‘Why not roll the dice?’ Lamar Odom’s risky road back from addiction and depression

·25 min read

The first time he tried cocaine, Lamar Odom was poolside at a trendy Miami Beach hotel overlooking South Beach.

An attractive blonde had cozied up to Odom inside his cabana even though her husband was by her side. Then, without warning, the woman requested her husband leave so that she and Odom could be alone.

This was the setting in the summer of 2004 when Odom’s new companion asked him to produce the baggie of cocaine they had previously secured from one of his friends. Harder drugs hadn’t tempted Odom before, but this time he couldn’t resist emptying the cocaine on a table and separating it into lines.

The woman snorted a line first.

“It looked like she was having an orgasm already,” Odom told Yahoo Sports.

Then it was Odom’s turn.

“My stupid ass gets the same orgasmic feeling that she had,” he recalled.

By the time Odom and the woman finished “interacting,” he knew he had to experience that rush again.

“I had unleashed a demon,” Odom said. “Coke and sex went together every time after that. They had to intertwine.”

Odom told this story last week from the living room of an Airbnb house just over a mile from Venice Beach. The former Lakers forward had returned to Los Angeles to promote "Lamar Odom: Reborn," a new documentary chronicling his experimentation with psychedelic medicines to treat his depression and drug addiction.

It is now more than five years since Odom’s drug abuse prematurely ended his NBA career, destroyed his marriage to Khloe Kardashian and left him comatose for three days in a Las Vegas hospital. Ever since he awakened and began to rebuild his life, Odom has been trying to figure out why he’s still breathing and how to make the most of his second chance.

Recently, Odom has wondered if his purpose might be to inspire others to pay more attention to mental health and to seek help before they fall down the same dark hole he did. It’s part of the reason he has bared his soul in a revealing memoir, permitted cameras to film him going through psychedelic treatments and answered every uncomfortable, embarrassing question hurled at him.

“Maybe sharing my story and the moments I’m not so proud of is one of the reasons for my higher power saving me,” Odom said. “Maybe I’m here to help other people.”

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)

When Lamar Odom became ‘LO’

In the darkness of night, a lanky 12-year-old boy snuck out of his house with a basketball under his arm. He walked to the nearest court and hoisted shot after shot, as though the release of the ball could divert the waves of pain ripping through him.

Earlier that day, Lamar Odom held his beloved mother’s hand for the final time. Cathy Mercer, a corrections officer at Rikers Island, died of colon cancer. By then, Odom’s father, a heroin addict, had been absent from his life for years. Joe Odom showed up only occasionally to try to buy back his son’s affection with a $20 bill or a new pair of sneakers.

While Lamar’s grandmother stepped in to raise him, the loss of his mother left him feeling angry, scared and alone. He went from an indifferent student to one who seldom bothered to show up to class on time or turn in his assignments. Only basketball provided any comfort.

“Basketball is all I had when my mother died,” Odom said. “I remember the day that she passed away, I just went to the park and shot the rock all night.”

Over the next few years, Odom became a regular at Lincoln Park, the asphalt court that served as a proving ground for the best basketball players from Queens. Modeling his game after Kenny Anderson’s sleight of hand with the ball and Magic Johnson’s flashy passing and court vision, Odom developed rapidly playing against older, stronger players.

In those days, New York City produced point guards like Texas grows football players, but a timely growth spurt set Odom apart from his peers. Odom sprouted from 6-foot-2 to 6-9 entering his sophomore year at Christ the King High School yet retained the perimeter skills that previously defined his game.

It was about then that an influential Adidas-sponsored AAU coach first spotted Odom during a workout in Queens. Gary Charles dialed then-Adidas power broker Sonny Vaccaro and told him he had just stumbled across a player the caliber of Felipe Lopez, the decorated New York prospect who in 1994 graced Sports Illustrated’s cover before playing his first college game. One week later, Charles watched Odom again, and declared to Vaccaro, “Sonny, he’s better than Felipe Lopez.”

“At that time, that was crazy talk,” said Charles, Odom’s coach with the Adidas-sponsored Long Island Panthers. “Felipe was that dude. But I could not believe what I was watching, this 6-8, 6-9 kid doing what he was doing. He was one of the first kids I’d ever seen that didn’t have to score a point to be the best player on the floor.”

The multiple ways Odom could impact a game quickly became his calling card. He capped a spectacular sophomore season by tallying 36 points, 10 rebounds, 5 blocks and 4 assists in the Catholic League title game, a performance that entrenched him as an NYC legend and provided his first taste of fame.

Girls began to flock to Odom. College coaches Odom had seen on TV began calling his home or showing up to his games. In his 2017 memoir, Odom recalled a local nightclub inviting him to party even though he was five years shy of the legal drinking age.

“That’s when my life changed,” Odom said. “That’s when I went from Lamar Odom to LO. But at that time I didn’t realize what was also changing for the worse”

The sharks begin to circle

In the next few years, Odom discovered the downside to becoming a New York City playground prodigy. He was basically cast adrift in a sea of agents, boosters, recruiters and shoe company operatives, all seeking ways to use him to make money for themselves.

Odom attended three high schools in two states as a senior in search of academic eligibility. His college recruitment triggered investigations that landed two different programs on NCAA probation.

There were so many sharks circling Odom late in his senior year that his AAU coach feared he was losing influence with the prized prospect. Gary Charles asked Odom’s grandmother for permission to pull her grandson out of the upstate New York private school he was attending at the time and stash him in the Long Island suburbs.

“I had to hide him at my mother’s house for two weeks,” Charles said. “That way other people couldn’t get to him. That way other people didn’t know where he was at.”

Although Odom committed to play college basketball at UNLV, questions about the validity of his SAT score caused the Rebels to rescind his scholarship before he played a single game. He has since admitted that his handlers arranged to have someone else take the SATs for him, but the impostor raised suspicions when he scored too high.

“Anytime I was presented with work that confused me or I wasn’t prepared for, an alternative was set up by someone who had a stake in my future,” Odom wrote in his memoir. “I said yes to those alternatives every time.”

It’s a testament to Odom’s talent that despite all that chaos, he still was in consideration to be selected No. 1 overall in the 1999 NBA draft. The Chicago Bulls had that pick and invited him to work out for them after Odom averaged 20.2 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists during his lone collegiate season at Rhode Island.

A private plane arrived in New York to take Odom to Chicago, but he didn’t show up. He instead left Jerry Krause and Tim Floyd waiting for him on the tarmac for hours as Charles and others tried frantically to find him.

The incident added to the mistrust of Odom in NBA circles. Charles recalls NBA teams hiring private investigators before the 1999 draft to track Odom and his associates.

“I walked out of my house one day, and there’s somebody outside,” Charles said. “I didn’t know it was a private investigator until later. I went out there and said, ‘Are you alright? You’ve been parked here for awhile.’ ”

Odom’s punishment for his flakiness arrived on draft night. The most talented player in his draft class dropped to No. 4 overall and landed in the “last place” Charles wanted him.

Lamar Odom was now a member of the Los Angeles Clippers.

Lamar Odom originally planned on going to UNLV, but after question arose about his SAT scores, he ended up at Rhode Island. Rocky (Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Lamar Odom originally planned on going to UNLV, but after question arose about his SAT scores, he ended up at Rhode Island. Rocky (Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

Too much too soon

At age 21, not even two years removed from his pre-draft disappearance, Odom took on a role he was nowhere near qualified to accept.

The Clippers made him co-captain of a youthful team that also featured rookies Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson.

Odom actually produced one of the best statistical seasons of his career and helped double the Clippers’ win total from his rookie season, but his immaturity was apparent away from the court. In January 2001, he overslept in Las Vegas and failed to fly home in time to attend an afternoon practice. Later that same year, his habit of smoking marijuana during the season caught up to him and he failed two drug tests in eight months.

The incidents sapped the Clippers’ faith in him. They also eroded Odom’s self-confidence.

“At that time, I was one of the best young players in the NBA, so I had no problem walking into a room with the best young players in the NBA with my chest out,” Odom said. “But after two drug suspensions, you walk into that room and you’re like, ‘Am I accepted? Are people talking about me? Are they calling me stupid? Do I look stupid?’ It changes your whole mindset.”

Of course the failed drug tests weren’t enough to get Odom to quit marijuana. He just became more clever about hiding it.

Before he could officially join the 2004 U.S. Olympic team, Odom learned he’d have to pass a drug test. He knew he had smoked too much weed to do that, so he says he began studying different ways to beat a drug test.

“I peed with a fake dick,” he said. “There are ways around everything”

Odom had joined the Lakers and begun dabbling in harder drugs by the time tragedy struck anew. On June 29, 2006, Odom’s 6-month-old son Jayden died in his crib of sudden infant death syndrome.

For Odom, the crushing loss was a turning point. His relationship deteriorated with Liza Morales, his high school sweetheart and the mother of his three children. And his use of cocaine became more frequent as he sought to fill the void.

Becoming a ‘great’ drug addict

On June 14, 2009, the Los Angeles Lakers put away the Orlando Magic to capture their 15th NBA championship. Three days later, one of the team’s most recognizable and indispensable players nearly missed the victory parade.

Every player had to meet in downtown Los Angeles on the morning of the parade, but Odom neither showed up on time nor picked up his phone. When longtime Lakers athletic trainer Gary Vitti finally reached Odom, the veteran forward made excuses for why he couldn’t come.

The real reason for Odom’s tardiness became apparent to Vitti when the 29-year-old relented and joined his teammates on a float. The way Vitti remembers it, “It was obvious that Lamar had been partying all night.”

“That was really the only time I felt scared for him,” Vitti told Yahoo Sports. “It’s one thing to smoke weed here and there. It’s another thing to get on that other stuff.”

It’s no surprise that Vitti didn’t discover the extent of Odom’s cocaine habit until many years later. The former Lakers forward kept his secret, describing himself as “not a good drug addict — a great one.”

“An addict knows how to hide,” Odom said. “You’re not going to let everyone in on your shame.”

Odom hid his pain behind a generous spirit and irrepressible sense of humor that brought joy to everyone he encountered. He’d purchase new suits for the Lakers' rookies each season. He preferred paying a fine for making the team bus late to turning away kids seeking his autograph. One training camp, he hired famed Hawaiian chef Sam Choy to prepare every meal for the team because he sensed eating together would boost camaraderie.

When someone would razz Odom about his beloved Yankees losing a playoff series, he'd often playfully fire back by citing their 27 championships and insisting they could afford to share the wealth. When someone would ask Odom about the challenges of paparazzi hounding him and wife Khloe Kardashian, he'd smile and dryly note that he'd "been through a lot worse than marriage."

In his autobiography, Odom details the closest he came to getting caught with more than marijuana in his system.

One night early in the 2006-07 season, Odom was high on cocaine when he received word that he had a random drug test the next morning. He hastily chartered a late-night private plane to New York under the guise of a family emergency, downing water and cranberry juice to flush his system the whole time he was in the air.

A league official met Odom in New York later that day to collect the sample. To Odom’s relief, it came back inconclusive.

“I dodged yet another bullet,” Odom wrote. “One of many to come my way.”

EL SEGUNDO, CA - SEPTEMBER 29:  Lamar Odom #7 (C) of the Los Angeles Lakers is surrounded by a crush of reporters during Lakers media day at the Lakers training facility on September 29, 2009 in El Segundo, California.  Odom married Khloe Kardashian over the weekend. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Lamar Odom is surrounded by a crush of reporters during Lakers media day at the Lakers training facility on September 29, 2009 in El Segundo, California, a few days after Odom married Khloe Kardashian. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Keeping up with the Kardashian

On Sept. 29, 2009, the Lakers reconvened to begin their title defense, not that anyone bothered to ask about such an inconsequential subject.

The topic that dominated conversation was Odom marrying Khloe Kardashian two days earlier.

A horde of Hollywood gossip reporters and FM deejays trailed Odom around the Lakers' practice facility, each clamoring for him to reflect on a whirlwind courtship that lasted barely a month. Though contractual obligations prevented him from revealing much before the ceremony was shown on TV, Odom emphasized that his marriage to Kardashian was heartfelt.

“I just want people to understand and respect how we feel about each other,” Odom said that day. "It's crazy how perception works in America when you're looking at things from the outside. Anybody that was there [at the wedding] will tell you that it was a beautiful event and it was real.”

Odom frequently faced questions about whether his foray into reality television would become a distraction, but those concerns proved unfounded. He produced two of the best seasons of his NBA career after meeting Khloe, contributing to a second NBA title run in 2010 before capturing Sixth Man of the Year honors in 2011.

From Vitti’s perspective, the marriage to Kardashian was “really good” for Odom. Vitti witnessed a “big change when he was with her.”

“He had this whole group of guys from his neighborhood living in his house,” Vitti said. “None of them worked. He paid for all their bills and cars. Khloe, she stopped all that. She got rid of all those guys who were hanging on, draining his bank account. She really got him to straighten up.”

Odom’s apparent maturation might have stuck were it not for a series of tragedies that stirred up long-suppressed emotions regarding the deaths of his mother and son.

It started in July 2011 when Odom’s 24-year-old cousin was shot and lay in a hospital bed on life support. Odom flew to New York to be by his cousin’s side and to advise family members that they needed to let him go.

Two days into that trip, as Odom sat in a chauffeur-driven SUV on his way to get a haircut, he heard a sickening noise. The SUV collided with a motorcycle, which skidded into a 15-year-old pedestrian. The boy was rushed to a hospital and pronounced dead the following day.

For days, Odom didn’t eat or pick up a basketball. He was still in an emotionally fragile state later that year when along came another reminder that nothing in life is promised.

Eighteen months after he helped them win back-to-back championships and six months after he collected NBA Sixth Man of the Year honors, the Lakers dealt Odom to New Orleans as part of a three-way trade that netted them Chris Paul. NBA commissioner David Stern infamously nixed that trade, but Odom was so hurt by the disloyalty that he skipped the first day of Laker training camp and essentially forced a subsequent trade to Dallas.

“It was the final betrayal,” Vitti says. “It was literally almost the last nail in his coffin.”

The Las Vegas incident

In 2015, Lamar Odom’s former AAU coach received an unexpected phone call.

Gary Charles says Odom reached out to mend their relationship and to seek help trying to make a comeback.

At that time, Odom hadn’t played an NBA game in more than two years. His disastrous final two seasons with the Mavericks and Clippers were marred by disinterest, depression and troubling behavior.

Odom’s struggles with drug abuse subsequently played out for public consumption on gossip sites and reality television. In August 2013, he was arrested and charged with DUI. That same year, acquaintances detailed his drug binges and paranoia to media outlets. And a video leaked of a shirtless Odom incoherently rapping about using drugs and cheating on Kardashian.

When Odom called Charles, he admitted that he had surrounded himself with the wrong people. He insisted he had come to Las Vegas committed to getting back in shape and working on his game.

“Let me get this straight,” Charles said. “You want to make a comeback and you’re going to do it in goddamn Vegas? Are you out of your damn mind?”

Charles recalls Odom responding with a laugh, “That’s why I love you. You’re going to tell me the truth.”

Optimistic that this could be the fresh start Odom needed, Charles arranged a workout at a Las Vegas high school, but his former player never showed. Odom’s spiral instead worsened, accelerated by the deterioration of his marriage to Kardashian and by the death of two more loved ones within two weeks of each another.

One friend died at 30 of a drug overdose. Another friend and former high school classmate died at 37 of a rare flesh-eating bacterial infection caused by chronic IV drug use.

“I can remember the last day I saw him,” Odom said. “We were in a hotel, and he took his shoe off. I’ve never smelled a dead person before, but that day I smelled a dead person that was still living.”

Only a few months later came Odom’s own well-publicized brush with death. Odom was found unconscious in a Nevada brothel in October 2015. Authorities said Odom had taken cocaine and Viagra-like medicine in the days leading up to his collapse.

Odom was in a coma for three days and suffered 12 strokes, six heart attacks and damage to his kidney and liver. Doctors warned those who visited him at the hospital to prepare for the worst.

Said Odom softly: “They told my family to say their final goodbye.”

CRYSTAL, NV - OCTOBER 14:  Signs for Dennis Hof's Love Ranch Las Vegas brothel are shown on October 14, 2015 in Crystal, Nevada. Former NBA player Lamar Odom was found unconscious during a visit at the brothel and has been hospitalized at Sunrise Hospital & Medical Center in Las Vegas.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Lamar Odom was found unconscious during a visit at Dennis Hof's Love Ranch in Las Vegas in 2015. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

'Why not roll the dice?'

Mike Zapolin had just finished screening his documentary exploring the therapeutic potential of psychedelic medicine when a friend of Lamar Odom introduced himself.

The man confided that Odom was still struggling with substance abuse issues even after his near-death experience. Then Odom's friend asked Zapolin if psychedelics could help the troubled former NBA star overcome depression and addiction.

Zapolin, an entrepreneur and film director who considers himself an advocate for psychedelic medicine, volunteered to speak with Odom. The self-described psychedelic concierge urged Odom to try to break his destructive patterns through a series of medically supervised ketamine treatments.

“He’s had a lot of trauma in his life that he has suppressed,” Zapolin told Yahoo Sports. “He had been trying to deal with it in an outward way, but what I suggested was going inside himself. I thought if he did that, he might be able to heal.”

Ketamine carries a stigma because of its history as a hallucinogenic and addictive party drug. How can the street drug best known as Special K be an effective weapon in a psychiatrist's pharmacological arsenal? Can that be right?

For patients with suicidal thoughts or treatment-resistant mental health disorders, the answer seems to be yes. Multiple studies suggest that when administered under the care of a medical professional, ketamine therapy can offer temporary and rapid depression relief where other treatments have failed.

Dr. Cristina Cusin, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, told Harvard Health in 2018 that "ketamine has been shown to be effective in people who haven’t responded to antidepressant treatment." Cusin also cautioned that the drug does “need to be carefully matched to the right patient” because of its addictive properties and the potential for abuse.

This would seem to be a concern for Odom given his history, but he shrugged it off when Zapolin approached him about ketamine treatment. His substance abuse issues persisted, even after his near-death experience in Las Vegas, interventions led by friends and family and multiple visits to rehab clinics.

‘S***, I remember being in rehabs thinking about how high I was going to get as soon as I could get the f*** out of there,” Odom admitted.

When Zapolin told him ketamine treatment could help his depression and anxiety, Odom agreed to give it a try.

“I go to Vegas, I gamble, you know what I mean?” Odom said. “Why not roll the dice?”

In Zapolin’s newly released documentary chronicling Odom’s recovery through the use of psychedelic medicine, great care is taken to demonstrate how science-driven the experience is. Doctors monitor Odom’s blood pressure and heart rate. The ketamine clinics resemble medical spas, not crack houses or opium dens.

Odom’s treatment began roughly 2 ½ years ago with six doses of ketamine over a period of 2-to-3 weeks. While reclining under a fleece blanket in a medical exam chair near the end of what the film says is his first ketamine experience, Odom enthusiastically declared, “I never felt this good in my life.”

“It felt like heaven,” Odom continued. “I didn’t want it to stop.”

'The most powerful plant psychedelic known to man'

Once Zapolin felt confident that the ketamine had stabilized Odom’s state of mind, he prepared the two-time NBA champion for the next phase of his treatment.

It was time for Odom to take what Zapolin calls “the most powerful plant psychedelic known to man.”

Ibogaine is a controversial rogue drug addiction remedy that is banned in the U.S. and across much of Europe. Proponents hail its potential as a cure for cravings and withdrawal symptoms experienced by cocaine and opioid addicts. Critics point to the dearth of scientific studies validating its efficacy and to the number of deaths associated with its use.

The drug is an extract of the root of a rare shrub called Tabernanthe iboga, which is native to the rainforests of Central Africa. Members of the Bwiti tribe in Gabon have consumed iboga bark shavings during initiation rituals and coming-of-age ceremonies for centuries and have reported potent hallucinations of deceased ancestors.

A 19-year-old recreational drug enthusiast from New Jersey accidentally discovered ibogaine’s healing properties in 1962. Howard Lotsof became a vocal ibogaine proponent after experimenting with the drug and emerging from a bizarre 36-hour trip with no more cravings for heroin and no withdrawal symptoms.

Among today’s leading experts on ibogaine is Deborah Mash, a University of Miami professor of neurology who describes the drug as an “addiction interruptor” that offers addicts a window to change their behavior. Mash argues ibogaine “has the potential to be a truly transformative therapy,” but cautions it’s dangerous to take such a powerful hallucinogen without proper medical supervision.

Over the past quarter century, Mash has conducted much of her ibogaine research overseas.

She has not yet received permission to conduct clinical trials on addicts in the U.S. because of safety concerns and insufficient funding.

“What has hindered the clinical development of ibogaine is that use of the drug has been forced underground,” Mash told Yahoo Sports. “People who are desperate continue to take ibogaine in unsafe settings and because of that there are adverse events.”

The setting for Odom’s ibogaine treatment was a beachfront property just across the Mexican border. The documentary shows the man administering the ibogaine warning Odom that he’ll experience dizziness, nausea and all kinds of visions while under the influence of the drug.

“Even if you see the worst devil or demon in the world, surrender,” guide Jose A. Inunza Dominguez tells Odom. “It’s not going to kill you. Trust us.”

Odom doesn’t see any demons, but he does see a vision of his son Jayden growing from 6 months old to the age he would have been had he lived. Odom also says he hears his mom’s voice, as well as the voices of other close relatives.

More than a year removed from that experience, Odom has this to say when he reflects on his ibogaine treatment: “As an ex-drug addict living in a world of insanity, you might have to try some insane things to escape it.”

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - MAY 26:  Lamar Odom attends Shiggy vs Junebug Press Conference at Vivide on May 26, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images)
Eight years removed from the NBA, Lamar Odom now calls Atlanta home. (Paras Griffin/Getty Images)

Lamar Odom's 'no circle'

Now 41 years old and living in Atlanta, Odom swears he’s a very different person than the one found unresponsive in the Nevada brothel six years ago. He insists he no longer wakes up craving cocaine or feeling unfulfilled.

Odom says he is continuing his ketamine treatments, taking boosters whenever doctors tell him he needs one. He also describes lifestyle changes that contribute to his mental health — daily boxing workouts and breathing exercises, plenty of sunlight and no more surrounding himself with yes men and enablers.

“I call it the no circle,” Odom said. “You’ve got to be around people who are really your friends, people who are going to tell you no when you need to hear it and have your best interests at heart.”

It’s difficult to fully trust Odom given his previous proficiency for hiding his demons, but those close to him don’t report any red flags. They say Odom is saying the right things behind closed doors, just as he is in public.

For years, Jerry DeGregorio has been like a second father to Odom. He housed Odom for a few months during his turbulent senior year of high school. He coached Odom in college and the pros. He even delivered a moving speech about Odom at his 2009 wedding to Khloe Kardashian.

Asked to assess how Odom is doing, DeGregorio told Yahoo Sports that Odom seems more “present and aware” during their recent chats. DeGregorio said that “it’s a lot easier to have meaningful conversations with him.”

“Lamar has a lot of traumas from his past, and he’s always dealt with these traumas with drugs,” DeGregorio said. “I’m glad Lamar is taking positive steps addressing both his addiction and mental health issues. I think both are connected.”

While Odom desperately wants to fight the stigma in the African American community that it’s a sign of weakness to ask for help, he knows he cannot inspire others unless his own drug abuse and mental health issues are under control. He says he took a big step in January 2020 when Kobe Bryant died yet Odom “didn’t even think about” getting high to suppress the pain.

“I’m always going to live my life as an addict, but hopefully I’m going to live my life as an addict in recovery,” Odom said. “No more sneaking to get high. No more living in shame. I want to be out in the open, bright-eyed and accountable.”

'Lamar Odom: Reborn' was released in May, Mental Health Awareness Month. It can be watched on YouTube.

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