When Lamar Odom was drafted last June by the Los Angeles Clippers, it seemed a perfect fit. The player who took more baggage with him to the NBA than any college star in recent memory was picked by a team that has had as many bad actors in its 15-year history as the cast of an Aaron Spelling production.
Odom and the Clippers are trying to change their respective images: his as a obscenely talented 6-foot-10 head case who slipped to fourth in the draft after failing to show at a pre-draft camp in Chicago; theirs as one of the NBA's losingest, and most laughable, franchises.
While the Clippers still have a way to go -- they are 4-7 even with last night's win over New York -- Odom has clearly been the best rookie in the league so far and is taking steps toward becoming one of its best all-around players.
"He's got a real flair and personality for the game," Clippers coach Chris Ford said after Odom scored 21 points in his team's win over the Washington Wizards at MCI Center Saturday night. "He's not fazed by anything. He's got a real passion for the game. It's great for the NBA."
During a recent five-game road swing, Odom had been matched up against some of the best forwards -- small and big -- in the league. From Shareef Abdur-Rahim in Vancouver to Glenn Robinson in Milwaukee, from Kevin Garnett in Minnesota to Vince Carter in Toronto to, finally, Juwan Howard in Washington.
Odom had played with, or outplayed, all of them while being used at every position except center.
"I've been playing basketball since I was 6 years old and organized basketball since I was 9," said Odom, who turned 20 two weeks ago. "I love being in a close game. That's when all the great players come to play. You live for those challenges."
Shooting to the top
Odom, who as a 15-year-old freshman went from relative unknown to recruiting commodity by scoring 36 points in the New York City championship game for Christ the King High School, speaks the way he plays: with a quiet confidence, a no-frills, right-to-the-heart approach.
It belies the image he has carried with him in a vagabond career that saw Odom attend three high schools and two colleges. He never played at Nevada-Las Vegas, after his test score was questioned in a national magazine and he was arrested for soliciting a prostitute.
Odom wound up at Rhode Island, where he sat out his first season for academic deficiencies and, after briefly considering turning pro, played last season. He then renounced his eligibility, hired an agent and after firing the agent, tried to have his eligibility restored. The university turned him down.
"The things he got involved in for the most part, I don't think were anything that he should have been criticized about for the rest of his life," said Ford. "He's a young guy who didn't have the guidance or the support that most of us had growing up.
"It's an ideal situation for him now. All he does here is play basketball."
Making his point
With 24 points last night, Odom leads all rookies with an average of just under 20 points (former Maryland star Steve Francis is second at a shade under 17) and is third behind Chicago's Elton Brand and Boston's Adrian Griffin in rebounding at a little more than eight a game.
While Odom's biggest scoring night to date came in a 30-point debut against the Seattle SuperSonics, his most impressive performance came during an 89-85 win over the Timberwolves in Minneapolis last week. Odom played all 48 minutes, finishing with 22 points and seven rebounds. (Garnett had 23 points and 20 rebounds for Minnesota.)
"It's been a learning process," said Odom, who has helped carry the Clippers while power forward Maurice Taylor has been sidelined with a sprained foot. "But it's been a learning process for me since I was 15. I feel a little older than I am, but I'm young at heart."
Life's winding path
The father of a 1-year-old daughter, Destiny, who lives with him and her mother in Los Angeles, Odom has spent his life growing up fast.
After his mother died from cancer seven years ago, Odom was raised in Queens, N.Y., by his aunt and grandmother.
But since his breakthrough performance -- he was the first freshman to lead his team to the city title -- he has been tugged in many directions.
Odom left Queens for a prep school in upstate New York, where he stayed briefly before moving on to another high school in Connecticut. He played there for Jerry DeGregorio, who would later be reunited with Odom as an assistant at Rhode Island and is now the Rams' head coach.
"What's happened in the past is in the past," Odom said before Saturday night's game. "Everyone gets on young, black athletes for leaving school. You had one kid who was trying to get back into school and gets ripped. I never got down about it. This was the first time in my life that I tried to be selfish. When you make the jump, it's not just a basketball jump. It's the biggest decision of your life."