Odom is making the grade Basketball: After several false starts, Lamar Odom has his life and career on course playing for Jim Harrick at Rhode Island.

November 09, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

KINGSTON, R.I. -- Never in his wildest dreams did Lamar Odom imagine himself playing here. Maybe down the interstate in Storrs, starring for Connecticut. Maybe across the country in Las Vegas, as a UNLV Runnin' Rebel. Maybe in Lexington, playing for Kentucky, the most storied college program of all.

But here, at the University of Rhode Island?

That didn't seem to be Odom's destination when he left Christ The King High School in Queens two years ago, proclaimed as the next great New York City player, compared by some to Scottie Pippen and by others to Penny Hardaway.

How about the next Lloyd Daniels, another former wunderkind from the same neighborhood whose career had taken similar wrong turns? If there ever seemed to be a blue-chip high school star headed for oblivion, or trouble, Odom was it.

"The problem with Lamar is that things came too easy, too fast," said Jerry DeGregorio, the Rhode Island assistant coach most responsible for Odom's enrolling at the school 14 months ago. "To some degree you can classify him as a victim -- but he was a willing victim."

He is a victim no longer, having chased away many of the demons that have followed Odom since the death of his mother six years ago.

They followed him to places such as Troy, N.Y., where he quit the team at a basketball factory called Redemption Christian Academy in midseason as a senior, and to Las Vegas, where he said he was asked to leave by UNLV officials after much-improved college test score was called into question by a national magazine.

They even followed him to this bucolic college town, where his admission in September 1997 started quite a little brush fire for new coach Jim Harrick and where his decision to leave school for a 10-day period last December made the skeptics wonder whether Odom would wind up where he seemed to belong -- playing in the NBA or Europe or back on the streets.

With help from DeGregorio and Harrick, as well as from professional counselors, Odom has survived a tumultuous freshman year and is ready, having turned 19 last week, to begin his college career. It will start tonight against Texas Christian at the Providence Civic Center.

"Until I got here, I never thought I'd be playing at a place like Rhode Island," Odom said one recent afternoon, his 6-foot-10 frame folded comfortably into a chair in DeGregorio's tiny office. "I had a friend play here who got out in '95, and before that I had never heard of the school. It was kind of a blessing for me."

In DeGregorio, he has found a surrogate father. It was DeGregorio who invited Odom, unhappy at the upstate New York school, to New Britain, Conn., in February 1997. DeGregorio was a high school coach there, and Odom practiced, but didn't play, for the team while living with DeGregorio's parents.

There are those who wonder whether DeGregorio would be here, in his first Division I coaching job, if not for his connection to Odom. But DeGregorio is quick to point out that he came here while Odom was in Las Vegas, getting ready for his freshman year. DeGregorio also is quick to tell you that he didn't want Odom at UNLV in the first place.

"Too close to trouble," said DeGregorio.

For Odom, it meant being arrested for soliciting a prostitute during a police sting operation and then seeing his name mentioned in a Sports Illustrated article alleging that a number of high school basketball stars had improved their test scores by cheating. Odom has denied he cheated, and said his scholarship was withdrawn amid the negative publicity.

"I was kind of in no-man's land," said Odom, who rejected two million-dollar offers from European teams, as well as a $100,000 contract from the CBA to play for a team of his choice. "I talked to my grandmother, but she really didn't understand the situation. She told me to pray."

Instead, Odom called DeGregorio, who by then was working for Harrick. When Odom was a junior at Christ The King, Harrick had recruited him at UCLA. At the time, Harrick was two years removed from coaching the Bruins to a national championship and a few months away from being removed from the job in a flap over improper expense reports.

In Harrick, Odom had found something of a soul mate.

"He had his mishap; I had mine," said Odom.

Harrick said he wasn't quite sure he would ever coach Odom at Rhode Island. Admitted as a "non-matriculating" student, Odom had to prove to school officials that he could do the work before being put on scholarship. Before final exams last December, Odom packed up and left, returning to his grandmother's house to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.

"I was depressed and down," he recalled. "I felt like I needed time to sort things out. I had to ask myself, 'How much do you really want it?' I couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel."

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