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OLYMPICS / ATHENS 2004

Odom Keeps Finding Himself in Unexpected Places

August 15, 2004|Steve Springer and Lonnie White | Times Staff Writers

ATHENS — Olympian Lamar Odom. Who could have seen it coming?

He was the classic underachiever, his four seasons with the Clippers marred by long stints on the injured list and two suspensions for marijuana use.

When Odom joined the Miami Heat and Pat Riley as a free agent last summer, critics chided Miami for overpaying a player with a checkered past. At best, Odom was considered a longshot to play in an NBA All-Star game, let alone represent the United States on the world's biggest athletic stage.

Still, it has been in the back of his mind for a dozen years. In 1992, as a 12-year-old, he watched the first Dream Team, the first squad of professionals to compete for Olympic gold. He watched his boyhood hero, Magic Johnson, play with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and the rest of the stars of the day.

"I saw them on television," Odom said, "and decided I wanted to play in the Olympics and have been dreaming of what it would be like ever since."

In the last year, Odom has been able to realize that dream by pulling off the ultimate makeover.

At Miami, the 6-foot-10 Odom emerged as one of the league's most versatile players by leading the Heat into the second round of the playoffs. After his transformation, Odom was the key player the Lakers sought in the blockbuster trade of Shaquille O'Neal to Miami.

The highlight of Odom's 12-month overhaul, though, was his addition to the U.S. Olympic team, which opens pool play against Puerto Rico today.

"I remember when I couldn't buy a spot on a national team," Odom said. "Not necessarily because I wasn't a good player, but people had other concerns about me and I was left off."

That's why Odom was stunned when Olympic Coach Larry Brown told him after an NBA game between Miami and Brown's Detroit team that he hoped to get Odom on the U.S. team.

"Man, I just didn't believe him when he said that," Odom said. "I had a pretty good night. I was hitting shots, making passes, grabbing rebounds and playing defense. Just an all-around good game.

"Then [Brown] tells me that he's going to do whatever he can to get me on the team. There really was nothing I could say after that."

With the honor, Odom knows, comes an obligation to live up to high standards.

"With that first Dream Team, players on the other teams were taking pictures with Michael, getting autographs," Odom said. "Now, these guys just want to beat us."

Odom likes it that other teams believe they can beat the U.S.

"It's like the NBA," he said. "When I was with the Miami Heat, nobody expected us to win, so it was easy to sneak up on guys. With the Lakers, everybody expected them to win, so it was tougher."

Tough for Odom was learning to deal with life without his mother and grandmother.

When things weren't right, Odom, as a youngster, knew he could count on them. But his mother died of cancer when he was 12 and Odom was left with only his grandmother. When she died in early 2003, Odom was left with himself. That's when he decided to change.

"Young Lamar operated under his own drum," said Greg Nunn, a friend since they were boys together in New York. "He did stuff the way he wanted to do it, front door or back door. He always figured that he'd find a way out. He's changed. He's matured unbelievably since he first arrived in Los Angeles."

Odom hired a full-time trainer, Robbie Davis, last December. He also hired a chef and began eating three times a day -- for the first time in his life. He filled out to 225 pounds, from the 209 he'd carried as a Clipper.

Odom also worked on his game. He averaged 17.1 points, a personal-best 9.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists in a career-high 80 games last season.

After signing Odom to a six-year, $65-million contract, Riley sat him down and told him about the things he didn't like, challenging Odom to be tougher, not only on the court, but off it as well.

"He put me in position where all I had to do was play basketball," Odom said about Riley. "Our relationship will always be a little different. When I first came into the NBA, there were questions being asked about me. But Pat Riley was the man who told everyone that he was willing to take me."

Odom returns to Los Angeles as Kobe Bryant's sidekick with the Lakers. It's a role Odom says he's more than willing to accept, even though he figures there are still people who see him more as a drug addict than Olympian.

"It's a maturing process that I associate with fine wine," said Odom, who has worked his way into Brown's starting Olympic lineup. "You just get better with age. You learn from the mistakes that you make when you're 18.

"I know people are going to wonder about me being back in L.A., but I've proven to myself that I can be responsible.

"I mean, Miami doesn't close. I had way more temptations there on South Beach than in L.A. Ten times as many."

If he had succumbed to those temptations, Odom would never have made it from the beaches of Miami to the shores of Greece to live out the dream of a 12-year-old.

Springer reported from Athens, White from Los Angeles.

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