Watching an athlete's career slowly spiral out of control has become a familiar, and unfortunately rather common, story.
We remember the tragic cases of the great ones. Lawrence Taylor's battle with substance abuse (and to a larger extent, himself) is the standard example of watching an athlete fans revered, turn into a man fans revile. We never got to see the greatness of Len Bias, because a cocaine overdose robbed him of what should've been a Hall of Fame career.
These past three years, we've seen the slow and steady decline of the promising career of Lamar Odom. The news items around him have morphed from humorous, to perplexing, to simply depressing. After the latest Odom news – that he lashed out at his absentee father on Twitter for failing him as a child – it's fair to wonder if the next time we hear his name in the news, it'll be for an appearance in a courtroom, rather than on a basketball court. At 33 – ancient by NBA terms – Odom's professional basketball career is probably over.
Championship rings and a Kardashian wedding
After a rocky beginning to his NBA career, Odom became a crucial piece to the Los Angeles Lakers' two Championship runs. He was a laid-back guy, who loved his friends and family; playing basketball; and living in LA and on the beach (in that order).
His LA lifestyle allowed him to meet and marry Khloe Kardashian in 2009, and their relationship turned him into a crossover celebrity. Now he was recognized by as many housewives as basketball fans. And with the newfound fame, came newfound scrutiny.
Now the laid-back basketball player had his own reality show, and there were rumors that the Lakers weren't pleased with the extra press. He started bouncing around the league, to the Dallas Mavericks, and then to the Clippers. At both stops he was accused of being out of shape and disinterested.
Then the strange headlines started:
Paparazzi fights (July 12, 2013)
Drug interventions (August 27, 2013)
Rehab visits (September 5, 2013)
DUI arrests (September 13, 2013)
And worst of all, not a single meaningful basketball moment in nearly three years.
Seeking the help required
Clearly Odom needs help, and it doesn't seem like he's fully prepared to take it. The best case scenario at this point is that he can enter some form of rehab, work on his marriage, and get past some of the demons that have plagued him throughout his life.
That scenario doesn't include ever seeing an NBA basketball court again. The fastest way out of the league is to lose your skills. The second fastest are off-the-court issues. The third is bringing "baggage" and unnecessary drama to the organization.
Odom checks all three boxes.
The extra attention paid to everything he does makes him a headache to NBA general managers and owners. Kris Humphries, who was married to Khloe's sister, Kim was the most hated player in the NBA, bringing in choruses of boos at every arena, and non-basketball press in every city. At this point, Odom far trumps Humphries' celebrity and following.
The drug and alcohol problem is one the NBA has seen before in its past, and one it has no interest re-visiting. If the news items are any indication, Odom needs extensive drug and alcohol counseling before he'll be able to put his problems behind him. At 33, every day his immense skill and talent are eroding. His small window of basketball relevance is nearly shut.
Then factor in his actual desire to play. Mark Cuban publicly questioned Odom's interest in playing professional basketball. He's made the subtle shift from "laid-back" to "indifferent."
It's a sad fall from grace for someone who was very popular with teammates, and for a person who used basketball to get a brief escape from a very hard existence. His parents weren't there for him as a child (his mother died of cancer at age 12; his father was a drug addict). He had a rocky collegiate career. The woman who raised him, his grandmother, died in 2004. He lost his infant son in 2006. Then a close cousin passed away. A 15-year-old died in an accident he was involved in (though he wasn't at fault).
Odom has demons and for very good reason. People have self-medicated in drugs and alcohol for far less reasons than he has. His abuse is something easier to understand when you learn his backstory.
Unfortunately none of this will matter, and an NBA comeback is unlikely. Talent ultimately wins out, and Odom may not have much of that left. Even when disinterested, he can still be an effective player, and a career abroad might be the best for him. It would allow him to get away and focus on one of his few true loves...basketball.
But returning to the NBA is the longest of longshots. Unlike LT, Bias, and transcendent athletes, Odom will probably not be remembered much for his on-court contributions. A top sixth man on a championship team, pales in comparison to the story of a celebrity crippled by substance abuse.
Odom's story is like many athletes before him. Lets hope his doesn't have a similar, tragic ending.
(Follow Stefen Lovelace on Twitter @StefenLovelace.)