October 16, 2015


Lamar Odom & The Tragedy of Public Demons

Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

There’s been an outpouring of emotion and support toward Lamar Odom following the news of his hospitalization earlier this week. In the hours after the 35-year-old was found unconscious at a Nevada brothel on Tuesday (Oct. 13), friends, family members, former team mates and thousands of strangers have offered prayers and best wishes for the former NBA star to fight through this near-death experience and recover. Countless stories of how great of a guy Odom is, and how much he means to so many people, have been told.

It feels strange that these words are being said now, when Lamar Odom can’t hear them. It feels misguided. It feels wrong.

Our celebrity-obsessed culture keeps repeating a very specific history of condemning a famous person for his or her personal transgressions until it is too late to double back and root for them. Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson, Robin Williams, Whitney Houston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cory Monteith… each one gone too soon, and each one provoking a deluge of grief. What about the time periods before their deaths, however? Ignorance. Mockery. For most, their troubles were used by many to antagonize, until it was too late.

The cycle has been especially maddening to witness with Odom. The way his personal demons were magnified by the spotlight under which he has lived — a basketball star, then a reality show star, and finally a troubled version of both — is underlined by the tragedies that had befallen him prior to mainstream fame.

The Queens native’s father struggled with heroin addiction, and his mother died when he was 12. His collegiate career was checkered with indiscretions, controversies and revoked scholarships; when he was finally drafted, he was suspended by the NBA for smoking marijuana and violating the league’s anti-drug policy. In June 2006, his six-month-old son Jayden died from SIDS while sleeping in a crib. At that point, Odom was on his third NBA team, a role player on an inconsistent Los Angeles Lakers squad.

"Why can’t we recognize a struggling human being and give him the support he needs before he reaches a breaking point?"

Sports Illustrated profile of Odom from March 2009 begins by juxtaposing these personal woes (and a few others, too) with Odom’s unlikely triumph over them. At that point, he was thriving on the Lakers, who were en route to their first championship with Odom, and the power forward was the most popular player in the locker room. He had appeared on Entourage, was rumored to be dating Taraji P. Henson, and had explicitly found peace within his personal life. 

In spite of so many experiences that could have individually destroyed a weaker person, Odom had completed his own fairytale comeback story. He was only a few months away from dating and quickly marrying Khloe Kardashian.

Joining the Kardashian family and their reality television universe obviously brought more of a spotlight onto Odom, both personally and professionally. If that SI profile was written at Odom’s high point, the road toward last week’s low point was long and, in retrospect, extremely grim. A spinoff TV show, Khloe & Lamar, debuted in April 2011 and wore Odom down. He was shuttled from the Lakers to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, where he played a little over half the season and watched his point production implode. 

He played his last game in the NBA, as a Los Angeles Clipper, in the spring of 2013; in August 2013, he was arrested and charged with a DUI. At that point, his marriage with Kardashian had been crumbling. According to a recent piece on Odom by Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the former NBA star had attempted a comeback in the fall of 2013, but “spiraled” when he found out that Kardashian planned to divorce him. Odom had faced turmoil before, but now his demons were more prepared for widespread consumption and mockery thanks to his past NBA and TV fame. A flood of Odom memes, depicting him as a helpless crack addict, started populating the ever-insensitive Internet.

“Mostly, it is people who've never interacted with Odom who shower him with scorn for his missteps and flaws,” Wojnarowski wrote. “To his friends, he has been relentlessly kind and generous and loving.”

Strip away the bright lights and Hollywood credits for a second, and wonder what might have happened to Odom if only he had not been a star. In these and many other stories, Odom is portrayed as a loving, sensitive person struggling with substance abuse, among other things. Anyone who has battled similar demons — or the loss of a child, or some type of professional failure — knows how hard it is to make those problems public. Imagine expecting the very opposite of an outpouring of emotion when pain is on display for all to see — in short, tasteless memes. That’s what’s so frustrating about Odom’s downfall: he had to hit a terrifying rock-bottom for the general public to start being kind or giving a damn about him.

Everything about Odom’s near-death experience this week has been related to media consumption and primed for a hungry public. He reportedly fell apart last weekend after watching how he was portrayed on Keeping Up With The Kardashians. He was found unconscious in a brothel chain made famous by an HBO series. Kobe Bryant rushed to his side when news of his hospitalization broke, as did the Kardashian family. Sex, drugs, sports and celebrity. It was a sideshow, and one has to wonder if it would have happened if there hadn’t been an audience.

How many of these stories have to unfold before the cultural tenor changes? Instead of disregarding, lamenting or mocking Odom as a druggie who flamed out in a basketball league and on a television show simultaneously, why can’t we recognize a struggling human being and give him the support he needs before he reaches a breaking point? Imagine if existing in the public eye made it easier, not harder, to cope with devastation. How many of our idols would fall?

A popular refrain this week when it comes to Odom is “if only”: if only we had known how bad it was, if only he could show some signs of improvement, if only he had a second chance. Finally, Odom is showing signs of physical improvement, and that second chance might come after a very close brush with death. How many more Lamar Odoms do there need to be before we stop saying, “if only”?