The common criticisms of Lamar Odom's game throughout his 12-year NBA career have centered upon a lack of Kobe Bryant-like focus, a disposition to float in and out of games and a tendency to be as selfless on the court as he is in real life.
"There were a few things that were holding me back," Odom conceded.
But 16 months ago, when Odom married Khloe Kardashian, more started to change than his fan base. His marriage wound up stabilizing both his home life and his game.
|Lamar & Khloe celebrate Odom's second NBA championship on the Lakers parade float.
"Once I became married and started to do things a little differently and take more responsibility in life, it made playing basketball so easy," Odom reflected. "Right now, there isn't anything that's distracting me from the game, and a lot of that is because of the love that my wife has for me. There aren't any stresses."
A clear mind has propelled Odom to 15.6 points on 57 percent shooting with 9.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game for the 25-11 Lakers. The 6-10 power forward/point guard/center came in off a key role on back-to-back NBA championship teams, plus a FIBA World Championships gold medal earned as a leader of Team USA in the 2010 summer.
His growth is rooted not just in Khloe, but the Kardashian family that has now become his. With the support of an extended family he hadn't felt in years, if ever, Odom's sense of himself has fully blossomed, his years of pushing past obstacles replaced by increased stability that has left him feeling free.
"You know how things can just line up in life?" asked Odom. "I met Khloe at the perfect time. The stability she and her family bring me is why I'm at peace. I think I have gotten to a new point as a man, as a father, as a basketball player."
"I just want Lamar to worry about basketball and to be as comfortable as he can be," Kardashian said during a recent phone conversation. "Before me, he never had that luxury. Whether it's buying face wash to paying our bills, that's not his job, he doesn't have to worry about it ... I want to be there for him always and do everything he needs or wants."
How Odom reached such a zenith at 31 came as a surprise even to the two men who know him best: Jerry DeGregorio -- the best man at Odom's wedding, a father figure Odom met at a youth basketball camp --- and Odom's personal trainer, Robbie Davis, who met a sinewy, 19-year-old Odom while working as a trainer for the Clippers in 1999 and has been by his side since.
|Odom is averaging 15.6 points on 57 percent shooting with 9.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game in his best year as a pro.
After the first few days of bliss, Odom called Davis to detail his wedding plans, relaying that he knew "right away" he wanted to marry Kardashian. Davis was shocked, no doubt, but not because the engagement happened faster than Odom can turn a defensive board into a left-handed layup. Rather, Davis had never heard Odom speak about a woman in such a way.
"I could just tell it was real," Davis explained. "And when Lamar got married, I really think that was a second coming of the type of stability he needed. Lamar is a player that needs direction and someone to be on him and tell him this is the path you should follow, and I think Khloe has done that."
Kardashian was on precisely the same page. Around the time Odom told Davis of his intentions, Khloe had texted her sister Kim with the following message: "I think I found my husband." Kim replied, baffled: "Who is this?"
She was just as surprised as Davis, because Khloe never, ever spoke like that about a guy. She was cautious after watching sisters Kim and Kourtney get hurt in relationships -- Khloe said she had seen Kim "fall in love every second" -- but that went out the window when she met Odom. Sensing how different, how serious it all was, Kim and the Kardashian clan jumped quickly on board. And after nine days of planning, with mother Kris taking the lead, it was time for the Sept. 27, 2009, wedding.
In his best-man speech, DeGregorio asked Khloe to make the same vow that Odom's grandmother had asked DeGregorio to make before she passed away. Since Odom has no brothers or sisters and his mother died early, his grandmother asked DeGregorio to promise to watch over Odom.
"It's a promise you will be grateful you made, because you have realized very quickly what the rest of us have already known: It's very easy to love Lamar," DeGregorio said on their wedding day. "Among all the many talents God gave Lamar, the very best part of Lamar is his amazing heart. … There is nothing but love in this man's heart, Khloe. Don't ever, ever forget that."
|Odom has gained the support of not just Khloe, shown here with Mom Kris and sister Kim, but of her entire family.
The words moved Odom to open tears that day. For Kardashian, it formalized something that was already deeply ingrained in her.
"When Jerry D said that to me, I felt like I had already spoken to Lamar's grandmother," she recalled. "Because when Lamar and I first met, we would never sleep, staying up all night just talking and filling each other in on our past lives.
"I lost my father; he lost his mother and grandmother. I think my father wanted me to be taken care of emotionally and physically by Lamar, and he thinks his mother and grandmother wanted the same thing. Maybe they all met up in heaven and thought we'd be perfect for each other."
She's well aware of how many people doubted -- and perhaps still doubt -- that such a lightning-fast, Hollywood wedding would work out, but she and Odom never doubted what they discovered in their first days together.
"Anything that I've found out along the way due to our lack of time together at first, I've never wondered what I was thinking," Kardashian said. "It just validated why we got married more and more."
How quickly Odom fit in with her family drove it all home even further. Key among the sudden infiltration of siblings in Odom's life was younger brother Rob Kardashian, who lives at Lamar and Khloe's house. He became the brother Lamar never had, but always wanted.
|Rob Kardashian, here at dinner with Khloe and Lamar, has become Odom's little brother and roommate, spending countless hours playing video games and chatting at their house.
"We keep a very closed circle and don't let anyone in our family, and while Lamar came in out of nowhere, there was this immediate connection," said Rob, who actually convinced Khloe to host Ron Artest's "Welcome to L.A." party, where she first met Odom. "Lamar and Khloe were inseparable from that first night, and I was always involved."
So involved that he and Odom have played enough "Madden 2011" video games in the past few months to make any parents shake their heads. Rob said that after a typically heated, trash-talk-littered between Rob's Eagles and Lamar's Falcons – Odom likes their offense – sometimes the two won't talk for hours.
You know … like brothers.
"When they get into an argument about one of their games, I notice that it affects Lamar throughout the day," Khloe said. "It's crazy that Lamar's never had brothers and doesn't always get that he's going to get over it. But even those little fights with a family member are the kinds of things I think have given him some balance in life."
Family structure had been inherent, though certainly not cookie-cutter perfect, to the Kardashians. For Odom, it has been fleeting.
Odom's father left him and his mother, Cathy Mercer, in their home when he was 6 – and six years later, his mother lost her life to colon cancer. Odom's grandmother, Mildred Mercer, to whom Odom credits so much of who he is, took him in but remained in Queens when he embarked on his professional career. His heart broke four years later when she died in 2003.
Despite pockets of individual success with the Clippers, Odom mostly recalls his struggles with injuries and drug-related suspensions. Back in L.A. with the Lakers, Odom had another tragedy in 2006, when he lost his 6 ½-month-old son, Jayden, to sudden infant death syndrome.
"I don't see how those things don't affect a person," DeGregorio said. "Lamar doesn't speak a lot on those subjects, but those experiences certainly had a profound impact."
And that's what makes Odom's newfound family structure all the more important.
"Khloe and her family understand me, not only because they know my story, but because they respect and understand what I do for a living," said Odom. "What it's done has brought that calmness, that happiness we talked about."
|Before every game, Odom writes the names of his loved ones that have passed away, including his grandmother Mildred Mercer and infant son Jayden, on his shoes.
That's quite a change in one's state of mind, particularly because Odom is someone who has always sought out close relationships. He's built them with teammates and friends over the years – and is now taking advantage of the ones under his roof.
"Lamar's always been open and honest with us, saying stuff that's on his mind, and not holding anything back," said Rob. "Even last night, Lamar just told me, 'If anyone messes with you, you know I got you, right? … You know how much I love you, right? … You know how much I love your sister, right? … I'll never hurt your sister.'
"You want your sister to have the best, so for him to say that is just such a warm feeling."
So as he enters 2011, it's no longer the past struggles upon which Odom is dwelling. He'd like to spend more time with his two children from a previous relationship, Destiny and L.J. (Lamar Jr.), who live in New York with their mother during the season. That's not easy. But generally speaking, much is going right in his life at this moment.
He's excited about plans to have more children very soon with Khloe, whom he said "is going to be an awesome mother." Kardashian said that the two "aren't doing anything to not have kids right now, (so) it could be any day." With the way he's playing ball, Odom's talking -- for the first time ever, Davis said -- about individual goals like making the All-Star team. Meanwhile, Odom is focusing on his own personal financial future.
Despite making millions of dollars in the NBA, Odom didn't have any foundation for understanding finances until he was 29. Not having money growing up or not knowing how to deal with a sudden cash influx is nothing to be ashamed of, but Odom realizes now how far his upbringing in that regard was from his wife's.
"Khloe's father (Robert Kardashian Sr.) was an extremely successful man," he said. "Her stepfather Bruce (Jenner) and mother (Kris) are extremely successful. They put their kids in a beautiful position. But for a lot of guys in the NBA, that's not the case."
|The E! network recently announced plans for a reality show starting Lamar and Khloe that will begin filming in a couple weeks
Odom's been a freshly unwrapped sponge for the family's business knowhow. Since marrying Khloe, he's has been featured in several national TV spots for DirecTV, ESPN and Taco Bell. He has a unisex fragrance with Khloe coming out in February. Furthermore, Ryan Seacrest Productions just announced plans for a new reality show about Odom and his wife that's set to air Sundays in April on E! network with the working title "Khloe & Lamar."
"For some of us, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Odom when the news of the series broke prior to a Jan. 5 game at Phoenix. "As an athlete, you have to take advantage of your opportunities. When the ball stops bouncing, it stops bouncing -- and for me it's an opportunity to expand a little bit, get some other things going."
That's something you might not have heard out of Odom's mouth before he met Khloe, who at first couldn't believe that he took naps every day, as to her that meant wasting prime hours to make money, figure out future business deals, and so on. While she eventually understood better that a pro athlete's body is his temple, she pushed for naps on game days only, so that Odom could start to take advantage of what was in front of him.
"Lamar's a really smart guy, and people who just see him do postgame interviews when he's tired might not realize that," said Rob. "And with my family being all about business, it's opened a whole new chapter for him. He's now focusing on all of these business elements that he had in him but maybe my family is helping bring out in a different way."
Said Khloe: "Before Lamar met me and my family, his inner circle was never on his level financially. I think that's a burden on people who feel like they have to take care of everyone around them. That's a lot of pressure.
"But we all work, so he doesn't have to take care of me or my family. He and I are both putting something into the pot. I think that's a stress reliever in itself."
The money from the new reality show, set to begin shooting later in January, will go right into the couple's mutual account. That the show's occurring right in the middle of the Lakers' season makes it fair to ask whether that could serve as distraction for Odom and the three-peat-seeking Lakers. But it doesn't concern a coach who's already three-peated three times.
"Lamar usually doesn't get distracted by things on the outside," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who talked with Odom and Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak as Odom sought approval. "I know the Kardashians will be very careful, given what they do … they've been very respectful of the team."
Odom's on-court production while a part of E!'s "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" cast supports Jackson's point, as witnessed by Odom's across-the-board jump in numbers, particularly with his offensive efficiency. His field-goal percentage has risen from 46 percent last season to 57 percent this season. Support from Jackson -- who in recent years has found ways to needle (read: motivate) Odom in the way only Jackson can -- has been consistent ever since Odom's play became consistent, so much that Jackson is advocating for a spot for his swingman on the All-Star team.
"I think Lamar definitely deserves to be an All-Star this year … we know the great skills he has as a player," said Jackson, before getting personal. "Lamar is one of my favorite players. He loves to play basketball; he's always on the court. He has a great attitude. He's upbeat. He's just one of the guys that everybody likes to be around."
|Odom co-captained the 2010 edition of Team USA that went on to win a Gold Medal at the World Championships in Turkey
Praise from a coach who rarely offers it so explicitly is a surprise to Odom, but particularly after his key role on Team USA, he said he does feel that he's "one of the best players in the NBA," to the point where he now expects the ball to go in every time he lets it go, whether he's starting or coming off the bench.
Odom's little brother at home, Rob, and one of his little brothers on the Lakers, Andrew Bynum, happen both to be 23. And Odom made a specific effort to keep Bynum's spirits high while the young center sat out this season's first 24 games recovering from offseason knee surgery, even pulling him aside after a late December practice to let Bynum know his starting spot was waiting for him, and that Odom believed in him.
"He's just a really great spirit," said Bynum. "He never really seems to be down, you know? It's a special characteristic, I think. I have a tendency to be up and down depending on what's going on, and he's for sure been there for me when I'm down."
DeGregorio put it a slightly different way. He explained that Odom wants to be a member of the Beatles, but just not McCartney or Lennon. Give him George's guitar, or even Ringo's drum, and let Kobe and Pau Gasol co-write the music and lead the band. It's that mix of hunger and humility that had Odom so willing and prepared to come off the bench, a role for which he had fully prepared himself mentally.
Certainly a big assist on that front goes to Khloe and family, who in turn can't say fast enough that Odom's brought nothing but joy to their lives. Lakers forward Luke Walton, Odom's teammate of seven years and one of his closest friends, can tell you why.
|Odom's outlook looks bright halfway through his 12th NBA season.
A few years ago, Walton lost a close friend from college, leaving him "all messed up in the head," he said. Walton didn't tell anybody about it, and says he was simply out of it. Odom approached him wanting to talk, but Walton wasn't ready and continued to hold it in. Insistent, Odom pulled Walton aside, and eventually got Walton to join him for a beer to discuss whatever Odom sensed was bothering his buddy.
"He told me different personal stuff about his life, and by the time we got done hashing it out, I felt way better," said Walton. "Lamar left, and I was just like, 'Wow.' He didn't have to do that. I hadn't even told him there was anything wrong with me. He just perceived how I was acting.
"For someone to go through as much as he has in his life, to still be that guy who is always smiling, always making sure other people are happy, really shows what kind of person he is."
It was just Lamar being Lamar, and that hasn't changed. What has is how Lamar feels about himself and his surroundings at home, thanks to the forward-moving ship he is co-captaining with Khloe.
"I just got to that point where I'm really happy off the court," Odom said. "And that makes me happier on the court."