Bynum Shows Heart of a Champion

Jeff Skibiski —  June 21, 2010

June 13, 2010 - Boston, MASSACHUSETTS, UNITED STATES - epa02200618 Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum makes a slam dunk in the first quarter of the NBA Finals Game Five at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, 13 June 2010. The best of seven series is tied at two apiece.

His post-season stats won’t show it, but it was blatantly obvious in Game 7 – a game in which he primarily rode the bench – that Andrew Bynum has evolved as a player and as a man. Limited by a knee injury that has bothered him for months, the Lakers’ Big Enigma showed a sense of fortitude that has largely been missing during his first four years in the NBA.

Thankfully, I’ve never torn cartilage in my knee or moreover, tried to play basketball with an injury that severe. I imagine it doesn’t feel like a simple sprained or twisted knee though. Since he entered the league, Andrew has arguably been the most polarizing player on the Lakers roster, with some fans prognosticating a Hall of Fame career and others viewing him as one of the biggest busts in franchise history. Regardless of whether you are a Bynum apologist or champion, one thing was made abundantly clear in these epic 2010 playoffs: #17 is officially, undoubtedly, a gamer.

Gutty isn’t exactly the first word that comes to mind when you describe Bynum, but his performances against Oklahoma City, Utah, Phoenix and Boston were a huge testament to how far he has come since he was drafted directly out of high school. In many ways, I think that his newfound toughness paralleled that of the entire team in 2010, as evidenced by the Lakers’ grind-it-out mindset that clinched Game 7 against the Celtics. Instead of drawing Kobe’s ire, Andrew earned the remarkably resilient superstar’s respect during these playoffs by pushing forward on a leg that was ready to give out at any given moment. He also received praise from Pau Gasol, who was forced to fill the void in the paint when Bynum was out due to injury during the 2008 playoffs.

“What Andrew is doing throughout these playoffs has been incredible,” said Gasol. “To be able to play through his injuries and the soreness.”

Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak echoed the Spaniard’s positive sentiments: “In the world of sports, it’s courageous to see a player get out there and do that. Of course, there are a lot of people in this country that are very courageous that are not in sports. I don’t want to overplay it. But in what we do, it’s showing a lot of guts and a lot of maturity to go out there and try to play.”

Even Phil Jackson, who has notoriously come down hard on Bynum, has noticed the change in his center’s mentality. After Bynum re-tweaked his troublesome knee during the Finals, Jackson said, “He’s been able to overcome those odds almost all the way through these playoffs, ever since Oklahoma. So we’re really optimistic that he’ll be able to find a way to do that.”

I am sure Bynum appreciates the words of encouragement, but the most sure-fire sign of his maturation during this year’s playoffs is that his drive to persevere through injury came from within. “It’s motivating for me,” said Bynum after Game 1 against the Celtics. “I’m just gonna to keep going out there and playing as hard as I can, and whatever happens, happens.”

Despite losing Game 2 at home, Bynum did exactly that with a difference-making 21 points, six rebounds and an especially impressive seven blocks.

In addition to his improved determination, Andrew also provided the Lakers with a boost of confidence and somewhat unexpected dose of enthusiasm, even when relegated to warming the bench at times during the 2010 playoffs.

“I think this one, when we win it, it’s going to taste much sweeter than the one last year,” said Bynum last Thursday before Game 7. “Just knowing that I played with the injury, [came] through and helped us get here. It’s big. We have to win. We’re at home. Everything. We have the momentum right now. We have to go out there and beat this team.”

His pre-game zeal matched his in-game vigor, as there was no bigger cheerleader at STAPLES Center during Game 7 than #17. Whether waving his hands in the air to energize an already rabid fan base or congratulating his teammates during each timeout, Bynum’s presence was felt even when he was not physically able to contribute on the court. As more of a role player in the Finals, Andrew was invaluable.

“It’s all about how you look at it and how you think,” said Bynum about his injury earlier in the playoffs. Call it perspective from playing in the league for a few years or Zen magic; Andrew has transformed himself into a player deserving of unanimous praise for the way he handled himself over the past two-plus months. How this translates into Bynum’s on-court production for next season remains a mystery. Watching him gut it out in these playoffs should finally end the speculation about his courage and heart though.

“I have to go out and be ready to play,” said Bynum before Game 7. No hesitation. No doubt. Just words of confidence from a player who blossomed in unexpected ways during the 2010 playoffs.

Jeff Skibiski