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Rhode Island's Lamar Odom stands with NBA Commissioner

Rhode Island's Lamar Odom stands with NBA Commissioner David Stern after being selected fourth by the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the NBA Draft at the MCI Center in Washington, Wednesday, June 30, 1999. Credit: AP

We were sitting in a coffee shop in Kingston, Rhode Island, on a gorgeous fall afternoon. And we were talking basketball. Lamar Odom had seen -- and been through -- a lot. But now we were remembering his first team, a CYO squad in Richmond Hill in Queens.

Odom smiled dreamily.

"That was when basketball was just fun," he said. "I miss that a lot."

He was 17.

Eighteen years after that October visit, the former NBA and reality TV star is lying in a Las Vegas hospital bed, where he has been fighting for his life. He was found unconscious in a brothel Tuesday after what's being reported as a drug-fueled binge.

And I keep thinking about the Odom from back when.

Before we go too far, please understand: I'm not lamenting Lamar Odom because he's a famous basketball player I once knew. I lament him because he's a sweet kid I once knew, who never lost his good heart from all accounts, who was a success in several ways, and who now is just hanging on.

And he makes me think about all the sweet kids all of us have known, who somewhere along the way have succumbed to addiction. You never know who it's going to be, who can try something and walk away, who will be gripped instantly.

Odom had many risk factors growing up in South Ozone Park. His estranged father struggled with a heroin addiction and was absent for the most part, his mother died when he was 12, his neighborhood was awash in drugs. But he didn't go down that road.

He wasn't an angel, the way some people want sports stars to be ramrod-straight, beyond-reproach role models. There were controversies: over his academic difficulties, the way colleges recruited him, the corrupting nature of summer youth ball, and the innuendoes of cheating on standardized tests. As a burgeoning star, way too many people suddenly wanted to be his friend.

But he retained his sweetness, and a wistfulness found in people prone to reflection. Odom always had a self-deprecating sense of humor, and unusual insight into himself.

I wonder what he'd say about himself now.

On that day 18 years ago, Odom said the attention he got for basketball was "crazy" and too much for a high school kid. He pined for simpler times, when, as he put it, you played "just for the love of the game."

As we know now, life got more complicated for Odom. He had a good NBA career, won two titles, married Khloe Kardashian in 2009, and became known to millions through the clan's reality TV series.

He also pleaded no contest to suspicion of drunken driving in 2013, and allegedly struggled with a cocaine addiction. His marriage collapsed on screen. And then, the visit to the brothel.

I don't have any big answers here. Drugs are a scourge. We've been fighting a war against them for decades and it's still no harder to get what you want. The fact that you can now use a cellphone to order home delivery will only make it easier. Prevention and treatment are hugely important.

The last time I saw Odom in person was at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. The United States had just won a tough game against Greece, and he was a major part of that. He was sitting at the interview table in front of international journalists. As his eyes wandered the crowd, he spotted me. And he nodded, lips curled ever so slightly in a little grin.

I've always wondered about that smile. Now I'm thinking it was because I was someone who knew him when.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.


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