|Thursday, March 8
Odom has to decide what direction he heads
By Peter May
Special to ESPN.com
Lamar Odom was supposed to be the NBA's guest for its weekly telephone conference call with reporters this week. He never made it.
By the time Odom would have been fielding questions about the Clippers, the NBA and who knows what else, the league had suspended him for five games for violating its drug program. J.R. Rider of the Lakers also drew the same suspension for the same stated, albeit vague, reason.
The Los Angeles Times reported that both players were suspended for failing to comply with the terms of their respective treatment programs, which is one qualification for a five-game suspension in the new (nee: 1999) drug agreement. The others are testing positive for steroids, which is what happened to Don MacLean and Matt Geiger, and what is known as Stage 3 of the Marijuana Program.
So, in other words, if you aren't using steroids, there's really only one other possibility: marijuana. The so-called drugs of abuse that are listed as no-nos in the drug agreement -- heroin, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines etc. -- are dealt with more severely.
You get into the program in one of two ways: you volunteer for treatment or you fail a surprise test. The only way such a test can be administered is if there is sufficient evidence brought before an independent expert, agreed to by both the league and the players' association. Once into the program, you are given a treatment regimen which if you do not follow, you can be suspended for five games. If you don't adhere to it, you can be fined $15,000 and, later, be hit with the five-game suspension.
The news also cannot be welcome to a league which is fending off blows about its declining state, be it in TV ratings, attendance dropoff or occasional player malfeasance. Commissioner David Stern was on the defensive during All-Star weekend, fed up with reports that his once omnipotent league had lost some of its luster. This can't help.
The NBA and the players association insist on complete confidentiality, other than to identify the player. (It would be kind of hard not to do so.) Jason Williams of the Sacramento Kings, who was suspended for the first five games of the 2000-2001 season for compliance failure, was the one who stipulated that the reason be made public. In the cases of Geiger and MacLean, the link to steroids was made by the league and seconded by the players and/or their agents, in part, no doubt, to distance themselves from the marijuana angle. We can deduce from this that Odom and Rider weren't associated with steroids.
The only player to be expelled from the league since the new agreement went into effect in 1999 is Stanley Roberts.
The suspensions of Odom and Rider come only a couple of weeks after the Raptors' Charles Oakley opined that three-fifths of the NBA is on marijuana. It was a wild accusation, one that both the league and the union quickly challenged. (Oakley said after the suspensions that he wasn't surprised and that the league shouldn't be surprised either. His suggestion that he was vindicated, however, is a bit of a reach.)
The news that the congenitally on-the-edge Rider got nailed had to be greeted by a collective 'so what?' from around the league. He's been in some form of trouble almost everywhere he's been. This is like Claude Rains coming out of the casino at Rick's and saying he was shocked to hear that gambling was going on, while simultaneously accepting his cut for the night.
There have been reports since January that Rider has been having trouble complying with his treatment program. The Times said Rider missed several deadlines even as he tried to correspond with the league about how to deal with the program.
"He has been attempting to comply and get this behind him as quickly as possible," Rider's agent, Arn Tellem, said in a statement.
Odom, however, is a little more surprising, although he has been hounded by drug rumors since before the 1999 draft. The Bulls shied away from him that year and he blew off some workouts before the draft. But he completed his rookie year without incident and rookies are tested once in training camp (along with all veterans) and then three times randomly during the season.
To be grouped with Rider in the same penalty announcement should send a warning shot to the 21-year-old Odom, who has taken on a daunting -- some would say thankless -- task of trying to resuscitate the moribund Clippers. Unlike Rider, who could well be released by the Lakers -- they don't exactly need him -- Odom is a big part of the hoped-for Clipper turnaround. He has promised to grow up this season and doing what you're told would be a good start.
Rider was once just like Odom, an enormously gifted talent, which explains why he's still in the league at age 30 despite a resume that would make Robert Downey Jr. recoil in horror. There is always that one team, or one coach, willing to take that one chance. Rider hasn't really disrupted the Lakers; he's more or less been an occasional burr in the saddle. He was largely to blame for last season's Atlanta implosion.
When Rider came into the league, only two drugs, cocaine and heroin, were on the league's banned substance list. Even with those limited possibilities, a handful of players ranging from Roy Tarpley to Richard Dumas were bounced. Rider went from Minnesota to Portland to Atlanta, each team more desperate than the last to drive him to the airport. The message was always the same: good guy, intelligent guy, no clue.
Odom has not even come close to that sort of pariah status and he is still regarded as one of the league's valued commodities. The Clippers, who always seem to lose their man, know how critical Odom is to their future. He knows it as well.
But he's got a life decision to make before he ever steps back onto the floor. That decision is pretty simple: does he want his career defined by what happened this week, or by something more positive that could lie in wait down the road? The choice is his.
Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.