Before it was complicated and fell apart, before he was judged and desired, or judged and dismissed, before he crossed coasts and cities and angered just about everyone, Andrew Bynum was a genius archetype, a builder/designer of machines, a Jersey kid with a physics mind. Had he gone to UConn as originally intended he might be employed as a mechanical engineer designing laser systems. But he lost weight 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- is not science and it is not science that would harm him, his greed would do that. Disappointment begins with something quite small and failure ends with something quite large and both are part of the Andrew Bynum biography, the steps of how he got from here to there- who he was at the beginning of his career and who he is now as his career is teetering down a forbidden slope.
Because the season is long and careers are longer, you forget. 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. Or that night in January when Bynum was still 18 and unpolished; he was introduced to the world then, the basketball world. 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 Shaq and Dwayne 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 here 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 grave, somewhat sobering. Andrew being Andrew which is to say immaturity and impulsivity and recklessness infiltrate his gifted mind.
Six years later, everything had changed. Shaq had retired. Andrew was an All Star. 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’.
Rebellious and in defiance of Mike Brown (as he is now) it was a firestorm. He was cited for parking in handicapped zones. He was cited for speeding. But Mike Brown was not the reason it all went sideways, he was just the final straw that set the house on fire. Before Mike, on January 27, 2009, Bynum’s flagrant foul of Gerald Wallace, as Wallace was in the air for a layup, fractured his rib resulting in a collapsed lung and Gerald could not fly back with the Charlotte Bobcats team, he had to take a bus home. On March 20, 2011 Bynum was suspended for a flagrant foul on Michael Beasley. 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 but was unharmed . 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. It had started particularly slow because of his genetic disposition, his compromised skeletal system, his bones and angles and range. Bynum was like a giraffe with an elephant’s weight. It took a continued effort to raise his stamina, to heal his knees. 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 the same song. A week before training camp in 2012, when he was still wanted in Philadelphia, Bynum had treatment on both knees, a procedure in Germany he once again had delayed all summer long. It was also discovered he had a right bone bruise. He then 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 season and his knees so damaged he had to sacrifice the season?
The irony is he 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. They remembered when he was overweight and his lack of 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. They remembered another teenager who scouts were not particularly high on but who they coveted. So they 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. 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 still.
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 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.
How ironic that Bynum might end up back with the team who drafted him in the very beginning. Only for them to waive him. If this happens then it really is true, the past is never really past. And in a way it is sad. So much was given to him and so much was wasted by him but you cannot teach someone to love something they do not.
The possibilities of where he may play is closing like a heavy door. The Heat have two resurrection projects in Michael Beasley and Greg Oden. They do not need a third. Plus they do not have an open roster spot. The Clippers were interested but losing Paul for 5 weeks means a back up point guard is their focus. Brooklyn needs a center but Garnett’s fierceness is a direct rebuke to Bynum’s casualness. Atlanta needs a big man after losing Al Horford but do they offer Bynum want he wants, a chance at the title while doing the bare minimum. The truth of Andrew Bynum is this: the mechanical engineer who loved to put things together for the fun of it took his career apart for the insanity of it. He was drafted in 2005. Come Tuesday he may be jobless. What a spectacular rise he had, this physics kid who everyone thought was a project. He won two titles and was an All Star. What a daunting fall he had, this computer kid who liked to build things. But in the end he may have outsmarted the one person he ever trusted: himself. He may have taken apart the one thing he cannot put back together again, his NBA career.