Sometimes when Erick Barkley looks at Lamar Odom Jr., he thinks he’s gone back in time.
“Same walk. Same frame. Same style of play. Same body. There are times where I’m like, ‘Wow, it’s just like looking at the hands of time unwind,’” he says.
“It’s like I’m looking at Lamar.”
Lamar Jr. is a freshman in high school now, a star basketball player just like his dad. Erick thinks he could be even better than his dad was, somehow. Barkley coached him and his own son, Justin, on the NYC On Point AAU team a couple of years ago. They played in Nationals together down in Virginia.
It was just like old times, like 20 years ago, when Barkley used to run with Lamar Sr.—plus Ron Artest and Elton Brand, too—on one of the best youth basketball teams ever assembled.
“We always had fun. We laughed when things went great. We cried when things were bad for us,” said Barkley. “He’s just a great friend; a great person. You couldn’t find a guy to say something bad about him.”
Now, Barkley’s praying for Odom to pull through for all the people he loved and helped make better. On Wednesday, the former Lakers star was found unconscious in a Nevada brothel. He’s been on life support ever since.
After all, Barkley says, for all of the people Odom loved and helped out directly, he dragged so many others out of Queens and into stardom along with him.
“With Lamar at the forefront, we were all happy to grab on his coat and ride his coattails,” said Barkley. “And we all were successful with it. We couldn’t believe all the attention.”
Artest and Brand turned out to be NBA All-Stars—both now among the longest tenured players in the NBA. Aki Thomas, the team’s other point guard, is now the coach at Division 1 UMBC.
Barkley wound up being a Division 1 star at St. Johns, and then spent two years on the Portland Trail Blazers. He’s not sure everybody would’ve made it without Lamar.
“As freshmen at Christ the King (High School, where they both attended), [Lamar] was only about 6-foot-2. He used to try to guard me in practice. That’s what made him better. He used to try to do the things that I used to do as a point guard. That’s what made him better,” he said. “That’s what made me better.”
It was all a bit miraculous to Barkley and those around him. Odom had lost his mother when he was 12 to colon cancer. His father, a heroin addict, couldn’t care for him, leaving Lamar in the care of his grandmother.
“When you go through things like that with your family, God has no other outcome for you but to be successful,” said Barkley.
Still, Lamar was always the bright light of the team. Despite repeated tragedy and an unstable living situation, Erick can only remember one time he ever saw Lamar fight. And it wasn’t his fault.
“He was 13 years old. It was him and Ron—or Metta World Peace, now,” he said. “Obviously, Lamar was better at the time. Lamar was coming into his self. Everybody was getting better, but Lamar was the man. Metta wanted to be.”
So Artest and Odom got into a dust-up at practice.
“Thing is, I can’t get in between them. They’re too big,” he says. “Then we’re all in practice the next day and everything’s settled. We’re all joking around, back to normal.”
At both Christ the King in the mid-’90s and on his AAU squad, Barkley says the whole group rallied around Odom, a star who was unselfish on the court and maybe even more so off of it. He recalls a time before the City Championship game at Fordham. Barkley was freaked out, couldn’t loosen up. Lamar went over to him to help.
“He said, ‘Don’t be nervous. I’m just gonna have fun,’” Barkley remembered.
Odom, the best player on the team, “scored like six points,” but dominated—the kind of thing that would eventually win him two Sixth Man of the Year Awards and NBA Championships.
That’s how Barkley wants him to be remembered after, hopefully, he recovers—as a beloved friend, and a champion.
Funny story, Barkley says: He saw Lamar on 125th Street shopping with his kids last summer. Actually, Lamar saw him, and put him in a fake chokehold until he turned around. Lamar was in town trying to get in shape for a comeback with the Knicks.
“We talked about 20 minutes. It was so good to see him. We hadn’t been speaking in a long time,” he said. “Then, all the people on 125th Street in Harlem started to come. ‘Look, a Kardashian!’
“This man is no Kardashian. He made a name for himself before Khloe. He made a name for himself in the NBA—even in high school. He’s a human being at the end of the day. He worked hard for his name.”
Recently, Erick had been trying to get Lamar into coaching. That’s what he’s been doing, anyway—teaching kids hoops, and going back to school to finish up his Sports Management degree at St. John’s. He thought it would be good for Odom to go home.
“I thought it would take his mind off basketball. As a basketball player, when you’re done playing, you have to find yourself again,” he said. “Working with kids kind of helped me. It gave me my sanity. It’ll help you just to be at peace.”
On Friday afternoon, Barkley heard some rumors that maybe his old friend was doing better, that maybe he’d pull through.
“That’s the grace of God,” he said. “He has a lot of people who need him here.”