Lamar Odom, the latest prodigal son of New York City basketball, is coming home. “I’m really looking forward to playing in the Garden,” he said after a recent Clipper practice, talking about next Monday’s game between the Knicks and his team, the L.A. Clippers, “because for a New Yorker it’s the ultimate, the home of basketball.” And that game, he added surprisingly, “will be my first time actually playing there.”

It’s surprising because Odom is a city schoolboy legend: The 20-year-old South Jamaica, Queens, native is only four years removed from leading Christ the King High to the 1996 Catholic School title as a sophomore, only to lose the state championship to Stephon Marbury’s Lincoln High. Still, he never quite made it to the Garden—but like all city hoopsters, he has his MSG memories. “I first went inside when I was about 10, for a Knick game,” he recalls, adding quickly, “Over the years I saw a lot of St. John’s games too, and now to be in the NBA and playing there, with all the tradition, I’ll be hyped up, no doubt about it.”

Selected by the Clippers with the fourth pick in the 1999 NBA draft, Odom is a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year honors, averaging close to 17 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists per game. His star shone brightly at last weekend’s Schick Rookie Game, where he teamed with fellow New Yorker Elton Brand, leading the rookies to an upset win. But Odom, who doesn’t yet have a driver’s license, can still sound like a kid. A die-hard Knick fan who grew up hoping to wear the blue and orange, he admits he’ll “be in awe a little at first,” playing against Patrick Ewing. “But,” he says, “once we get going it’ll just be cool to be competing against him.”

Standing 6’10”, with impossibly long arms, Odom is a smooth, creative ballhandler. “New York is a guard’s game, where a great pass is as good as a hoop, so I patterned my game after all the point guards I grew up watching and playing with,” he says. He’s incorporating lessons learned from NBA stars into his game as well. “Gary Payton totally controls the tempo of a game,” he says, adding, with admiration, “and Scottie Pippen is like a boxer; watching, waiting, and studying you. Then—bam!—he counters, and suddenly the ball is gone and so is he.”

Odom’s unique combination of size and skills has made a strong impression on opposing coaches. “He’s got a great feel for the game, he’s unselfish, and he’s so darn long,” says Seattle Supersonics coach Paul Westphal. Hall of Famer Bill Walton is equally effusive. “Lamar has a chance to be a truly special player, a Magic or a Bird-type guy who makes his teammates better and plays with some flair and an honest love for the game.”

Big Apple playgrounds have been turning out sensational basketball players since the days of Bob Cousy, Nate “Tiny” Archibald, and Lew Alcindor, but the current generation has struggled to convert their high school and college heroics into NBA championships. Point guards Mark Jackson, Rod Strickland, and Kenny Anderson have put up excellent numbers over the years, but none of the three has ever even played in the NBA Finals. Ditto for Chris Mullin.

The penultimate great New York hope, Marbury, expressed his desire to play close to home and the Minnesota Timberwolves granted that wish, trading him to the New Jersey Nets. Unfortunately, Marbury has quickly discovered what Anderson found out in his tenure with the Nets: be careful what you ask for.

Other high school heroes, like “Pearl” Washington, Walter “the Truth” Berry, and Khalid Reeves, experienced success in college but had minimal impact at the pro level. The only NYC products to bring home NBA hardware in the ’90s have been the well-traveled Mario Elie, who, like Alcindor/Jabbar, attended Power Memorial, and former Archbishop Molloy star Kenny Smith. Ironically, neither won a title in high school, but they teamed up to win back-to-back rings with the Houston Rockets, and Elie picked up another ring last year with the Spurs.

Though exiled to the West Coast, Odom still has the city in his blood. “It’s a New York state of mind, keeping your eyes and ears open, taking everything in, and it’s really helped me grow as a person,” he says. The talented rookie has had few opportunities to strut his stuff for family and friends. “Some people came down from Rhode Island to see me play at Boston, and a lot came to the game in Jersey, but this is the Garden, so it’s a whole different story.” Odom put on quite a show in the Meadowlands, drilling 11 of 13 shots from the field, including a brilliant length-of-the-court dash to beat the half-time buzzer, but the Clippers lost.

Of course, the Clipper-Net game marked the second sanctioned battle between Odom and Marbury. Their first matchup took place upstate, in Glens Falls. “Yeah, the state championship my senior year,” recalls a grinning Marbury, “We locked Lamar up pretty good and beat ’em, but you knew even then he was the real deal.” Odom’s memory is even more specific. “Steph came out and just went crazy, hit threes on their first three trips down court, but we hung in, came back, and only lost by three,” says Odom, the Daily News 1996 High School Player of the Year, as well as Parade Magazine‘s National High School Player of the Year in ’97. “Stephon is an incredibly competitive player, and that day he taught me a few things about intensity and focus under pressure that I’ve never forgotten.”

Only 19 years old when the Clippers drafted him, the soft-spoken Odom joined the team blissfully unaware that his new franchise, owned by the penurious Donald Sterling, is thought by many to be cursed. Odom was all of six years old when high-flying Clipper Derek Smith suffered a devastating knee injury. Almost exactly one year later Clipper captain Marques Johnson ran into teammate Benoit Benjamin’s ample stomach, sustaining a severe neck injury that ended his All-Star career. The Clippers, 5-5 when Johnson went down, went 7-65 the rest of the way, to finish with the second worst single season record (12-70) in league history. By the time Odom was 11, and beginning to dream about playing in the NBA, three more supremely talented young Clippers—Danny Manning, Ron Harper, and Charles Smith—had blown out their knees as well.

Odom has already experienced his share of bad Clipper business. His front-court partner, third-year forward Maurice Taylor, has been a lame duck since day one of training camp, embroiled in a messy contract squabble. He is likely to be elsewhere by the February 24 trade deadline. Odom’s first pro coach, ex-Celtic Chris Ford, is already gone, fired just prior to the All-Star break.

A winner his entire athletic life, the soft-spoken Odom is battling to stay upbeat amid the mounting tide of losses, including a recent slide that saw the Clips drop 16 of 18. “Losing is tough, but I don’t fool myself that things are going to change overnight here.” Considering the Clippers’ sorry history, that is undoubtedly the right attitude. Still, Odom says he’s committed to the Clippers as well. “I’m willing to put in the time to turn this around, and New York is a place that pushes you to be mentally tough, so I’ll be fine, just trying to win every game and learn as much as I can.”