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BILL PLASCHKE

Lamar Odom is ideal left-handed complement for Lakers

The veteran forward's gentle personality provides a counterweight to Kobe Bryant's intensity. Odom's talent and versatility come in pretty handy, too.

June 06, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

If one side of the Lakers' locker room is inhabited by a grimace, the other side is occupied by grace.

If Kobe Bryant is the Lakers' heat, then Lamar Odom is their humanity, a simple guy fighting through life's complexities with sad smiles and soft wisdom.

"We had a saying in my old neighborhood," he says Friday in the gentlest of New York accents. "Either you ride, or you get rolled over."

These days Odom is riding, hard and fast and purposeful, across the spring courts, through our collective consciousness, maybe into a new Lakers contract, certainly into a new Lakers reputation.

With his unselfish versatility -- he recorded a double-double against the Orlando Magic in Thursday's Game 1 of the NBA Finals -- he is a perfect complement to Bryant's attack.

With his open emotions -- he waves to fans, he laughs with referees, he eats candy bars at halftime -- he is a perfect complement to Bryant's personality.

"What do I bring to the locker room?" he says. "I guess I just bring Lamar."

He not only wears his heart on his sleeve but around his neck, which is constantly adorned with a rosary.

He also wears it on his sneakers, in tiny black Magic Marker names and numbers, a lifetime in little scribbles.

On the side of his shoe are written the words "Jayden" and "Grandma."

His grandmother who raised him died on June 29, 2004.

His son Jayden, not yet seven months old, died of sudden infant death syndrome on that same date two years later.

"There is something comforting in the timing of it," he says. "It was almost like my grandma was saying, 'It's OK Lamar, I got him now.' "

On the toe of his shoe is written "Cathy," for his mother who died of colon cancer when he was 12.

"In dealing with death, I believe that you have to move forward, but I also believe you can never forget," he says.

On the tongue of the shoe are the numbers "114-18." That was his first address in Queens.

"I was born in New York, I live in Miami, and I play for the Los Angeles Lakers," he says. "What could be better than that?"

Through all of his loss, he lives, bigger and brighter every day this postseason, calling old friends down from the stands to hug them during pregame warmups, slapping high fives with fans during games.

And the candy. Oh, my, the candy.

We first noticed it a couple of weeks ago before an afternoon playoff game in Houston. The media walked into the locker room and there was Odom, sitting by his locker surrounded by Halloween-sized bags of candy, Hershey's and Keebler's and all sorts of wonderful junk.

It was a child's dream. Odom had a child's look of guilty delight.

It was a sight so stunning, my colleague T.J. Simers immediately started scolding Odom about it, but he just ripped open another piece and laughed.

"So I like candy, so what?" he said at the time.

If Kobe Bryant is the Lakers' Willie Mays, Lamar Odom is their Willy Wonka.

Since that revelation, a television network ran a piece on Odom's candy cravings, and doctors from everywhere have been attributing his rotten games to his sweet tooth.

"It's kind of weird to me," he said Friday. "C'mon, everybody in the league chews gum, [LeBron] James chews gum, there's sugar in gum, what's the difference?"

Well, for one, not everybody in the league follows Odom's halftime diet.

On Thursday night at Staples Center, he ran inside the locker room after playing 15 of 24 minutes and promptly downed a Snickers bar.

"I didn't have the entire bar, I just had a piece," he says.

A piece of Snickers? Right.

Odom is asked what advice he would give a young boy who now thinks he can grow up to be a basketball superstar by eating candy.

"I would tell him to brush his teeth," Odom says with a grin.

That's Lamar being Lamar, always making the best of the situation, whether he's wolfing down Sno-Caps or sitting on the sidelines.

The potential free agent wanted to prove to the Lakers that they should re-sign him after this season, so what did he do? He agreed to begin each game on the bench, and now has become invaluable from there.

If the Lakers have to choose between re-signing Odom or their other top free agent, Trevor Ariza, this postseason has probably made Odom a higher priority.

He is third on the team in scoring and rebounding while becoming the sort of defender who turns games into a matchup mess. Just ask the Orlando Magic, whose 29.9% shooting in the Lakers' 100-75 Game 1 victory was partially caused by Odom's long arms and late hustle.

"I love it here. . . . It would take an offer that I couldn't refuse for me to leave here, and I don't think that's happening," Odom says. "I expect to be a Laker."

And how has he worked his way into that position this spring?

First, by doing jumping jacks. His guarding of the Denver Nuggets' inbounds passer led to two key steals by Ariza that helped the Lakers win the Western Conference finals.

"I'm just big," he says, shrugging.

Second, by wearing a girdle. After injuring his back in the Houston series, Odom wore the Gary Vitti-designed girdle while getting 19 points and 14 rebounds in the Game 5 victory over Denver.

"Yes, yes, he should be back on this team, we need him badly," Pau Gasol said.

The Lakers need him not just for the performance, but for perspective, to remind everyone that a championship journey requires not only the wings of a Kobe Bryant, but the sometimes skewered footprints of a Lamar Odom,

"I like to entertain, I feel a real connection here," Odom says, finishing the interview session Friday while cupping something in his left hand.

Mouthpiece? Sweat band?

Sour ball.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Follow Plaschke at twitter.com/BillPlaschke

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