Bobby Corbin was working in the service department at Fry's Electronics in Manhattan Beach, Calif., when a 7-foot teenager approached the counter. Corbin glanced up at the boy giant's stubble-free face and assumed he was a college basketball player. Maybe he needed help tricking out his dorm room. "You know how it is with those guys," Corbin says. "They don't usually have to do much for themselves." The kid explained that he was looking for a personal computer, and while Fry's carries half a dozen brands, he was not interested in any of those. "I want to learn how to build my own," he said. He rattled off his desired components: a 500-gigabyte hard drive, four gigs of RAM and a graphics card. Corbin was amused and intrigued. He picked out the parts, and as he stood on one side of the counter assembling the machine, his 285-pound customer stood on the other and studied his work. Corbin wondered if this was really a basketball player or just a very tall techie. The next day a Fry's colleague asked him, "Do you know who that was?" Corbin shook his head. "It's the new Laker."
This is an article from the April 25, 2011 issue
That was the fall of 2005, when Andrew Bynum was the youngest player in NBA history (18 years, six days), and no one knew what to make of him. He did not go to college and never finished a full season at St. Joseph High in Metuchen, N.J. He never led the team in scoring or shots. He sat out the fourth quarter of his last game. He made his decision to turn pro just two weeks before the draft, and because he was not invited to the green room, he bought a ticket and sat in the stands in the theater at Madison Square Garden. The rebuilding Lakers acknowledged that he had no advanced post moves, limited stamina and a physique that portended future injuries, but they still took him 10th, with their highest pick in more than a decade. When general manager Mitch Kupchak spoke after the draft at his alma mater, Brentwood High in Long Island, a boy came up to him and said, "Mr. Kupchak, I played against Andrew Bynum in AAU, and he wasn't very good. What do you see in him?"
Bynum is massive even by NBA standards, taller than Magic center Dwight Howard and 20 pounds heavier, with downy-soft hands and feet made nimble from a childhood playing tennis and soccer. But all the scouts could see that. What Los Angeles noticed was the gray matter. Growing up, Bynum cracked open telephones so he could examine the circuitry and put them back together. At seven he was in the chess club at his local Barnes & Noble. At 14 he was installing Microsoft Windows on broken laptops his mother found in her office. His favorite subject in school was physics. He only considered colleges where he could major in mechanical engineering. His plan after graduation was to land a job as a computer programmer. He can describe the difference between a quad-core and dual-core processor in such detail that it almost makes sense. "He cares deeply about the way things work," says L.A. coach Phil Jackson. The Lakers knew Bynum would encounter setbacks, but while the typical teenager might shut down, his instinct was to keep tinkering. It's how he is wired. "I want to master everything," Bynum says. "I want to understand what the hell is going on."
He is cramped behind the wheel of his silver Ferrari F-430, driver's seat pushed all the way back, shouting over the engine. He interrupts himself to point out the apex of his turns. Bynum has taken car-racing classes at the Los Angeles Air Force base, but before Lakers officials reach for their defibrillators, he clarifies that he remained in the passenger's seat the whole time. Today he is simply battling L.A. traffic from a Ferrari dealership on the west side—where he crawled under his car to show the mechanic a hole he discovered in the belly pan—to Crustacean, his favorite Asian restaurant in Beverly Hills. He arrives to a symphony of honking horns. A passerby yells, "We're proud of you!" A panhandler asks him for money and then takes his picture.
The locals have seen Bynum grow up, through two seasons on the bench, three knee operations and annual trade rumors, through one Finals where he couldn't play, another where he couldn't play well and a third where he couldn't run. The Lakers were able to win the past two championships when he was at half speed. Only now, as they aim for their 17th title (to match the Celtics), Kobe Bryant aims for his sixth (to match Michael Jordan) and Jackson aims for a fourth three-peat (to give him a sweet send-off as he heads into the Montana sunset for good), do the Lakers deeply need him. At 23, Bynum is the keystone of their new defense and the reason their front line is so difficult to counter. Leaning on him, however, is a high-risk proposition. He acknowledges that his knees will never be fully healthy, and every time they buckle, the gasps make Staples Center sound like a haunted house. On April 12, Bynum stepped on the foot of Spurs forward DeJuan Blair and spent more than a minute sitting in the key, clutching his surgically repaired and heavily braced right knee. The Lakers held their breath until an MRI the next day revealed that it was only a bone bruise, and then they could breathe again.
As is often the case with the Lakers, they relaxed too much, losing Game 1 of their first-round playoff series to New Orleans on Sunday despite 13 points and nine rebounds from Bynum. The Lakers, who dropped five straight games in early April and barely clung to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, insisted they would get serious when more was at stake. But they opened the playoffs with another dud, failing to stop jitterbug point guard Chris Paul (who scored 33 points in Game 1) and not getting the ball inside to their power base. Bynum wants an increased load, but the Lakers have to trust that he can carry it.
"I feel like I haven't done enough for this team," Bynum says over a lunch of garlic noodles and beef satay. "Sometimes I feel like they can win without me. This is the opportunity I've been waiting for, to really prove my worth. I'm in a position to offer more than I ever have." Bynum is emboldened by what the Lakers believe have been the best two months of his career. After the All-Star break he averaged 11.0 points, 12.0 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and countless altered shots, proving that a true center does exist outside of Orlando. "He's got the right hook, left hook, drop step, spin move, the whole smorgasbord," says L.A. director of scouting Bill Bertka, who in 38 years with the club has tutored Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal. "If he can stay healthy, he could be one of the top centers to play the game." There is always that caveat—if he can stay healthy—accompanied by a knocking of wood.
Even after signing his four-year, $57.4 million contract in 2008, Bynum still lives with his mom, Janet McCoy, who raised him alone in Plainsboro, N.J., because she believed the area's acclaimed public school system would challenge his inquisitive mind. They are joined in the house in Westchester in West L.A. by seven computers, several of which Bynum assembled on his own, and are among the fastest Corbin has ever seen. "Drew could be an engineer," says Corbin, who became a friend. "He built the George Jetson of computers." Bynum also put together a remote control car that could reach 100 miles per hour, to the delight of kids in his neighborhood. He trained a Labrador, Max, and plans to breed them this summer. He leased a garage where he keeps most of his 12 cars and hopes to open an auto-body shop. He loves projects.
Developing himself was the most ambitious one of all.
The first time the Lakers saw Bynum, at the McDonald's All-American Game three months before the 2005 draft, they were unimpressed. "He was a chubby kid, 40 pounds overweight, a big lump of clay," says Kupchak. Just to be safe, the team sent assistant general manager Ronnie Lester to New York City for Bynum's individual workout in early June. Lester found the clay hardened and chiseled. He called Kupchak urgently. "This is not the same kid," he said. Bynum had gone from more than 310 pounds to 285 by running in combat boots every morning along the beach in Laurence Harbor, N.J. Nevertheless, he did not receive much affection from teams and reasoned that he should enroll as planned at UConn.
Before Bynum could pull his name out of the draft, the Lakers invited him to work out with two college seniors in Chicago. Bynum was easily winded. He struggled to jump twice in succession. When he caught the ball in the post, he knew only how to face up and shoot. But he did not mind contact, and as the workout progressed, the two college seniors drifted out to the three-point line. "They didn't want to get embarrassed," says Jim Buss, L.A.'s executive vice president of player personnel. Buss, a son of Lakers owner Jerry Buss, had worked in the team's front office for seven years, but he had never taken a hard stance on a player. "Shut down the rest of the workouts," he told fellow officials. Bynum was flown to L.A. for an interview, and as he strolled through the team's headquarters, he stared at photos on the wall of Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and O'Neal. "Wouldn't it be nice if there were a picture of you up there someday?" Kupchak asked. Bynum beamed.
The Lakers were high on his potential, but not on his timing. Jackson was returning from a one-year hiatus. Bryant was in his prime. The team was built to win, not wean. Trainers learned that Bynum underwent his first knee operation when he was 12 and were concerned about his Q angle—the relationship between his pelvis, leg and foot. According to head athletic trainer Gary Vitti, a wide Q angle can affect the way the kneecap glides along the thigh bone and can also cause increased foot pronation, both common sources of injuries. "Andrew is challenged in terms of his skeleton," Vitti says. "But we can work with those issues to some degree. What you can't do is take someone with a normal Q angle and make him 7 feet, 285 pounds."
While Vitti designed exercises to correct Bynum's postural alignment, Abdul-Jabbar was hired to shape his game. "He didn't really have any moves," Abdul-Jabbar says, "but that might have been the best thing." The 64-year-old Abdul-Jabbar laments how many modern big men are taught guard skills as kids. They never learn to play with their back to the basket. Bynum was the blank slate he wanted, so green that he wore socks in the shower because he couldn't find shower shoes to fit his size 18 feet. Once, during his rookie season, Bynum walked off the court in the middle of practice because he was feeling light-headed. Assistant coach Kurt Rambis found him in the lounge eating Froot Loops.
Abdul-Jabbar worked with Bynum before or after every practice. He sat behind the bench every game jotting notes. He went to Bynum's house at night to watch film. Bynum tried to block shots by standing in one place and raising his arms, so Abdul-Jabbar gave him a video of Bill Russell called Block Art, illustrating the need to jump. Bynum averaged just 7.3 minutes as a rookie, but in a nationally televised game against the Heat, he used Abdul-Jabbar's spin move to wheel around O'Neal for a baseline dunk. "That made everything tougher," Abdul-Jabbar says. "People saw what he could do and thought he should be doing it all the time."
Bynum's second season ended with him playing three minutes in a playoff loss to Phoenix, backing up Kwame Brown and Ronny Turiaf. The Lakers were patient, but Bryant was not. He too went from high school to the NBA, and unlike Bynum, he produced immediately. "At 17, Kobe was already going hard, trying to kill everybody, be better than Michael Jordan," says veteran Lakers forward Lamar Odom. "Most of us take longer." In the summer of 2007 Bryant was frustrated by many in the organization, but Bynum was the one he singled out to two fans with a digital camera at an Orange County shopping mall. "Andrew Bynum?" Bryant said on the video that went viral. "F------ ship his ass out."
The Lakers had charted Bynum's course so carefully, nurturing him for two years, and Bryant was jeopardizing the grand plan. Or, perhaps, accelerating it. Bynum's former AAU coach, Larry Marshall, flew to Los Angeles and told his former prodigy, "Kobe has a right to do this. He wants another championship. It's time to show him that the road there goes through you." While Bryant stewed for the summer, Bynum flew to Atlanta and went through five-hour-per-day outdoor workouts in record heat with trainer and chiropractor Sean Zarzana, who made him run with parachutes strapped around his waist. Bynum never complained but always questioned. "He has a computer chip in his head," Zarzana says. "You can be doing a basic pull-up, and he wants to know what it's all about."
Bynum started the following season back on the bench, but by Thanksgiving he was L.A.'s starting center and primary interior option, piling up nightly double doubles. The Lakers were contenders again. Even Bryant gushed. Then Bynum dislocated his kneecap in January 2008, and while the Lakers eased the sting by trading for 7-foot Pau Gasol, their budding star felt disposable. "There was this huge amount of hype—next great young center!—and it felt like something big was happening," Bynum says. "And then it was gone. I lost my place in this franchise for three years."
His identity became his injuries, as the team originally feared, a torn MCL limiting him in the 2009 playoffs and torn meniscus hobbling him last spring. Bynum frequently had his right knee drained during the '10 Finals against the Celtics and still keeps on his cellphone a picture of an 80-milliliter syringe filled with red fluid. He saw how Gasol supplanted him as the Lakers' inside threat and concluded that they did not need him anymore. "I wasn't getting the shots I used to," Bynum says. "I wasn't fitting in. You can go one of two ways in that situation. You can stop caring or you can find something else the team needs. It took awhile, but I figured out what it was."
The Lakers changed their defense this season to exploit their inherent size advantage and keep their big men closer to the basket. Bynum, who used to scramble out to the perimeter and help guards against pick-and-rolls, was encouraged to stay in the lane and protect the rim. Assistant coach Chuck Person devised a system where the Lakers try to funnel ball handlers to the spot where the baseline meets the corner of the key, so Bynum can rush over for the trap or rise up for the block. "Everything we do now revolves around him," Person says. "He's the boss."
Bynum always thought of himself as a scorer, able to shimmy around centers or shoot over forwards. But he was searching for a niche, and in a meeting with Jackson during the All-Star break, he lobbied to be L.A.'s new guard dog. Bynum had already been discussing it with George Mumford, a Boston-based sports psychologist and Jackson's longtime mental-health consultant, who addressed the Lakers before they played the Celtics in February. Bynum sought out Mumford afterward, and they began to talk every other day via Skype. Bynum told Mumford that he wanted to commit to defense, believing he could guarantee the Lakers another title.
"What's stopping you?" Mumford asked. Bynum thought hard. "Nothing," he replied.
In a win over the Bobcats on March 4 Bynum pulled down 17 rebounds while taking only four shots. Against San Antonio two nights later, he pulled down 17 while taking only two. He had another 17-rebound game against the Warriors, 18 against the Magic and a career-high 23 against the Jazz. According to Synergy Sports, since Bynum's meeting with Jackson, opponents shot just 32.8% and averaged .73 points per possession on half-court plays in which Bynum was the initial defender. "What people wanted him to do, he's been inspired to do," says Mumford. "No one person can give you that inspiration. It's been incubating in him for quite a while."
Mumford introduced Bynum to Tai Chi, gave him the self-help book The New Psycho Cybernetics and showed him that his brain can be the most powerful motherboard of all. "Do you know that your brain recognizes targets and destinations?" Bynum asks. "So when you are thinking, Don't miss the ball, your brain is actually hearing, Miss the ball." His technical mind expanding, Bynum read Drown, the collection of Junot Díaz short stories that Jackson bought him this season, and then dove into The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Díaz's acclaimed novel. "I like the descriptions in both, but [Wao] is even better," Bynum says. "It won the Pulitzer." When Bynum reflects on Bryant and the infamous video, he invokes Gandhi and nonjudgmental justice, a principle that opposes negative thinking. "Yeah, I was mad," he says. "But I let it take care of itself, and lo and behold, I was of some value."
Some teams might be alarmed by a player with such a wide worldview, but these are the Jackson Lakers: Gasol goes to the opera. Ron Artest campaigns for mental-health awareness. They all meditate. "We like our guys to have an outlet," says L.A. assistant Jim Cleamons. "We believe you have to step away from the game to come back to the game." That helps explain why the Lakers let Bynum travel to South Africa last summer, where he sat 10 feet from a lion during a safari at Kruger National Park and touch-passed a soccer ball with 30 tourists on their way to the World Cup. "Greatest time of my life," he says. Bynum was criticized for pushing back his knee surgery—he missed the first 24 games of the season—but he says his personal doctor wanted to see how the knee responded to nonbasketball activity. Instead of removing the torn portion of his meniscus, which the Lakers initially thought necessary, Bynum's doctor was able to repair it. "That was the best thing," Vitti says. "In the long run repairing the meniscus will add to the life of the joint."
Bynum packs his knees with ice after every game. He wears orthotics in his shoes. His workouts with Zarzana have become so renowned that they were filmed for the Celebrity Sweat fitness DVD series. Yet he aches even when he climbs in and out of his car. He has a fear of people being around his legs, which he is forced to confront every time a guard sneaks into the paint. "You just want to get them away," Bynum says. Other general managers call Kupchak, believing he will eventually tire of the anxiety and make a trade. The list of players reportedly dangled for Bynum over the years reads like an All-Star team: Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett, Chris Bosh and, most recently, Carmelo Anthony. But if Bynum can sustain his performance of the past two months for a full season, Kupchak believes the calls will cease forever. "Everybody will know we would never trade him," he says.
Big-market franchises are often tempted to swap challenging prospects for proven veterans, but Bynum represents an organizational undertaking. It is hard to find anyone in the Lakers' directory who did not have some role in his development: the coaches who taught him, players who pushed him, trainers who mended him and executives who stuck by him.
Guards blossom early, usually by 23, because the ball is constantly in their hands. Centers take longer, often until 26, as they learn to control their limbs. If he can stay healthy, Bynum is the bridge not only to this year's title but also to the next era in L.A., when Bryant fades from the marquee. Bynum refuses to mention himself in the same sentence as Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and O'Neal—"That just muddies their names," he says—but he still aspires to have his picture on the wall. "He will get better because he's so thirsty for knowledge," says Gasol. "He's got a desire for growth. He's ready to absorb."
Bynum hits the gas on Sepulveda Boulevard, hard enough to make a passenger lose his satay, and the Ferrari lurches forward, leaving rush hour behind. He is considering the difference between basketball players and computers, human beings and machines, as he avoids the potholes. "I can get the biggest database in the world," he yells over the engine, "but that's not enough. I have to go out and apply it. That's what I'm working on right now." So he is still a project after all these years, all that tinkering. "Aren't we all?" he shouts happily. "And isn't that what's great? It's one project that's never done."