Way back in 1996, Lamar Odom walked into the gymnasium at Christ the King High School, which sits stuffed between a couple cemeteries and some railroad tracks in Queens, N.Y.
He was impossibly gangly back then. Impossibly talented, too. Six-foot-10 with Pterodactyl arms yet wrists so soft he could drain 3-pointers, even if he preferred to pass.
The hype surrounding him was immense. This was New York after all, where good gets sold as great and great as some kind of can't-miss legend. Lamar Odom was going to be the Next Magic, they said. The interesting thing was he didn't express the same desperate desire to be the best. He just wanted to play, just wanted to live.
"I just want to be Lamar Odom," he said that day. "Not anyone else."
On Tuesday, all these years later, Lamar Odom was found unconscious in a Nevada brothel after what has been described as a few days of partying. He was reportedly taking large quantities of herbal Viagra, along with some alcohol. He was rushed to a Las Vegas hospital, his future fragile.
It was the deepest depths yet for a guy who had seen too many already, his 14-year NBA career, including two championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and a Sixth Man of the Year award, spotted with drug suspensions and rehab visits and so, so much personal tragedy.
There can be only hope for survival, hope that this, at least, is rock bottom for a guy who has always been as likable as he's been erratic. Hope for another chance to fight for a man who never shied away from his problems and willingly embraced therapy, only to never quite get it right.
Back in Christ the King that day in '96, the world was both in front of Lamar Odom and snapping at his heels.
He had about six other high schools trying to vie for his services – he'd eventually attend two of them. There were at least 50 colleges after him – he'd go to two of them, too. There would've been more, but only so many coaches were willing to wade into a recruitment that seemed destined to end with billable hours at Bond, Schoeneck and King. Indeed, UNLV, the eventual winner, would get busted by the NCAA after it was found that a local dentist doled out cash to Odom.
There were also all the summer basketball programs, at least a dozen angling for him to play for them, and the dueling shoe companies that were pouring millions into grass-roots basketball, and the agents and the runners and whatever the heck else hangs around a then-16-year-old kid who can make them all rich.
Lamar Odom, Lamar the Star, was the complete package of the modern hoops hero, living in a vacuum of corruption, everyone biding for him as he bided his time in high school.
Yet he was different then, different always. He wasn't shy like a lot of overwhelmed young players, especially big guys still trying to adjust to their size. He didn't come across as arrogant, even though he was the toast of the town.
There was a joy to him, an effervescence, an understanding of his lot in life and how the circus was just that. In the end, he figured he'd get through all the nonsense and it would all turn out.
He figured he'd just keep smiling. He had a big personality. He knew to shake hands and look people in the eye. He was always curious. He was naturally smart, even if he'd flunk out of King (he'd admit, and regret, he did no work), skate through two disreputable diploma mills, have his ACT score called into question and, only after getting booted by UNLV, eventually make it to Rhode Island because, well, because he could play.
He was always the first to talk about his mistakes.
His story was a paint-by-numbers of urban disaster. Father was a heroin addict. Mother died of cancer when he was 12. A grandmother, the unconquerable Mildred Mercer, would raise him in Southside, Jamaica Queens, but truly it was basketball and all that promise that got him anywhere. If he were 5-10, not 6-10, no one believes he would have lasted long.
Every time he fell, basketball picked him up. And he had some spectacular ways of falling. His brief stint at UNLV included him getting arrested for soliciting a prostitute near campus.
Now there's the consummate Lamar Odom story. How does anyone, let alone the No. 1 basketball recruit in the country, get arrested for that crime in Vegas?
Then again, the same man wound up marrying a Kardashian, starring in a mega-rated wedding episode after just a month of "dating." As news broke Tuesday, he was often referred to as an ex-husband to a Kardashian, like marrying into a sisterhood was a greater accomplishment than his titles and trophies and life journey.
Almost everyone in the NBA swears by him, which is why so many cries and concern rolled in. He isn't the first lost soul from that league. He won't be the last. There may not be another with so many people wishing they could have figured how to help him.
Everyone knew his troubles and everyone wanted to believe success was possible, a sensitive soul that belied his hardened route to the top, the ultimate product of the game's filth somehow emerging clean, at least on the inside.
From the outside it's easy to see a kid who never dealt with the trauma of his youth. Even as a teenager he'd speak of his mother, tears filling his eyes, or share the truth about his dad, or cling to his grandmother, not the least bit embarrassed to call her his best friend.
Drug issues plagued him, though. He'd serve a couple NBA suspensions, weep at news conferences where he'd apologize to everyone. He sought all kinds of help: rehab, psychological, you name it.
Even in his best times with the Lakers, there were horrors. In 2006, his 6-month-old son, Jayden, died of sudden infant death syndrome, a crushing blow. He added a haunting tattoo of his son to go with ones of his mother and grandmother.
Two older children from his ex-wife are still alive.
If there's a hope here, it's that Lamar Odom finds the health and the help and the peace to live for them. They say he beat the odds getting out of Queens originally, but the truth is he was so talented that the odds didn't apply.
And getting out didn't mean getting it right. Eventually the basketball ends but everything else remains. He always seemed to know that; he just didn't know how to live with it.
Inside a Vegas hospital Wednesday is that same spirited kid from Christ the King way back when, dreaming not so much of the big time or the best time, just a better time.