When TMZ broke the story on Oct. 13 that Lamar Odom was found unconscious in a Nevada brothel, sordid stories about his years-long battle with addiction followed. After the sensationalism died down to a dull roar, though it still continues nearly two weeks later, the world began to hear Odom's former teammates and friends in basketball talk about the fun-loving, gentle giant side of Odom.
One such person with fond remembrances was former St. John's Red Storm star guard Erick Barkley who spoke to The Daily Beast in a touching piece published last weekend. Barkley wants Odom to be thought of as a great friend and NBA champion, not as a drug addict, and certainly not as a Kardashian.
Barkley and Odom go back to high school where they were teammates at Christ the King in Queens, just a few miles from SJU. The duo also played on the legendary Riverside Hawks AAU squad, which featured Metta World Peace (then Ron Artest), Elton Brand and Anthony Glover. Former St. John's guard Sharif Fordham was the Hawks' sixth man. In 1996 the Hawks went 69-1 establishing them as arguably the best AAU team of the decade.
"We always had fun. We laughed when things went great. We cried when things were bad for us," Barkley told Ben Collins of The Beast. "He's just a great friend; a great person. You couldn't find a guy to say something bad about him."
Odom was a can't-miss prospect from the beginning, often carrying his future NBA All-Star teammates on his shoulders. While Odom came to represent the next-generation's point-forward in the NBA where he stood 6-foot-10 with a guard's handle and deft passes, he honed those skills in a dusty Middle Village, N.Y. high school gym against Barkley.
"As freshmen at Christ the King [Lamar]was only about 6-foot-2. He used to try to guard me in practice," Barkley said. "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. That's what made me better."
Barkley, who in a funny twist of fate coached Odom's son, Lamar Jr., in AAU ball a couple years ago, last ran into Odom in New York last summer. True to his good-natured reputation, it was Odom who spotted Barkley first and put him in a playful headlock before he could turn around.
"We talked about 20 minutes," Barkley said of that day in Harlem. "It was so good to see him. We hadn't been speaking in a long time. Then, all the people on 125th Street in Harlem started to come. ‘Look, a Kardashian!'
"This man is no Kardashian," Barkley continued. "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."
As for Barkley, who is most fondly remembered by the Red Storm faithful as the point guard of the St. John's team that reached the Elite Eight in 1998-99, and then won the 1999-00 Big East Conference Tournament Championship before being unceremoniously bounced by Gonzaga in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament, he's been coaching youth basketball while finishing his degree at St. John's.
Barkley's pro career took him from Portland in the NBA—where he played in only 27 games in two seasons—to far-flung outposts in Israel and Romania, before retiring in 2011. He told The Beast he suggested to Odom that he get involved with coaching, which provided him with some measure of peace after his playing days ended.
While recent reports have Odom regaining consciousness, breathing on his own and talking, he's not out of the woods by any stretch. Odom underwent two emergency surgeries yesterday, TMZ learned, after being airlifted from Las Vegas to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles earlier this week. His recovery is expected to take months.
"That's the grace of God," Barkley said about his friend on the road to recovery. "He has a lot of people who need him here."