"I've buried a child,'' Lamar Odom says. "You know what I'm saying? I've buried a baby.''
Actually, Lamar, I do know. I don't know if you mention your tragedy because it's cathartic or because it's honest or because it's infinitely painful. Or, frankly, because you are shamelessly using existential philosophy as a shield against criticism.
But "burying a baby''?
I remember the tiny white coffin and I remember "Scott Donahue Fisher'' and yes, I've buried a baby, too.
In basketball terms, this has been Lamar Odom's unlucky 13th NBA season. Just when you thought his French Fries boxscore of 1-1-1-1 against his old Lakers mates on Tuesday represented rock-bottom, the reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year shows up in San Antonio and is ordered by Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle to sit the bench, unused. The 1-1-1-1 became a DNP-CD – a first in Odom's fine professional career and almost certainly a first at any level. Odom's season averages (7.0 points and 4.4 rebounds) are half his usual output.
Odom's numbers in the eight games since coach Rick Carlisle ordered him to play as if his "pants are on fire''? Odom is averaging 2.9 points and 3.9 rebounds while hitting 21.4 percent of his shots, including a putrid 8 percent behind the 3-point arc.
And in the three games of last week? Lamar took five shots and made none. His per-game averages: One rebounds, one-third of an assist, one-third of a point.
Half of what it should be? One-third? One-tenth? L.O.'s passion and effort is being judged by Dallas Mavericks fans as being one-hundredth of what it should be.
He not only gets booed at home games for the Mavs at the AAC, but also at home games for the NHL's Dallas Stars at the AAC, where he and celebrity wife Khloe Kardashian recently attended their first hockey game and were treated ... well, icily.
Odom concedes to being bothered by the catcalls, and Khloe does the same, so much so that she took the emasculating action of chastising Mavs fans via Twitter.
"These same fans in Dallas used to boo me when I was with another team because they wanted me to fail,'' Lamar tells me with a thin smile. "Now they boo me when I'm a part of their team. I am feeling a certain way, anyway, because of the change (the trade) and things that have happened, and then ... the booing doesn't help.
I tell him that I agree, but I also note Lamar and Khloe have a reality TV show but they are not embracing this particular reality:
There is no member of the defending champions who is underperforming the way Lamar Odom is underperforming. It's 14 guys over here ... and one guy over there. Fans can see that, and they have paid for the right to express it, however counterproductive it may be.
We, and he, have offered up dozens of reasons for the abyss that is Odom's season. L.O. felt unloved when the Lakers tried to trade him to New Orleans and then asked for a trade that landed him in Dallas. He was crushed again when he realized that Dallas' long-term plans may not include him, that he might be a salary dump next summer. Or … his feet hurt. Or his knee hurts. Or his back hurts. Or he needs extra time for conditioning. … Or, he is haunted by the deaths that have helped shape his existence.
Last summer was a traumatic one for him. His cousin died. And while Odom was in New York for the funeral, he was a passenger in a car involved in a fatal accident with a teenage cyclist. Additionally, at midseason Odom took a 10-day personal leave from the team that has gone essentially unexplained, though sources tell me the absence was due to his father's illness, a concern that is ongoing.
Odom lost his mother, Cathy Mercer, at age 12. And the grandmother who raised him has passed away, Mildred Mercer's death occuring three years to the day before the haunting tragedy he mentioned after Saturday's loss in San Antonio, the 2006 death of his infant son, Jayden.
Discussion of this situation demands sensitivity. We can boo from the safety of our sofas and we can hoot from the comfort of our keyboards, and we tell our "Odom jokes'' in DFW now the way we tell "Romo jokes'' or "T.O. jokes'' or "Jessica Simpson jokes.'' But no man has the right to tell another how to mourn. Some of us weep. Some of us are stoic. Some of us stage wakes and tell warm, funny stories about our loved one who has, we try to convince ourselves, "gone onto a better place.''
In my family, the funny story we tell about Scott Fisher is that as the seventh child, he was victimized by the numbers game and by our parents' lack of creativity. I am the oldest of the seven kids. Six boys, one girl. Fisher kid No. 3's middle name is "Scott.'' Fisher kid No. 7's first name is "Scott.''
My parents had so many children (ah, Catholicism!) that they resorted to recycling!
But that's the only funny story we have about my baby brother. He died shortly after his birth in the stark white winter of 1973, when we lived in Northfield, Minnesota.
He didn't survive long enough to be part of more stories.
I had just turned 13. My thoughts are indelible, as fresh today as if they are just-made footprints in the Minnesota snow. The two-story funeral parlor on the corner on Main Street. … All those bundled-up people who were strangers to me, in attendance, murmuring words I did not understand … My otherwise always sunshiny mother oddly cloaked in black and completely unable to keep her balance, always requiring physical guidance from spot to spot. … And the "why'' of it all? How did it happen? Where did he go? What was his personality? What did he look like? Where is God in all of this?
It took me 20 years to finally realize why Mom – raised in a devout Catholic home with a younger sister who studied to be a nun – ended her lifetime habit of going to church every Sunday.
She quit shortly after the stark white winter of 1973.
That white casket ... I remember wondering if it was custom-made or a "stock'' funeral item. Do babies die with such frequency that somewhere around here there is a warehouse full of tiny white caskets waiting for their turns?
The box was so tiny. Like something a kid would put a G.I. Joe in, not an actual person. In my mind's eye today, it resembles the disposable Styrofoam chests you use to put ice and beer in. … Disposable.
"Expect the unexpected as far as life is concerned," Odom said on Saturday after his benching. "I've been through a lot. I've buried a child. There's not too much I haven't seen, so I understand it. I'm a team guy. He's the coach."
I don't know if at age 13 I would've understood those remarks. Or how deep those remarks might be intended to be. I don't know if I would've seen them as "comforting'' or, as I carefully (I hope carefully enough) note above, as "shamelessly using existential philosophy a shield against criticism.''
And this is where some sensitivity is required as I express that very view to Lamar.
I'll offer a wide swath of it to Lamar – Lord knows the Mavs are providing him a wide swath -- if the reader will offer it to me in return:
Lamar Odom was in his mid-20's when he "buried a baby.'' Too young, horribly young, for a dad.
I was 13. Too young, horribly young, for a big brother who felt some level of responsibility for leadership of a family.
Grandparents die. Parents die. Parents get old and sick. This is "Circle of Life'' stuff, relatively easy to understand and commonplace enough to be dealt with. And Lamar has dealt with it well enough to be among basketball's most decorated stars, a two-time NBA champion, an Olympian, a celebrity, a member of a family that earned $65 million last year.
"I do realize,'' Lamar responds to me after hearing my story, "that there are other NBA players who have a mom die when they are 30 or 40. And if I was 30 or 40, and my mom died, that would hurt, too. But I remember when Darius Miles came to the Clippers and his mom would be in the arena, and I remember telling him how lucky he is ...''
Odom's losses are many. His most heartbreaking family tragedy the death of Jayden. But Lamar is not alone here and Lamar is not unique here. What makes Lamar Odom unusual when it comes to this particular tragedy is his openness regarding it and dare I say what comes across as his "use'' of it.
When reporters ask Lamar about being benched, is it appropriate to mention the perspective gained by having "buried a baby''? Or is that a method of deflecting the question and of disguising the truth?
In my career, I've been on the questioner's side of this issue hundreds of times. It becomes very difficult to judge harshly the on-field performance of an athlete who is enduring personal turmoil. At the same time, it is naturally a handy-if-shameful technique for the athlete (and for any of us) to repeatedly cite a tragic circumstance as a way to avoid that harsh judgment.
How often and how long is the student, doctor, plumber, salesman or basketball player permitted to explain away tardiness, absenteeism, bad attitude and poor performance by saying, "Well, don't forget, Boss, I'm still pretty distraught over that family tragedy of mine''?
In such cases, the boss often tells the employee, "Take as long as you want.''
But how long, really, is that?
Death isn't unique but our reactions to it can be. My mom has her six children and all her grandchildren and she's been sunny again for almost as long as I can remember. Maybe saying "I've buried a baby'' in response to questions that have nothing to do with burials or with babies is cathartic. Maybe doing so is simply being honest. Maybe doing so reflects the infinite pain of the loss. Or maybe, at some point, it becomes a bath in self-pity or an exercise in believing you're cursed or a shield of gibberish that keeps you from actually responding to challenging basketball questions with truthful basketball answers.
It's just him and me. I ask that question directly to Lamar Odom.
"I would only ask that you write the truth,'' he says to me. "I think there is pain, and there is inspiration to be taken. But no matter what, it is always pain.''
Lamar Odom sees Jayden in the tattoo he has on his chest (as seen in the NYTimes photo) and he thinks about Jayden and he mourns Jayden. I think about that frigid winter and that tiny white coffin and I mourn Scott Donahue Fisher. We're all different but at the risk of overstepping my journalistic boundaries regarding anyone else who has "buried a baby,'' I would with sensitivity tell you that I mourn the boy I never really knew not with endless words about my baby brother but rather with mindful actions in honor of him.
I tell that to Odom while adding that I hope I am not being presumptuous.
"Hey,'' Lamar Odom says, extending a hand to shake. "No worries.''
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