Dec 23, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers center Andrew Bynum reacts in the second quarter against the Detroit Pistons at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Tragic Narrative of Andrew Bynum

“One of the things I struggled with is: if you’re good at something, does that mean you were meant to do it?”

Todd Marinovich, The Marinovich Project

Andrew Bynum is now homeless; he’s foreclosed on three residences in the past six and a half months. In July, the Cleveland Cavaliers gambled on Bynum and lost, suspending the 7-footer indefinitely for hurling wild shots at practice before shopping him and three draft picks to the Bulls for Luol Deng’s expiring contract. The citation was “conduct detrimental to the team.” In other words, Bynum was told him being around his teammates was tampering with the culture of the franchise. Chicago promptly waived him because they had no desire to pay someone $12 million to play 20 minutes a night. That’s why they have Nazr Mohammed, and he charges $10 million less to do so. Andrew Bynum may only have one opportunity left to prove to the league that he still wants to remain a part of it. But Bynum, like all of those actively scrutinized in the NBA, is a person, and it helps to hear his story.

When Andrew Bynum was a 12-year-old, he had his first knee surgery. It wouldn’t be his last. In his senior year of high school, Andrew Bynum averaged 22.4 points, 16.8 rebounds and 5.3 blocks per game. With hands that stretched the city of Metuchen, most of his highlight reel footage is muted because the earsplitting artillery shells emanating from his colossal digits concaving the leather aren’t very conducive to audio stability. He turned down a scholarship to play at UConn, the then reigning national champions, to plunge directly into the NBA. Bynum was a 17-year-old who wanted to trade in his letterman jacket for a Nike one – he was drafted 10th overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2005 NBA Draft. He’s still the youngest player ever drafted by an NBA team.

Upon his arrival to Los Angeles, General Manager Mitch Kupchak brought on former Laker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to serve as Special Assistant Coach. You may remember Abdul-Jabbar as the original Steve Urkel; you may also remember him as one of the greatest to ever play the game. The Hall of Famer was tasked the role of oversight during Andrew Bynum’s developmental process. In Bynum’s first two seasons, he was inhibited by maturity, but proved efficient and effective on the boards (those are rarely synonymous) – still raw, still very much a boy chasing cars. After the 2006-07 season, teammate Kobe Bryant made these comments regarding a potential deal to trade Bynum to the former New Jersey Nets for Jason Kidd:

“Andrew Bynum? What the f—? Are you kidding me? Andrew Bynum? F—— ship his ass out.”

At the time, Bynum was 19.

In his third year Bynum dominated the first half of the season, averaging a double-double on a career-best 64% from the field. The Lakers were 26-11; the best record in the Pacific Division, before bad luck or chance, depending on your spiritual inclinations, triggered the avalanche of injuries that would consume both Bynum’s body and will. In a game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Bynum would land awkwardly on teammate Lamar Odom’s left foot, dislocate his left kneecap, and that was it. Career-best averages in every major category evaporated. A teenager who was beginning to find rhythm became a teenager desperately thrashing to keep himself above the surface, above the criticism that he should’ve been able to return that year. Few places foster criticism like Hollywood does. His season ended on an operating table, when it was eventually concluded that couldn’t return to the court without arthroscopic knee surgery.

Bynum wouldn’t be deterred though, and came back in 2008 to a fresh 4 year, $58 million contract with the Lakers. Two weeks past a full calendar year since his prior injury, Bynum met another malady, this time in the form of Kobe Bryant crashing into his right knee. This too came against the Memphis Grizzlies. Initially, it was ruled a right knee sprain, but three days later it was revealed that Bynum had suffered a torn MCL and would be out 8-12 weeks. A contorted image of Bynum walked onto the court in April, and although Los Angeles would win the championship, he could do little to contribute.

The subsequent year, in the first round of the 2010 NBA Playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Bynum would re-injure his right knee. But what he would do in response was nothing short of a miracle. Rather than having much-needed surgery on the knee, Bynum would receive two hours of treatment on it daily – he would stagger around on one leg the rest of the postseason. Mind you, this is an injury that sidelined Russell Westbrook for six months and Derrick Rose for a season. Bynum put the collective before the individual, and the Lakers won their second consecutive championship. It appeared as though the cards were falling into place, both in his promise and longevity in the league.

In 2010, Bynum would undergo a lengthy and contentious recovery period, and in April, hyperextended his right knee. Three consecutive years of ache; a career predicated by disintegrating bones. When he came back for the postseason, few anticipated what would take place. The two-time defending champions were swept in the second round by the Dallas Mavericks, the final game made noteworthy by Bynum’s ejection in the final quarter. With his team down by 30 points in an elimination game, Bynum put the qualms of an entire city into a closeline – he was condemned by sports news media and daubed the villain. Never mind that Dallas would eventually win the championship, Bynum had been outplayed in the paint – and his team had self-destructed.

2011 brought about Bynum’s first All-Star appearance, a game in which he started at center for the Western Conference. On March 28, Bynum was benched in the third quarter by head coach Mike Brown for taking an ill-advised three-point field goal. His smile as he reached his seat dissipated, and he sat on the edge of the bench while refusing to join the team during timeouts. His naiveté cost him $7,500. Although his self-awareness became more of an issue, Bynum had a breakthrough season and was widely considered as one of the top centers playing in the NBA at the time. Dwight Howard was the other name consistently mentioned in the conversation.

In 2013, Bynum was traded in a four-team deal that sent Howard to Los Angeles to begin the “Roast of Superman” phase of his career, and Bynum to Philadelphia, among others. A week before training camp, Bynum underwent Orthokine treatments on both knees to stimulate healing for his arthritis. After an unrelated bone bruise to his right knee, he would then re-injure his left knee bowling – another event the media would use to torment him. To be fair, he did injure it bowling during a period when he should’ve been convalescing.

Having still not made it to the court by the end of February, it was reported that Bynum’s knees had begun to degenerate. Osteoarthritis occurs when the natural cushioning between joints – cartilage – wears away. You’re left with pain, swelling, stiffness, decreased ability to move, and potential bone spurs. From a professional basketball player’s perspective, this news is crippling. When you’re built like a skyscraper, there are often ramifications.

Philadelphia’s stint housing Bynum proved to be only further marring of a man who appeared destined to challenge the likes of Roy Hibbert and Dwight Howard. A giant had fallen, and we all watched – waiting, hoping he could find enough strength to stand.

Cleveland called and Bynum responded – a two-year, $24.79 million deal if he proved useful. He wasn’t. Bynum shot the worst percentage from the field since his rookie season, averaging just 8.4 points and 5.3 rebounds. There were shades of promise; a sledgehammer slam on Joakim Noah, an elevated swat on Deron Williams. But these highlights soon became monochromatic as he struggled to run the floor with his latent teammates. And as quickly as it had started, it had ended. Bynum was traded to the Bulls for three picks, lasted a handful of hours on their roster, and then was waived. It’s unclear where he’ll go to next.

After news broke that Bynum had been suspended by Cleveland, Bynum’s former mentor, Abdul-Jabbar, took to Facebook and made these comments:

I believe Andrew has always had the potential to help a team when he puts his heart into it. He just doesn’t seem to be consistent with his commitment to the game. That can lead to a lot of frustration for any team that has signed him.

When I worked with Andrew I found him to be bright & hardworking but I think he got bored with the repetitive nature of working on basketball fundamentals day in and day out… but they are the keys to long term success.

In my opinion Andrew is the type of person who walks to the beat of “a different drummer”. So we won’t know the facts until Andrew decides to tell us what actually is the issue and shares his thoughts.

One of Bynum’s former teammates voiced a common assessment with:

“It has to be hard for him. To go from being an All-Star to what he is now, that has to be hard to handle.”

Andrew Bynum is merely someone whose frame gave out. Someone who appeared poised to threaten the all-time rebounding and blocked shot ranks, but couldn’t control the decomposition of his own body. He was removed of a collegiate “find yourself” period, no stage where introversion and risk formulated temperament – Bynum chose a path where he would have to grow up around some of the best to ever play the sport in a city that expects you to take the media-induced lashings without retort. And he tried.

What’s more interesting perhaps, is that Bynum’s commitment has routinely been brought into question surrounding his collapse. An anonymous league source once said:

“I’ve never met another player in the league who likes basketball less [than Bynum].”

As SB Nation’s Ricky O’Donnell gave reference to (in a brilliant article you should all read), it was detailed in Lee Jenkins’ 2011 profile in Sports Illustrated that Bynum isn’t exclusively a basketball player. He’s someone with insatiable interests, most of which don’t even involve athletics. His childhood became a test of what Bynum could take apart and reassemble, just because he wanted to, “figure out what the hell is going on.” From telephones to laptops, circuitry was Bynum’s first love. He only considered colleges where he could major in mechanical engineering – basketball wasn’t a front, but it wasn’t a sole purpose either.

When you’re built like a tower, 7-feet and 285-pounds, and demonstrate a propensity for handling other giants in the post, the axiom that basketball may be the most viable profession is common. When your mind runs elsewhere, though, sometimes you should follow. He was considering retirement before the season had even started. Andrew Bynum is now faced with the same question that Todd Marinovich, Ricky Williams, and Gil Meche all considered before leaving their respective sports: Is this worth it?

It’s Bynum’s decision to make, as it should be.

Tags: Andrew Bynum Chicago Bulls Cleveland Cavaliers Dallas Mavericks Deron Williams Joakim Noah Josh Planos Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers Memphis Grizzlies Mike Brown NBA Oklahoma City Thunder Philadelphia 76ers Ricky Williams

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