Odom mastered The Art of Not Trying in Dallas

Published Apr. 9, 2012 3:09 p.m. EDT

Standing in what appeared to be an "Apocalypse Now" scene Sunday at Augusta National, Phil Mickelson looked exactly as one might expect after landing knee deep into avoidable trouble of his own making.

A little flustered, and a lot determined.

"I'm going to fix this," he seemed to be thinking to himself as he lined up to play it as it lay.

What happened next — as Mickelson turned his wedge around, hacking unsuccessfully until he had a triple-bogey for his efforts — matters hardly at all. This is not about Mickelson, or even about failure and its universal imprint on sports.

Failure, you see, is the necessary price of greatness. This is why we respect Jana Novotna even as she cries on the Duchess of Kent's shoulder after a particularly heartbreaking loss at Wimbledon, or Rangers closer Neftali Feliz even as he hangs his head after being bested by David Freese in the World Series. They simply failed in the moment.

Just as hate is not the antithesis of love, failure is not the antithesis of greatness. Not trying is. And this brings us to Lamar Odom.

"Lam Lam," as wife Khloe Kardashian lovingly calls what was once a talented basketball player, is no longer a Dallas Maverick as of Monday morning.

Or he only kind of is, the breakup every bit as complicated as the relationship.

I have been thinking all morning about why and how Odom as a Maverick failed so spectacularly, and I keep coming back to Mickelson. Odom, too, had been standing with an awful lie — a trade he did not want to a Mavericks team that was not a good fit. He was hauling a lot of emotional baggage with him from LA — and he chose to do nothing. He did not attempt to hack his way out. He did not tee it back up and start fresh. He did not even quit. He just stood there as the game went on around him.

This — a perpetual state of not trying — was his failure.

To be as bad as Odom was for as long as he was in Dallas requires effort, an effort he was unwilling to extend to his basketball game or to his teammates or to an owner who again and again bailed water for him.

Odom mastered The Art of Not Trying while in Dallas. He showed up for games, and was an emotional vampire. He sucked the energy right out of the team with his disinterest.

The Mavs are not a great team this year, with plenty of blame to go around as to why, starting with outthinking themselves on a strategy to get Deron Williams or Dwight Howard. Yet Odom proved to be a toxic force — barely going through motions, rarely engaged and never once coming across as wanting to be there.

There are pejoratives to describe Odom's behavior. "Unprofessional" and "selfish" immediately spring to mind. I am kind of partial to "whiny, soft, narcissistic LA jerkhole."

Mostly, though, Odom was maddening for what he lacked.

Sports fans can, and often do, tolerate a lot from athletes. We understand that Mickelson's crazy shots, while at times infuriating, also contain seeds of his genius. We get that Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony comes standard with 'Melodrama, as well as amazing performances like Sunday against the Bulls. We accept the flaws.

Hell, fans are rallying for Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, a save-our-coach rally when what he needs saving from is himself. We at least kind of understand that his personal life, no matter how screwed up, is none of our damn business.

What we cannot comprehend is the athlete who will not try, who refused to dig in even when effort is all they have to give. There is no bigger sin in sports than not trying — except for quitting.

It is unfair to call Odom a quitter. To quit, one has to begin.

Odom never did in Dallas. This is not simply based on his production, which was abysmal. This became apparent on Sunday's explosive episode of "Khloe & Lamar," where collapsing sex swings gave way to talk of Odom's basketball career.

My lawyer friend Kelly — a really bright and talented person whose only flaw seems to be a love for all reality TV, and especially "Khloe & Lamar" — summarized Sunday's episode for me (and you) this way:

"I wouldn't say 'explosive.' It did reveal what everyone assumed though to be the truth. He just seemed to puddle with the idea of moving from his bubble. Khloe was trying hard to plant roots, and he just seemed out of it, in denial or something. When asked in the locker room if it seemed real, he said, 'I'm here. It must be.' And he complained a lot about not being in shape and being embarrassed on national TV. He just fell apart like a cheap lawn chair. He looked like a big baby. I still really like him, though."

Of course she does. She is not a huge sports fan. She reads my columns and asks questions like, "Have you met Khloe yet?" She does not understand how big of a sin not trying is in sports, or why the knowledge that Khloe tried harder to make it work in Dallas than Odom ever did will stay on his sports resume forever.

Odom saw where he had landed, and he did what Mickelson did not. He gave up, or rather, he did not try at all. And that is the biggest failure.