kind of recruit the program had never even sniffed before, he was treated with suspicion by the URI administration. Last year in Philadelphia, after the Rams had dumped St. Joseph’s, Harrick said that when it was all over, he would have some amazing stories to tell. Although not yet in his Aesop mode, Harrick does allow that the school’s administration was not all that taken with Odom when he arrived in Kingston. They, too, had read the papers. They had heard the stories. And their minds were polluted. “Until they saw Lamar and got used to him, there was some trouble,” Harrick admits. “When they talked to him, they saw what he’s about.”
But they still didn’t welcome him. Odom couldn’t even enroll full-time; he was a “non-matriculated student.” He took classes, but he did so an outsider. He wasn’t admitted to school. He couldn’t even practice with the team. He couldn’t even play intramural ball. No wonder Odom bolted campus last December, once the season started in earnest. He still had no home. He was depressed.
“Like for a lot of young people, it’s very difficult to lay a foundation when they’ve never had someone try to instill discipline,” Harrick says. “Young people are like flowers. You water them. You give them sunshine. You want them to blossom and develop. Lamar had a growing year. As time lapsed and he started to fell he could get eligible and play, the better he got.”
That’s the Odom story—on and off the court. Because he hasn’t stepped onto a college court yet, we must rely on stories and legends and eyewitness accounts to find out about Odom the player. And because he has had much more written and spoken about him than he has said himself our perceptions about Odom the person are not all our own, either. But that is all changing. On November 9, Rhode Island opens its season against Texas Christian in something called the CoSIDA Classic. From that moment on, we’ll know, firsthand, all about Odom on the court.
The last year has done for Odom what the previous four could not. It gave him discipline. It strengthened his resolve. It taught him how to handle his responsibilities—and perhaps more importantly, showed him that things will only get more complicated.
“I think the bad things are all out of the way,” Odom says. “From here on, I’m making wise decisions. I’m doing my best in class. It’s all about growing up. I’ve been called on to grow fast since 10th grade. Now I have coach Harrick and Jerry behind me. I need to make the right decisions. I know what bad decisions can do.”
Everybody who knows Odom wonders how different things would have been had his mother, Kathy, not died of cancer when Odom was 12. A corrections officer on Riker’s Island, Kathy Odom had the fortitude necessary to shield her son from fame’s dark side. “He fell into the trap,” Oliva says. “He had no mother and no father [Odom’s dad, Joseph, split from Kathy when Odom was young and has never played much of a role in his life], and his grandmother [Mildred] was 76. He had no real guidance, and he started to listen to everyone.” When everything was going wrong last year, Odom prayed to Kathy and asked for strength. It has finally come.
And he’s still only 19. Remember that.