Andrew Bynum’s Ghost

As if he was never here, hardly a mention of his name echoes. Reduced to the irrelevant, he is to some, those who gloss over his presence, a trivia question: name the Lakers starting center in their epic game 7?

In that still talked about, still reminisced game, there are a lot of things to remember when sifting through the memory archives of the last Lakers title, of which the glory has to keep all Lakers fans warm for awhile.

The 17 rebounds by Kobe Bryant. The three point shot by Metta World Peace who had yet to change his name from Ron Artest. The 13-point lead dwindled away by the Celtics that Doc Rivers still bemoans. The toughness of Pau Gasol to reverse the 2008 narrative of weak European. Those are the snapshots that blur the ordinary to the point that Andrew Bynum’s production in game 7 is an enigma, as if he wasn’t even there, as if he didn’t even matter once Kobe jumped the scorers table and the confetti began raining down.

But Andrew Bynum wasn’t a mirage or a ghost. He played 18 minutes on a bum knee. He missed 4 out of 5 shots. He didn’t attempt a free throw. He had six rebounds. At the 7 minute mark in the 4th quarter, he left the court for Lamar Odom, meaning he was on the bench for the three point shot that broke the Celtics heart.

Two-time NBA champion, Andrew Bynum, was traded to Philadelphia 26 months later. It was obvious then. His career was the proverbial boulder slipping down a rain slippery hill. Repetitive injuries, immaturity and athletic skill were spiraling out of his control. He was replaced by Dwight Howard in the Lakers lineup, and just as quickly, forgotten, as he tried to make something out of nothing on the east coast.

Bynum, in his 7 seasons, was a better Laker than Dwight Howard. His fit in the triangle offense was one of symmetry. Kobe’s obsessiveness he learned to live with. Bynum was more productive than Howard and complained less and his adolescent stunts were managed. But, he brought baggage and confusion and a lot of complications. He was judged and desired, and judged and dismissed, and judged and mocked.

Bynum crossed the country to get here and he crossed the country to get away. By the end of his Lakers era, he had exhausted the compassion everyone had for him.

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He was the kind of kid you remember and not because of his height. He had a special brain, one of those linear science a=b and b=c so a= c neuro constructs. He was a Jersey kid with a physics soul. Had he gone to UConn as originally intended, he might be employed as a mechanical engineer designing laser systems or missile launch parts. But he lost weight- a ton of that baby fat that never receded- and decided to get into the lottery by running on the beach in heavy boots. So what everyone knows of Andrew Bynum- the Laker, the 76er, the Cavalier, the childish one- is not science and it is not science that would eventually cause his exile.

If disappointment begins with an interpretation and failure ends with the truth, then the Andrew Bynum biography, his Lakers years, can only be summed up as a less was not more orthodoxy. There is this human quality of erasing it from your mind because it didn’t last long.

You forget his first knee surgery was at the age of 12. You forget his playing 32 games in high school or how fat he was three months before the draft, fat everywhere. Or that night in January when Bynum was still 18 and unpolished; he was introduced to the world then, the basketball world’s very finite space, a collapsed universe of the talented, the good, the average and the hangers on. Bynum had a physical presence capped off by a childlike face and perpetual grin.

He entered the game with three minutes left in the second quarter and the Lakers were up by fourteen against the Miami Heat, the Miami Heat with Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade and Alonzo Mourning. With a minute left in the half, Shaq rebounded a miss and emphatically dunked it, a take that-LA dunk. Shaq was still beloved and he was also despised for leaving, for wanting it, for asking to be traded. In the next possession, Kobe passed to Andrew who spun around Shaq, glided to the rim and dunked in retaliation. As he was running back up the floor Bynum elbowed Shaq in the chest. It was a gesture that meant nothing in the moment besides to say I am here, I have what you used to have. Viewed through the passage of time, its meaning is a little more indicative of what was to come in the months ahead, similar to trying to fit a round peg in a square hole, it would be awkward. Andrew being Andrew did not always fit the Lakers culture, which is to say immaturity and impulsivity and recklessness messed with that beautiful mind of his.

Six years later, everything had changed. Shaq had retired. Andrew was an All Star as well as a champion. He was a lot cockier; the kid was gone replaced by an arrogant 24 year old.  It was 2012.

Mike Brown was the coach and Andrew was having a monster season. He had his first 20-20 game against the Houston Rockets on January 3rd. He was Western Conference Player of the Week for March 12th through the 18th. But if you ask the faithful what they remember about that year and Andrew Bynum it was not that he had 30 rebounds against the Spurs on April 11th, a career high. It was not that he surpassed career marks in points and minutes played. It was not that he was fourth in field goal %, 6th in blocks. It was not that his Player Efficiency Rating was the same as Russell Westbrook’s. He is not remembered for missing one game that season or that there was actual debate on who was more valuable, Bynum or Dwight Howard.

What was remembered about Andrew Bynum in 2012 was he was benched by Mike Brown for taking a three point shot. What was remembered about Andrew Bynum was that he did not join his teammates in the huddle in the moments after the benching, he sulked by himself. (He was fined $7,500.) What was remembered about Andrew Bynum was that he repeated the same behavior a week later against the Hornets and rationalized it by saying he was ‘getting his Zen on’.

His rebelliousness and defiance of Mike  Brown was like setting a backfire to cut down on the fuel. He was cited for parking in handicapped zones. He was cited for speeding. It was all part of the little boy lost narrative for the high school kid who needed college maturation before he needed NBA money and NBA game highlights and Lakers expectations, all of which made his ego grow to massive proportions. Often, he acted crazy.

On January 27, 2009, Bynum’s flagrant foul of Gerald Wallace, as Wallace was in the air for a layup, fractured Wallace’s rib resulting in a collapsed lung and Gerald could not fly back with the Charlotte Bobcats team, he had to take a bus home. That was a red flag. On March 20, 2011, Bynum was suspended for a flagrant foul on Michael Beasley. That was a red flag. On May 8, 2011, he viciously fouled JJ Barea similarly to how he fouled Gerald Wallace, except Barea was a foot shorter, his body flew in the air like paper shreds but he was unharmed . That was the last straw. Bynum was instantly tossed from the game and as he was leaving the court, in his final act of defiance, he stripped off his jersey and threw it into the crowd. For that action, he was suspended four games and fined $25,000.

What was once an 18 year old engineering savant was now someone unable to control his impulses. But it had not started out that way.

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Bynum’s body was peculiar. His genetic structure, his compromised skeletal system, his bones and angles and range, was like a giraffe with an elephant’s weight in a big man’s frame. It took a continued effort to raise his stamina, to heal his knees. But there were those glimpses of talent.

As a rookie, against the Nuggets, he had 19 points, 10 rebounds, 6 blocks. Against Charlotte, three weeks later, he had 16 rebounds and 7 blocks. But if there was one city that proved to spite him, it was Memphis. On January 13th 2008, in Memphis, Bynum landed on Lamar Odom’s foot and dislocated his kneecap. He missed 46 games. On January 31, 2009, in Memphis, Kobe landed after an off balance shot and collided with Bynum’s knee. He had a torn MCL and was to miss 8-12 weeks. He missed 32 games.

It was just the beginning. In 2010 he injured his knee in Game 6 of the playoffs, against the Thunder. It was the first round. Bynum waited until the off season to have surgery something his teammate, Pau Gasol, appreciated.

“He sacrificed himself in order to help the team and have a better chance to win the championship.”

Of course, this meant his knee was being continually drained of fluid. Bynum, after winning his second title, went to South Africa to watch the World Cup instead of having surgery. The delay was costly. He would not start the next season on time.

Two years later, Bynum was a closed chapter in Lakers history, ushered from the Lakers in the Dwight Howard trade, and welcomed in Philadelphia with a bizarre introductory news conference adorned with screaming fans who must have mistaken the optics, unaware they were cheering a broken player.  A week before training camp, Bynum went to Germany. Ala Kobe Bryant, he had treatment on both knees, a procedure he had delayed all summer long. It was also discovered he had a right bone bruise. Then, to add more drama to the story- and this is so like Andrew Bynum, an inability to get out of his own way- he injured his left knee while bowling.

The 76ers general manager, Tony DiLeo, said Bynum’s knees had gotten worse since he arrived in Philadelphia. In March of 2013, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on both knees, ending his season.

Phil Jackson had always said Bynum would never be able to play over thirty minutes a game because of his knees. The question bears asking. Is it a coincidence that a year of playing for Mike Brown in which he logged 32 minutes a game, a career high, would lead to the next year and his knees so damaged he had to sacrifice the season?

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The irony is Andrew Bynum wasn’t even supposed to be a Laker. Their first entry into the lottery in 2005, the Lakers had their eye on Charlie Villenueva who was a six-ten power forward from Connecticut. But Villeneuva was selected by Toronto with the seventh pick. Some thought the Lakers would choose Sean May whose father had been in the NBA and who had just won a NCAA title with North Carolina, or the hyper-athletic high school guard, Gerald Green. But the Lakers, in a stunning move, chose Andrew, the high school kid who Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun labeled, “a project.”

They remembered when Bynum was overweight and lacked stamina. They remembered how he slimmed down by running in combat boots. They remembered when he was in Chicago working out for them and the two college kids he was working with refused to go in the post for fear of Bynum’s body making them suffer. They remembered another teenager who scouts were skeptical about but who they coveted and how it all worked out with Kobe Bryant, a skinny teenager, the opposite frame of Bynum.

So the Lakers drafted Andrew Bynum and hired Kareem to work with him. Kareem was at every practice, at every game. Andrew was very raw, he had no post moves but he had good footwork for someone who had only played 32 high school games. And he was a quick learner, an indication of his intelligence. Plus he was huge.

But did he have the commitment? Did he have the heart? Did he love the game? Those are the questions that linger after every draft and can only be answered over the course of multiple seasons.

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There is the famous story of Bynum feeling dizzy and walking off the practice court only to be found eating Fruit Loops. Or when he said “close out games are easy” and then the Lakers lost one of those easy close out games and needed a 7th game to defeat Denver. Or, when he heard about Kobe’s rant that he should be traded for Jason Kidd. Quietly, he went to Atlanta and worked out as hard as he ever had because Kobe did him a favor. Kobe made him famous.

The past is never really past, unless you are a professional athlete. Then you are remembered less and less. Gone translates into forgotten. And in a way it is sad that so much was given to Andrew Bynum and so much was wasted by him. Absence always comes too soon. But you cannot teach someone to love something they do not.

The truth of Andrew Bynum is this: the mechanical engineer who loved to put things together was an enemy to himself. He felt little shame. He was drafted in 2005. Eleven years later, he has no career in professional basketball to speak of, and he has no particular love or place in Lakers lore, no heroic and mythical tales of the extraordinary, no selfless acts of perfection.  There are no grandiose stories woven with Bynum as the lead actor. This is a stark departure for a franchise romantic about their big men, all of whom had visible frailties. Where Andrew Bynum used to be, there is a big hole; only his ghost and a blurred outline remains.

But…what a spectacular rise he had when he was here, this physics kid who everyone thought was a project. He won two titles and was an All Star and for a while was better than Dwight Howard. But…what a daunting fall he had, this computer kid who liked to build things and challenge weak coaches and not draw inside the lines, the Goliath with the broken body and immature but science driven mind.

In the end, he may have outsmarted the one person he ever trusted: himself. He may have taken apart the one thing he could never put back together again, his NBA career. Truthfully, he may have never wanted the career as much as he wanted the lifestyle and the attention and living in L.A. Bynum sought freedom. Now, as he travels the world, he has it.

No regrets on the Lakers end of things either. They got the most out of Andrew Bynum, even as he lacked accountability. He was in the same draft as Chris Paul. Paul has never made it past the playoffs second round. He was in the same draft as Deron Williams. Williams had his own fall from grace in Brooklyn. He was in the same draft as Danny Granger and Hakim Warrick and Nate Robinson, none of whom played games in June. They, like Bynum, are gone from the NBA. So the Lakers won with Bynum and they lost with Bynum and they added two titles. And then they cut the cord when the Bynum experiment ran its course.

 

photo via llananba