SACRAMENTO — As Rhode Island players took the floor for their school’s first NCAA tournament game in 18 years, a few looked up into the stands to see a surprise visitor: Former Rams star and NBA veteran Lamar Odom.
None of them had ever seen him in person. It was kind of a big deal.
“Our kids went crazy when they saw him,” said Rhode Island assistant Jim Carr. “We’ll take all the good luck charms we can get.”
Eleventh seed Rhode Island didn’t seem to need much luck Friday against sixth seed Creighton. Fueled by a suffocating defense, the Rams led the entire way en route to an easy 84-72 victory. It was the school’s first tourney win since reaching the Elite Eight in 1998 — the year before Odom arrived.
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The 14-year NBA vet, best known for winning two NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, played just one season (1998-99) for Rhode Island after sitting out the previous season yet remains a legendary figure there for hitting a game-winning shot in the 1999 Atlantic 10 championship game against Temple.
“It feels just like yesterday that I hit that shot,” Odom said in the Rams’ locker room after Friday’s game.
How big a deal was his presence? When the locker room doors opened, TV crews from Rhode Island darted straight for him, while the guys who’d just beaten Creighton watched. A couple of locker room visitors asked for a picture with him afterward.
It was the first time the Rams’ current players had seen him in person.
“Once we saw him, it was like man, he really came back,” said junior Jarvis Garrett. “He’s a legend here.”
Outside of Rhode Island, Odom is better known to many as a tabloid figure for his marriage and subsequent divorce from reality star Khloe Kardashian. In 2015, he suffered a near-fatal drug overdose at a brothel in Nevada. His appearance Friday came as a surprise mostly because he’s only a couple of months removed leaving a rehab facility near San Diego.
Odom told USA Today on Friday, “Life is great” and he’s as “good as ever.”
Odom, who spent part of Friday’s game sitting with his former Rhode Island coach Jim Harrick, said he plans to return for the Rams’ second-round game Sunday against No. 3 seed Oregon.
Why does Odom remain so connected to a school where he only spent one year?
“College,” he said. “It was the best time of my life.”