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Lamar Odom's Sixth Man of the Year award epitomizes his selfless approach to basketball and life

April 19, 2011 |  7:00 pm

With tears watering his eyes, Lakers forward Lamar Odom stood at the lectern and stared at everybody watching him.

He had just accepted the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award Tuesday in a gathering at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel on W. Century Blvd. He shared a few laughs from the stage to the seats where Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher and Luke Walton sat and had been given the floor to bask in the spotlight.

Odom's assumed that role plenty of times before, whether on the hardwood at Staples Center or on his newly released reality television show, "Khloe and Lamar." As he's demonstrated in both those instances, he deflected the attention. What caused his eyes to water didn't involve earning an award General Manager Mitch Kupchak considered "overdue." It involved accepting an accolade and attaching everyone's else's role in it.

From his contention that his wife Khloe Kardashian and her extended family has made him feel more balanced outside of basketball to the teammates that consider him their locker room favorites, Odom stared at them, thanked them and then teared up. Odom didn't apply acceptance speech protocol. Odom's explanation on what made him so emotional defines his selfless approach to basketball and life.

"Basketball has given me everything I love," said Odom, who told The Times' Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner that his emotions sparked because his mother, Cathy Mercer, and grandmother, Mildred Mercer, had raised him in New York, but now both are deceased.."It’s taken me to so many different places. It brought me across so many different people."

No where was an individual award attached to that concept of selflessness than a sixth man award. The honor pointed to his willingness to come off the bench for the third consecutive season without much complaint. It reflected what Bryant argued proved to be Odom's most "consistent season"  in his 12-year career after averaging a third-best 14.4 points on 53% shooting and a third-best 8.7 rebounds. And it was an accolade ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy argued was an "insult" because Odom's talent far exceeds most reserves.

By no means did this award lack commentary on Odom's individual desires. He acknowledged this served as good ammo for all the criticism labeling him as an "underachiever," failing to fulfill a goal outlined this summer in appearing in his first NBA All-Star game and that he always considered himself an elite basketball player ever since growing up in New York. 

The backdrop displayed Tuesday served as more than just possibly inspiring Odom to rebound from a rare poor effort in the Lakers' 109-100 Game 1 loss Sunday to New Orleans where he posted 10 points on three-of-six shooting and only one board. It revealed that in the end it's the people surrounding the game that drive him than the initial accolades themselves. That's why Odom is seeking team approval to leave the award at the scorers table as a tribute to the fans at Staples Center who greet him with a loud reception when he enters the lineup.

Odom didn't always believe in that concept when Lakers Coach Phil Jackson shared his preference he come off the bench entering 2008 training camp. Knowing he was entering a free agent year, Odom adamantly refused it. But there was one unspecified day he entered the locker room and noticed the scenery: Bryant, Gasol, Fisher, a healthy Andrew Bynum, and Trevor Ariza. He figured it'd be much better working to make them happy and help secure his first NBA championship than add any additional individual accolades he could receive. Bryant likened that role to what Robert Horry provided during the Lakers' three-peat seasons from 2000-2002. Likewise, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson compared Odom to former Bulls guard Toni Kukoc, who won the league's sixth man of the year award in 1996 and played for the Bulls under Jackson from 1993-1998. Jackson, however, sees one difference. 

"There’s one thing that’d be similar, but Lamar wouldn’t express it," Jackson said. "Toni said, I’d rather be starting.  Odom in fact openly considered himself a sixth man, arguing. "I’m one of those guys that has to come into the game and to change the momentum." But it doesn't matter so much as what Odom sees himself as it does his willingness to adapt to situations.

That includes his role: Lakers center Andrew Bynum missed the first 24 games because of offseason surgery, and Odom gladly filled his starting spot. Jackson returned Bynum back in the lineup as a reserve for only seven games before granting him his permanent starting position, and Odom willingly moved back to a bench position.  Bynum served a two-game suspension last month for acquiring a flagrant foul type 1 on Minnesota's Michael Beasley, and Odom went through the same process in returning to the starting linep and then reverting back to reserves.

That includes his versatility: Focus on how he provides coast-to-coast dunks and layups and you overlook his ability to fire outlook passes on those same sequences. Focus on how his post presence takes pressure off Gasol, widens the floor for the backcourt and gives him space to post up or hit a mid-range jumper and you overlook his ability to direct the offense up top and hit outside shots. Focus on his ability to seamlessly fill in for Bynum's absence and you overlook the instant chemistry he forged with the second unit in Barnes, Steve Blake and Shannon Brown.

And most importantly it juxtaposes how he's different from the other Lakers.

A question to Bryant about whether he'd ever accept a bench role is met with a sneer and he later admits the difference between him and Odom: "I’m an a.... He’s actually a nice guy. That’s the heart of the matter."

A question to Gasol about how Odom proves willing to accept being a reserve quickly leads into his own self examination that he wouldn't handle a bench demotion properly:  "I’d handle it a lot worse than he has. It would take a while for me to accept it and be okay with it."

A question to Fisher about how Odom distinguishes among everyone else goes beyond his talent: "There are a lot of days without him that guys are going to work as opposed to playing the game. Lamar a lot of times makes it feel like a game."

Clearly, Odom's value goes beyond the X's and O's.

"I tell everybody he’s a better person than a basketball player," said Jamie Sangouthai, Odom's longtime best friend that runs a product line with him titled Rich Soil. "He's obviously a good basketball player."

Sangouthai would know. In 2008, he was diagnosed with diverticulitis, a digestive disease that he said required three surgeries. Besides helping with his medical expenses, Odom also had his teammates call Sangouthai with well wishes, a task they so willingly followed that Sangouthai said they soon engaged in trash talking.

That shouldn't be surprising, considering how they interact with Odom. The Lakers have continually teased Odom for his unisex fragrance ad where he appears nearly naked with Kardashian, a clip that even made into one of Jackson's film sessions. Though most of his teammates have refused watching the show, they genuinely express happiness over his enhanced celebrity profile. And the team immediately cheered when a reporter asked if he planned on giving the team any gifts, similar to when Bryant bought the team watches he won the 2007-08 regular-season MVP. 

See the two worlds merge together. Kardashian, her mother, Kris Jenner and Sangouthai sat on one row. Bryant, Fisher, Gasol, Walton, Shannon Brown, Derrick Caracter and Trey Johnson sat in another. It's clear how much Odom means to other people. 

"It’s the coolest feeling to see how happy he is," Kardashian said. "I’m so proud of him."

That appreciation is the greatest gift of all, what drives Odom and why he felt overwhelmed.

"I'm blessed," he said. "Some people call it luck, I call it blessed. I'm in a great position, I hope it keeps going. I'm living the dream a little bit. I just hope it keeps going." 

--Mark Medina

E-mail the Lakers blog at mgmedin@gmail.com


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