Lamar Odom Falling Down

“We’re all a product of our environment, the key is not to fall” (Lamar Odom)

It hasn’t been a full eight months since Lamar Odom was in physical despair. He couldn’t breathe on his own and his heart was weak, and he was unconscious.  His friends, as expected, were richly brokenhearted but no one was stunned at the situation. This was Lamar Odom and his ordinary life of details. Odom had crossed one tragedy after another and was damaged by all of it. He was, to put it plainly, broken.

One close friend who was in Las Vegas the night Odom collapsed, left in the third quarter of a preseason game, rushed to the hospital and joined Odom’s Kardashian clan in prayer. Kobe Bryant did what everyone else did on that Tuesday night in October. The only difference was Kobe’s nearness to Odom’s battered body had him linking hands and praying and hoping for a miracle.

Not quite a year later, Lamar Odom is in crises again though he thinks he is fine. His friends and family believe he is back on drugs, recklessly putting his life in danger and perhaps on track for a second possible medical emergency repeat, or worse. All attempts at intervention have failed. Reportedly, Odom said he didn’t need any help and yet the friends saw drug paraphernalia in multiple rooms, crack pipes and baggies.

Almost a year ago, Odom suffered a stroke and significant brain damage and his kidneys and lungs were compromised and he was on life support and doctors were overly pessimistic and there was little to come out of Vegas that night that you could call good news. Odom was in critical condition because a drug overdose in a Las Vegas brothel shook up his brain. He was unconscious. His body was defiantly overwhelmed. The kindest man in the NBA was disappearing.

In the days that followed, the prognosis for a full recovery was slim but that was not even the point on the night of October 13th when the world knew Lamar Odom may have met his salvation. It was Lamar Odom being alive by any means necessary that was the grace.

Lamar Odom can say he cheated death in the grandest way possible. But usually when you cheat on something, whether it is a test, a girlfriend or fate, there is some hidden payback that creeps upon you, requiring your attention. For Odom and his miraculous recovery from a drug-induced stroke, it’s the resumption of his former life. It continues to haunt Odom in post-recovery.

A couple of months ago, Lamar Odom walked into Staples Center much like he walked into Staples Center in 2004, and 2005, and 2006 and 2007 and beyond. The two championship banners that hang from a lofty perch near the ceiling are the Odom titles, seeped in his blood, sweat and tears. So, it was a surreal scene that Wednesday night as Odom greeted his old friends in the crowd and watched his two close friends, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, get ready to play. He looked around the building where he had once been saintly and was now bathed in the dim light. Nearby were John McEnroe and Johnny Manziel and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and a bunch of other celebrity regulars.

This Odom was familiar and it spoiled you into remembering the kind Lamar, the giving Lamar, the athlete Lamar, the teammate Lamar. But to look at Lamar was also to remember that the body changes but the brain does not, nor do habits of addiction built over time. They stay lodged like a penny stuck inside the bottom of a shoe. Lamar Odom’s friends say he is healed. Lamar Odom’s friends say he is not cured.

The thing that drove him to the ischemic stroke in October, a vicious reliance on drugs, is the stranger that won’t go across the street. Odom went bar hopping the weekend before the Heat and Lakers played, and like now, his friends were worried. His body overcame trauma in a God performs miracles way but physiologically everything has changed. His kidneys are working but fragile. His heart is large but fragile. He is not the same man on the inside, where flesh meets bone. It took a long time and a lot of work from medical practitioners to get Odom back to where he could be in public at a basketball game and get goosebumps. Now, he believes he is invincible, that he is one of the immortal Greek legends who can suffer slaughter and still survive. Look what God did the first time. It’s hard to reason with that kind of logic.

A cancer patient can fight the disease and live for twenty years and in city streets there are walks to raise funds and research money. The truth is they slayed a ghost. A drug addict can fight the disease and live for twenty years and there are no walks to raise funds and no one cares about awareness and research, and secretly people whisper you aren’t tough. Because, really there is rehab over and over and over again. Drug dependency is never cured. It’s a flag that never stops blowing in the bitter wind.

Nearly eight months ago, the goal for Odom was as basic as it could be. The heart, the lungs, the kidneys- they were clinging to life, stabilized through a breathing machine, and even then, with all the medical intervention and prayers, it was a grim diagnosis and prognosis for the future. But Odom’s response to the treatment became his future testimony about miracles.

But is he back to where he started? Could it happen again?

His friends are concerned the same habits are distorting Odom’s logic and he is back at the beginning. He’s gone far. He’s accomplished nothing. Odom’s confidence in his body’s ability to fight off the impossible if another medical crises occurs makes those around him cautious about what comes next. Odom doesn’t seem to understand your body only gets one of these miracles. It is the definition of insanity turned upside down. Instead of doing the same thing and expecting different results, Odom is doing the same thing and expecting the same result.

He got here, a place without respirators and nurses and physical therapists and colostomy bags and i.v. drips for a variety of reasons. Love, faith, God, resurrection, forgiveness but not peace. Not, really. As his reception from the Staples Center crowd showed on that Wednesday night in March, as much as Odom loves the Lakers in the aggregate, the Lakers also love everything about him, his generosity, his kindness, his gentleness, his vulnerability, his pain. Odom is not perfect, has never tried to be, has never sold himself as that and so there was a benefit to his popularity. He was human and he was vulnerable and not once was he angry about his flawed, circuitous story.

With most NBA players, basketball has interrupted their life and once basketball is over, their life ascends in quiet time. With Odom it was the reverse. His complicated life interrupted basketball and when his basketball life was over, his life descended with a lot of noise he couldn’t control.

One month after the Lakers-Heat, Odom was back at Staples. It was Kobe Bryant’s last game and Odom was one of many teammates to take part in the celebration, unaware they were about to see a historical performance from Bryant as he walked out the NBA door. Odom and Bryant hugged afterwards and the crowd cheered believing Odom had made the impossible seem possible.

Famously, Odom once said, “I’m weak.” That needs no explanation but here goes.

He was talking about his psyche, his inability to handle suffering. But there is a bit of irony in his self-diagnosis as we unpack everything we know about Odom since he fought death off. It is Odom’s strength, not his weakness, that is partly responsible for this miracle. He had to want to live, he had to fight for it, he had to overcome a myriad of obstacles to live past the four hours that was predicted. Perhaps, at times, when Odom’s emotions take over, he is extraordinarily weak. And nice. But his body, in this fight to live, was like that Game 7 against the Celtics in 2010. Odom refused to lose.

But where has that fight gone now? In the reality of day to day living, now that he is walking around beneath this fugue of inevitability, has the will to be alive in a different sort of way than before left him?  Is the healthy fear of death gone for good? Is Odom the partying Odom once again because the worst has already happened to him and he can’t imagine a consequence far more perilous than his October trauma? Fighting death off makes you brave.

When you think of Lamar Odom you think of him always going left and finishing at the rim. Or his sweet jump shot that hit only net. Or the way he improvised. Or his dunk that looked like ballet. He loved the NBA. In a way, he was lucky. He lived the dreams of many. In a way, he was sad. Grief had him by the throat.

Odom once said, “We’re all products of our environment. The key is not to fall.”

Or, just maybe, the key is surviving the fall. That is the biggest unknown in the continuing saga of Lamar Odom. Can he survive the world?


photo via llananba