Lamar Odom's Sixth is his best
LOS ANGELES -- The ballroom was familiar. The award was a little smaller this time. Its recipient a shade taller.
But it was not lost on anyone that the ballroom in which the Lakers' Lamar Odom accepted his Sixth Man of the Year Award on Tuesday was the same room in which Kobe Bryant had been named the NBA's Most Valuable Player three years earlier.
As men, they share few similarities. Bryant is aggressive and cocksure. Odom is deferential and easygoing. But in terms of talent, God-given and otherwise developed, no one on the Lakers has more of it than Bryant or Odom.
Why, then, did one man win an MVP and the other win the Sixth Man Award?
"I'm an a--hole," Bryant said bluntly. "He's actually a nice guy. That's at the heart of the matter."
Yeah, right at the heart of it.
And right at the reason Odom finally found his way onto the center of the stage, accepting an individual award, taking a bow and not clapping for another teammate he had helped to shine brightly.
It takes longer to appreciate players like Odom. To appreciate men like Odom.
It sometimes takes even longer for them to want a piece of the limelight for themselves, finally.
To feel comfortable in that place.
There are a thousand reasons it took Odom 12 seasons to finally get there, but watching him up on that stage, his teammates seated in the second row, clapping and cheering for him like studio audience members at the George Lopez show, it was clear he had arrived.
He had finally become the best version of himself.
"I love what he's become," said Suns coach Alvin Gentry, who coached Odom during his first four seasons in the league with the Los Angeles Clippers. "As a player and as a man.
"You could always see that in him, even as a young player. But he'd be the first to tell you that he's grown up a lot since then.
"One of the things I thought was unbelievable, he came up to me one time and said, 'Coach, I'm sorry. I'm probably the reason you got fired as much as anything.'
"Players just don't do that, you know. But that's Lamar. He said, 'I'm just so much past that now, so much beyond that now.' I said, 'Lamar, that's the most important thing to me. To watch you grow up and to watch you play.'"
For years Odom has been one of the league's most interesting but confounding players. His talent was limitless. But his consistency was nonexistent.
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One night he'd remind you why he had been such a legend coming out of New York City in the late 1990s. The next he'd disappear in a haze of frustrating lethargy.
In a lesser player, those kind of ups and downs would have been tolerated better. But in a player as gifted and talented as Odom, it was hard to swallow.
You wondered whether he took his talent for granted.
Whether he realized why people wanted greatness for him so badly.
Whether he wanted greatness for himself.
"There was a point in my career where I think people were ready to call me an underachiever," Odom admitted at Tuesday's news conference.
Odom knows why people said things like that. And really, why they might still say things like that after he retires.
It's because he's not like Kobe, who cannot fundamentally accept a scenario in which he's not great.
His wiring is simply different.
But the reason Odom and Bryant were finally able to take the same stage, the reason Odom won the Sixth Man Award this season with 96 of 117 first-place votes, is that he finally seemed to realize the way to make his team better was to make himself better.
As a man and a player.
His maturity, his growth the past couple of years, has been striking. He is more centered now. More consistent.
He worked on his outside shot, he brought his best effort every game, even when the game did not find him. He did not allow circumstance to deflate or derail his night.
"I'm beyond proud of him," Bryant said.
"He came to my house when [he was] 16 years old and I was in my first year here. He was trying to decide whether to go to school or not, and we just talked. Now you fast forward all these years ...
"We had a teammate here before who was like that. Robert Horry, he had all the talent in the world to be an All-Star, too, but a lot of championship teams are built on guys that take lesser roles, even though they have the ability to do more. Robert Horry was that for us before, and Lamar is that for us now."
It's amazing how different a person can look through a new lens.
Everything he's always been is still there, but it looks different. Brighter. Better.
Lamar Odom hasn't changed; he's grown.
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The award he took home was a little smaller than Bryant's. The honor not as grand. But it was the award he has always been hard-wired to win.
His talent might have come from the same spring as Bryant's, but it was always going to flow down a different path.
On Tuesday they finally ended up on the same stage.
"Some people say he underachieved. But I don't buy that," Gentry said. "Because everybody is not a 25-point a-game scorer to be a great player. I think if you asked anybody on that Laker team if they could've done it without him, I don't think they could have.
"No one deserves to be on a championship team as much as he does, and that's why I'm so happy to see him get this award."
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and a reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com