Odom seeks Olympic redemption
LOS ANGELES -- Lamar Odom hasn't been watching the Winter Olympics. He doesn't know about skier Lindsey Vonn wrapping her shin in cheese curd to recover and win the gold. He doesn't have an opinion about the Evan Lysacek/Evgeni Plushenko figure skating controversy.
The only twists that concern him these days are the cinnamon ones featured in the new Taco Bell commercial he stars in with Charles Barkley, not the double McTwist 1260 that Shaun White pulled off on the snowboarding halfpipe in Vancouver.
Odom caught a bit of curling on TV in the Lakers' weight room the other day and when asked if he liked it, he took the polite approach: "It's different."
He said he planned to spend some of his off day Sunday tuning in to the coverage. He has nothing against the Winter Olympics, he's just been busy with the Lakers' schedule. He's going to watch and cheer for the U.S. to win the gold in whatever event in which it's competing. He's going to watch and remember what it's like to represent his country. He's going to watch and wonder what it will be like to represent his country again.
Two days before the start of the Winter Olympics, USA Basketball announced the 27 players for the national team pool that will be used to select the rosters for this summer's world championships and the 2012 Olympics in London.
Odom was one of those names.
Been there before
Odom averaged 9.3 points and 5.8 rebounds and started all eight games for the 2004 U.S. Olympic men's basketball team that finished third in Athens. He shot 56.9 percent from the field and 50.0 percent from 3-point range and ranked second on the team in steals and blocks.
The 6-foot-10 lefty might have performed admirably, but the team was a major disappointment. It lost to Puerto Rico by 19 in group play and by eight to Argentina in the semifinal game, making it the first American Olympic team composed of NBA players to fail to win the gold since the U.S. changed its strategy with the original Dream Team in 1992 in Barcelona.
Odom still looks back fondly on the experience, even if it didn't come out the way he wanted it to.
"Of course we would have liked to win, but just the experience being around those guys and going to different countries. ... We went to Germany, Greece, Turkey. ... Just that whole experience was amazing," Odom said. "No matter what we did, people still called us the 'Dream Team.' Just that whole experience, we were basically like a rock band."
What went wrong
Back in 2004, Larry Brown, who was the head coach of the U.S. team, said he was "humiliated" by how his team played.
As Odom sat at a table at center court in the Lakers' practice facility Saturday and was asked to sort through the wreckage some six years later, he was able to offer an emotion-free assessment.
"We thought we were just going to go in there and win," Odom said. "We didn't really understand that the whole world was gearing up for us. Nobody was in awe anymore. A lot of the players that we were playing against were in our league.
"It always shows you, when a sportsman is too confident, when he's cocky, he's allowed himself opportunity to get beat or to get upset by someone that he might think is a lesser opponent because he's just too relaxed."
The 2004 team was widely criticized for more than just how it played, however. The decision by the team to stay on the Queen Mary II luxury cruise ship off the cost of Greece rather than with the rest of the American athletes in the Olympic Village was panned by the media, but Odom insists it wasn't a choice made by pampered NBA players used to the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
"We did what we were told," Odom said. "There was some big security issues when we were there. This was five years ago."
Odom recollected the post-Sept. 11 climate and said fear of terrorism prompted the team's decision, not the desire for luxury lodging.
"We would have much rather stayed in the Olympic Village," Odom said. "Being on a cruise ship for how long we were on there wasn't cool at all. We started getting claustrophobic, the rooms were small. ... I would have much rather spent time in the Olympic Village. I had fun when we went down there as a team. We ate lunch down there sometimes; we tried to hang out down there [as much as possible]."
There were also reports of the players not getting along with Brown and the rest of the coaching staff that included Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and North Carolina coach Roy Williams. Brown was blamed for being too old school and demanding and for not connecting to the players.
Odom says he thinks the players should shoulder just as much backlash for not accommodating the coaching staff.
"It's hard for me to answer things like that because I don't understand how that happens as a player," Odom said. "If your coach is 80 years old, you can't expect him to listen to hip-hop music. If you're being coached by someone that's a little more traditional in their ways, then I think you as a player have to adapt to that.
"You have to adapt to different coaching staffs. Maybe some guys thought that it wasn't going to be as strict or disciplined because it was summertime and it was USA [Basketball], but the coaches took it serious."
Odom shot down several theories about why the U.S. failed to win gold in Athens.
"You don't always play the same minutes [as you do in the NBA]," Odom said. "You don't always get the same looks. Just look who you're playing with. If you take five shots one game, you might take one the next, but your stats and your averages is not what it's about. If you watch the  Dream Team, some guys didn't play till the end of the game and them guys is Hall of Famers. ...
"Who cares about stats? You just want to win."
Should the team have spent more time together to get a chance to jell, considering it was playing against foreign teams made up of players who had played together all their lives?
"I think sometimes that may be the difference in chemistry," Odom admitted, before returning to his no-excuses stance. "To me, I feel like that team was just supposed to find a way to win -- who cares? All you have to do is play defense and pick guys up. We're so athletic. Play defense. Forget the scoring. Everybody can average two [points]. Just pick up, use your athleticism, speed the game up and win."
Odom's bronze medal from the 2004 Summer Olympics rests some 3,000 miles away from Los Angeles on a shelf in the New York City bedroom of his 8-year-old son, Lamar Jr., along with his Lakers championship ring.
There might have been a 2008 Olympic gold medal on that shelf too, had it not been for the tragedy that struck two years earlier.
Odom's second son, 6-month-old Jayden, died from sudden infant death syndrome in 2006. That summer, the U.S. won bronze at the FIBA World Championship in Saitama, Japan. Odom was was invited to be a part of that team but stayed home to help his mourning family.
"At the time I really wasn't focused on going to play basketball anywhere," Odom said. "I had to kind of stay around my family. I have a daughter who is 11, so at the time she was a little younger, my son was about 4, so [he was] old enough to kind of understand what was going on so I just kind of stayed at home with my family. It was even hard for me to come back and play [for the Lakers] that year, but I just took my time and did a lot of praying. I think I made the right decision."
The U.S. sent Antawn Jamison and Shane Battier as the backup forwards in Odom's place, and both players struggled with the international game. Jamison shot 33.3 percent from the field and averaged just 3.6 points and 1.7 rebounds. Battier was relegated to a spot-up 3-point shooter and averaged just 5.0 points and 2.4 rebounds.
After the apathy in Athens, Jerry Colangelo was named chairman of USA Basketball and was charged with overhauling the operation. He developed a program that would bring together American basketball players for coaching, team-building experiences and player evaluation in non-Olympic summers.
It was out with the old and in with the new, but Odom made a positive impression in Greece despite how the U.S. fared. Odom was one of six players on the 12-man 2004 Olympics roster invited back along with James, Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Carlos Boozer and Amare Stoudemire.
Colangelo has coveted Odom ever since he took control.
"We want him because of his versatility," Colangelo said during NBA All-Star Weekend in Dallas. "He can be effective playing five minutes or playing 25 minutes. It's not about 12 superstar players. It's about finding the right components to make up a team. He fits the bill.
"He was valuable to us. We didn't just pick him because how he plays, but because of who he is."
Will he make it?
Odom is one of 13 forwards among the 27 players invited to compete this summer. He will be jostling with James, Anthony, Boozer, Chris Bosh, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Durant, Danny Granger, Andre Iguodala, Al Jefferson, David Lee, Kevin Love and Gerald Wallace for five or six roster spots earmarked for forwards on the world championship and Olympic teams.
James, Bosh and Lee are all free agents this summer, which will probably keep them from participating and could help Odom's chances of making the team that will go to Turkey for the 2010 FIBA World Championship from Aug. 28 to Sept. 12. Playing in Turkey will help his case when it comes time to selecting the team that will go to London for the Olympics because Colangelo, along with head U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski, have repeatedly said they give weight to past service when making final roster cuts.
If James isn't able to make it, he is confident that Odom's skill set will be an able substitute for his own game.
"Lamar Odom is one of those rare guys that you have in the game," James said. "He's a guy that can rebound, pass the ball, score and run a team. We call them point forwards, like Scottie Pippen, Magic Johnson, myself, I'm one of those guys. Him being 6-foot-10, he's able to get a rebound, push the ball, finish coast to coast or dish off to other players and you don't have too many players like that in our league. He's one of them."
Said Anthony: "I think he'll be a good addition to what we have. You never know who is going to back out and who is going to come in."
Playing with Wade
Wade is another one of the players in the pool who will be signing a new contract this summer and whose negotiations may cause him to sit out of the tournament. Then again, seeing how much he likes playing with Odom, it wouldn't be surprising if he suited up in the red, white and blue.
Wade and Odom were teammates in Wade's rookie year in 2003-04, when they took the Heat to the second round of the playoffs a season after Miami won only 25 games.
They developed a bond that remains strong to this day. When Odom was a free agent this summer, Wade admits he "heavily recruited" him to come back to South Beach.
"Me and Dwyane, we became close in just one year," Odom said. "A lot of guys on that team got really close. We did everything together. It was like a brotherhood.
"[But] it was too hard for me to leave, I kind of explained that to [Wade and Pat Riley], after we just won a championship. They understood. Maybe if we would have fell a little short and didn't succeed as much, then who knows? I still have my home down there and I spend a lot of time down there, but we were just too successful [in L.A.] for me to go."
Even though his overtures to get Odom to return came up empty, the leading scorer on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team was still effusive in his praise of his former teammate.
"I love him," Wade said. "I love L.O. man. I think he's underrated for what he does. He's a very unselfish guy, very unselfish. To him, it's all about team. It's not about Lamar Odom. I love L.O."
The London Games are still some 29 months away, so there's no guarantee Odom's 30-year-old body will be healthy enough to make the roster when it's finally time to light the torch, but he has had a desire burning inside of him since 2004 for some Olympic atonement.
"I'm going to be honest with you, I was embarrassed for us as a team because everybody on that team, I felt, wanted to represent the USA the right way, but for some reason we couldn't, like, put it all together," Odom said.
"I would love to go back and be able to redeem myself and win a gold medal, but more, I would love to go back just to play for USA again."
He wants another chance. He wants an outcome that's different from before.
Just not different like curling.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.