A lot more than the uniform has changed for Lamar Odom since his time living and playing in South Beach seven years ago.
After spending four years toiling in obscurity with the Los Angeles Clippers to begin his career, signing with the Miami Heat in 2003 allowed No. 7 to guide a team to the playoffs for the first time in his career.
Lamar returns to Miami tonight when the Lakers take on the Heat.
Though LO spent only one season in Miami, it was a blessing for the power forward and it began when a legendary coach recruited Lamar, offering the chance to lead a team.
Miami coach Pat Riley, who now runs the Heat as team president, pursued and signed LO during free agency in 2003. Bringing Lamar to Miami had been four years in the making for Riley, who valued the versatile swingman in the 1999 NBA Draft, but missed out.
"He was one of the most unique players that I have ever seen," said Riley. "He had great speed; he was a great passer with an incredible seven-foot wingspan. He also had the ability to handle the basketball. So I was very excited about the possibilities of getting him and we did in fact consummate a trade that didn’t go through the night of the draft."
Learning under the legendary coach, Lamar developed on the court, scoring a career best 17.1 points per game in 2003.
But it was his development off the court under Riley that mattered and impacted LO the most.
SOUTH BEACH SALVATION
Lamar felt he finally developed as an adult while playing for the Heat.
His early years in the NBA were difficult, but meeting Riley changed that. To LO, he became more than just a Hall of Fame coach. He was a father-figure.
"He saved me," Lamar said. "He saved me, as far as holding me accountable for everything I do."
As he learned to take responsibility for his actions, Lamar felt what it was like to grow up.
"Every day, after practice, driving home, it was the first time I felt like a man," he said. "Sometimes – we’re so blessed, you can always do what you want to do. And I had fun doing that. But it was the first time I felt like a grown man. How I think. How I act. My relationships with people were changing and evolving. I was in the best shape of my life. I was happy when I looked in the mirror every day."
The Heat made the playoffs that year, a young, but suddenly mature, LO mentoring the talented but callow Dwayne Wade.
Just as it seemed something special was developing in South Beach, the Package was packaged back to Los Angeles with teammate Caron Butler so the Heat could bring in Shaquille O’Neal.
But that trade would prove to be a blessing for LO too.
The move back to LA was a good one for Lamar, for he would not return to the Clippers.
The Package would be paired with another of the best players in the game, Kobe Bryant, and given the opportunity to apply his growth and maturity in Miami to a whole new situation, in a familiar surrounding.
The Los Angeles Lakers were basketball’s preeminent team and it was a fitting move because Riley saw LO as the only player in the league who had the ability to follow in the footsteps of the Lakers’ greatest guard, Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Riley Magic coached on the "Showtime" Lakers from 1981 to 1990 and saw that same special talent in Lamar.
"He just reminded me of Earvin Magic Johnson," Riley said. "In fact, he is the only player to come into this league that had the ability to play like Earvin."
Since his Hollywood revival began, Lamar has played that role to a tee.
With the Lakers, he has matured into that complete player that Riley saw coming out in the '99 draft. One who can dominate one night and facilitate the next.
In just the past five games this season, he’s had one night leading the Lakers scoring, another leading the squad in rebounding, and one night leading Los Angeles in assists. LO has taken his numerous talents and morphed into one of the league’s most complete, if not best, players, a blend of size and skill that the writers at RealGM.com recently compared to NBA mega-star LeBron James.
But it’s not just about talent. A matured LO has also developed as the rock of the Lake Show. Since he’s was traded to the Lakers, they’ve only missed the playoffs once and he is the one his teammates looks to for support., as SI.com’s Lee Jenkins wrote:
"Before every game the Lakers lock arms and form a circle around Odom. He is an unusual centerpiece: not their captain, not their best player, not their second best player, but when the lights dim and the decibels rise and Odom starts bouncing up and down in the middle of the circle—"We're the best team in the NBA!" he shouts—the Lakers bounce with him."
THE RIGHT MATCH
After climbing to the top of the mountain and helping LA to an NBA title last season, LO became a free agent and looked into returning to Miami.
While the Lakers waited, Lamar had flirtations this offseason about teaming up again with a more mature Wade and trying to conquer the East.
"I love L.O. as a person and, of course, as a player," Wade told the Sporting News during free agency last year. "We had one year together. I wish we could have had more."
But returning to the Lakers, who added a good friend of LO in talented small forward Ron Artest, was too good an opportunity to pass on.
After re-signing with Los Angeles, LO told the Los Angeles Times that the time he’s spent with the Lakers has turned his teammates into something more than coworkers.
"The Lakers are family," he said.
TAKING IT TO ANOTHER LEVEL
While the Heat were once part of LO's family, he has had no problem taking it to them since he left.
In 2007-08 when facing his former team, LO put on a show, in one game scoring 15 points and hauling in 18 boards, while in the second meeting dropping 13 and grabbing 11 boards. Both games he had six assists.
It's the kind of production the Lakers have come to expect from No. 7, and lately that’s exactly what he’s been giving them.
He’s led the Lakers in scoring or rebounding four times over the past four games, and is creating trouble for every Los Angeles opponent. Tonight, the task of guarding Lamar will fall to Michael Beasley, as noted by the Sporting News:
"To win Thursday, Miami will likely need Beasley to neutralize Lamar Odom, who's averaged 13.5 points and 10.8 rebounds in his last 10 games."
Lamar and the Lakers take on the Miami Heat tonight in South Beach. Tip-off is scheduled for 5:00 p.m. EST and a nationwide audience can see the game on TNT.
Wade gets misty-eyed over Odom (The Sporting News, July 15, 2008)
Lakers-Heat Preview (Sporting News, March 3, 2010)
NBA’s Most Auxiliary Weapon (RealGM.com, March 1, 2010)
Lakers, Lamar Odom agree to four year deal (L.A. Times, July 31, 2009)
Another Sunny Day in Lamar’s L.A. (SI.com, March 23, 2009)