By Dave D'Alessandro/Star-Ledger Columnist
The labels still follow him around, like a dishonorable discharge from a club he never wanted to join in the first place.
When Andrew Bynum was traded from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar bashed him before he got across the Continental Divide, asserting that his prized student always wanted to take shortcuts and "didn’t want me to bother him (by) constantly going over the fundamentals."
About that time, an anonymous Lakers player created untold internet hits by suggesting that "I’ve never met another player in the league who likes basketball less" than Bynum.
More recently, Magic Johnson condemned him as "a guy who (cannot) tolerate pain. When he was injured, he wasn’t a guy who worked hard to get back. This doesn’t surprise me."
And in response to this character assassination, all you hear from Team Bynum is a chorus of crickets.
So figure this might be a good time to forage his home state for someone who might advocate for the Plainsboro native, on the chance that the folks who nurtured him at St. Joseph of Metuchen might declare these Angelino echoes just a grotesque distortion, or perhaps shield their favorite son from the bombardment of media bile coming out of Philadelphia lately.
As it turns out, you can’t really depend on that happening, either.
"Everyone here at school says the same thing: What’s wrong with him? Why does he act like that?" says St. Joe’s athletic director Jerry Smith. "He went from someone we’re proud of to someone whose name we don’t even mention anymore."
Bynum’s coach during his Falcons years — that would be 2003-05, his junior and senior seasons — sounds as though he is under no urgent obligation to defend him, because he’s gone seven years without even being asked to give an assessment of any kind about his former center.
"Yeah, I never respond to that kind of request, because Andrew has chosen not to stay in touch for whatever reason, so I just don’t get involved with it," says Mark Taylor, who now coaches the St. Benedict's Prep powerhouse. "I don’t dislike him, and he’ll continue to do well if he can stay healthy, but I’m sure he’s got people who will guide him in times like this."
Getting a little frosty in here?
Make no mistake. Both men like Bynum personally, and wish the 25-year-old Sixers center a rapid recovery in his long struggle to rehab a knee that’s been locked up with a bone-on-bone scrape that threatens what should be an illustrious career.
Even in the aftermath of yesterday’s news that Bynum will undergo season-ending surgery today on both knees, the severity of his condition probably won’t elicit much public sympathy. Indeed, he is most often portrayed as a feckless clod victimized by his own negligence.
His "sins" are well known by now. He hurt his left knee while bowling in November, when he was already sidelined by his right. Then he announced on Feb. 18th that he’ll "definitely be back sometime this year" — a terrible PR mistake, organization people admit privately. And one week later, he experienced swelling in his right knee after dominating his second scrimmage with his team, which now has him facing surgery.
By then, the Sixers were in free-fall (they’re 24-39 now), fan irritation already had boiled over when the team put Bynum’s face on a billboard announcing "single game tickets available," and the media rightfully pointed out that this might be the worst trade the old town has seen since the one proffered by Susan Finkelstein.
Much of the frustration is justified. Coming off its first playoff series triumph in nine years, the Sixers surrendered their best player (Andre Iguodala), a top-five rebounder (Nikola Vucevic), a promising rookie (Moe Harkless), and a No. 1 draft pick to acquire Bynum and his $16.1 million salary.
But he hasn’t played a game. Mostly, he’s seen a lot of doctors and lifted a lot of weights, bulking to 300 pounds. And for this, he’s been characterized as self-serving and unwilling to play through pain.
That, however, is an absurd premise; by sitting out, Bynum has vanquished any leverage he’s had. Some NBA GMs can quantify it: They say Bynum has literally lost two digits on his next contract by sitting out this year, as his value probably shrank from five years and $100 million to probably one year and $8 million.
That doesn’t sound very selfish.
But nobody seems to make that point. Bynum’s bat-like resistance to the spotlight prevents him from speaking up for himself, as he withheld comment through a Sixers publicist. His agent, David Lee, has been mute. Neither his brother nor his AAU coach — Corey Thomas and Larry Marshall, the two who choreographed his rise from St. Joe’s to the NBA at age 17 — return calls, either.
So you start at St. Joe’s, where you learn that this smart and talented kid — who has had knee issues since his first surgery at age 12 — never was one to make much of a fuss anyway.
Which might be why he’s such an unsympathetic fellow.
Even to the guys who helped put him where he is today.
"Like most big guys with big expectations, he seemed uncomfortable with them," says Wendell Alexis, the former Syracuse star who was Taylor’s assistant in 2004-05. "And subsequently, he seemed leery of people around him — coaches, or agents, or could be anybody. He had a very serious nature for a 17-year-old, actually, whereas most people that age — with that talent — would think the world was their oyster."
"This is why I get frustrated with handlers and agents and people who get to these kids when they’re young: If you have a great foundation, you do well later when problems arise," says Taylor, who had Bynum practically hand-delivered to Jim Calhoun and UConn in the spring of 2005, before the teen’s stunning decision to turn pro.
"Yes, it’s really hard to argue that point when a kid is drafted at No. 10. But I still ask: Are you truly ready? I don’t mean physically — though Andrew was not physically ready — it’s about maturity. Are you worldly enough to deal with being a professional? With setbacks? With injuries?"
Is the coach suggesting that these are specific issues that Bynum is still ill-equipped to deal with?
"Yeah," Taylor replies. "Like any other teenager."
Smith, who arrived in Metuchen during Bynum’s junior year, is just frustrated he can’t get his former player to answer his snail mail.
"He went from being one of our favorite sons here — right below Jay Williams — but they don’t talk about Bynum like they do about Jay," the AD says. "For a lot of reasons, there’s been a disconnect."
Smith said he once took a busload of kids to a Nets-Lakers game in East Rutherford, and Bynum — reluctantly, he thought — did come out to say hello to the students.
"But he hasn’t exactly been a warm presence," Smith says. "We thought he’d be a lot different, that’s all. We all understand sports figures — wary of people asking for money and all that — but we don’t need money, we raise our own. It would just be nice if he came by now that he’s so close. It would be great for our kids to see him. But I’m not holding my breath."