- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- For a good 15 minutes before a recent game, Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum left himself exposed. His cellphone, a black iPhone 4GS, was left unattended on the chair in front of his locker during the 45-minute period when the locker room is open to all sorts of people.
Any number of bad things could've happened.
But Bynum's head was elsewhere. On the game, on his game, on the opponent, on whatever it is that seems to be eating at him these days.
"You're pretty trusting," I said, gesturing to his iPhone. Bynum shrugged and walked off without putting the iPhone safely away in his locker. "Nobody's going to take it," he said, dismissing the suggestion.
Nearby a veteran Lakers staffer shook his head. Yet another helpful voice or suggestion Bynum wasn't in the mood to hear.
These should be the best of days for Bynum. He made his first All-Star team and has only gotten better since the break. He made his first game-winning basket in a win over the Boston Celtics a few weeks ago and has only gotten more confident late in games. My colleague J.A. Adande even suggested that Bynum might be passing Dwight Howard in the discussion about the best center in the NBA.
Endorsement deals should be flooding in. He should be the talk of the town. Celebrities should be clamoring to meet him. His phone, the one he so carelessly left exposed in the locker room the other night, should be blowing up with texts and calls from well-wishers and sycophants.
But instead of basking in the glory, Bynum is chafing at it. Rebelling against it and everything else that feels warm and fuzzy. Advice goes unheeded. Suggestions are scoffed at or ignored.
His public demeanor is salty where it once had been innocent and sweet. His behavior on the court and off of it has been bizarre and brash. It got so bad a few weeks ago, the Lakers fined him for numerous disciplinary infractions and disrespectful behavior, according to ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin. All this after he was suspended five games for elbowing Dallas' J.J. Barea in the playoffs and captured in photos parking in handicapped parking spaces.
The official party line is simply that Bynum is going through some growing pains. That he's never experienced this level of success and is having a hard time adjusting.
"He's just a young player that's growing," Lakers coach Mike Brown said. "He's trying to find his way on the floor and off the floor. He's definitely on his way to superstardom. He's got a chance to be a superstar in this league.
"I think it can be a difficult task. There's a lot of individuals that have had it at a young age. I don't know Andrew's history, I don't know if he was an AAU kid that was on the front of Sports Illustrated in 7th or 8th grade, and had to deal with that stuff his whole life. This might be the first time he's really getting a taste of it."
Forget for a moment that it's kind of surprising Brown has so little knowledge of Bynum's background -- he's exactly right. This is Bynum's first taste of real success. He didn't go to college and was never a star in high school. In fact, he played only 33 games in high school and never led his team in scoring.
Then for the next six years after the Lakers drafted him 10th overall in 2005, he was a project. A young player to be molded by his elders. A prospect to be brought along slowly and carefully so as not to damage him or stunt his growth.
So it's not all that surprising that this year, when he's had a taste of the success that's been waiting for him for so long, he's taking a while to learn how to harness the swagger that's been propelling him to these new heights.
"To be in the zone, as they call it, it has a lot to do with anger and a lot to do with focus," Bynum said in an introspective moment. "You have to find the midpoint. You have to use anger to motivate yourself, but you don't want to let it go so far that you get kicked out. I let that happen a few times, but it's just part of the maturing process."
The thing is, I'm not sure it's success that's causing this sudden, strange change in character. Bynum was always a good kid. Smart and savvy and sensitive. That doesn't just change because he made an All-Star team. That kid is still in there somewhere.
No, something else is going on. His behavior is too different. Too much of a departure from how he's always been. This is more than a teenage rebellion.
To understand it I called a number of people around the league to get outside perspectives. The feedback was resoundingly similar: This is a full-fledged organizational challenge. Wittingly or not, Andrew Bynum is testing the Lakers. Testing their boundaries. Seeing what the organization will let him get away with and what it will push back on. Feeling just how deep his power over the franchise is.
"That's what players do," one league source told me. "They want to see how highly the organization values them."
His timing is somewhat perfect. The Lakers have already said they will pick up the $16.1 million option on his contract next season, but then what? Will they offer him a maximum contract extension? Will they install him as the new face of the franchise?
None of this is to suggest that Bynum's contract situation is on his mind. I actually think it's far from his thoughts. At least knowing him the way I thought I used to.
But whether it's intentional or not, the timing of his youthful rebellion has left the organization with an important set of decisions to make. Based only on his play on the court, it would be virtually automatic for the Lakers to lock Bynum up as soon as possible. But all this other stuff, all the disrespectful behavior, all the growing pains, all that complicates things.
"He's smart enough and intelligent enough to learn from his mistakes," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said. "But I don't think you learn anything all at one time. I think it's a process and maybe it's going to be a process for a year or so, but like I said, all the tools are there."
I tend to be of a similar mind as Kupchak. The tools are all there. Bynum is too smart to continue down this path for long. And from talking to his teammates, he's not nearly as closed off to accepting their advice as he is from authority figures. He's grown close with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol this year and was always surprisingly close with former team captain Derek Fisher.
"Put it this way," Brown said, when I asked him if anything he's learned as a parent applies to the situation with Bynum. "I know when I was younger and I got in trouble for something silly. I felt I had the best parents in the world. But I vowed and swore that I was going to run away. I left the house. I went about five or six blocks. And then I turned around. But I was a runaway for at least six blocks."
But still, if you're the Lakers you have to be asking yourself just how ready you are to commit to Bynum as the face of your franchise going forward. As both a player and a man, he has much to prove.
Many players have reached the cusp of superstardom in this league, not all of them make it all the way there. Only a small few are able to exist in that airspace for too long.
"I'm not sure anybody would put him at the superstar point," Kupchak said. "To me a superstar is defined by consistency over a long period of time.
"There have been a lot of guys in this league that come in for a year or two and are gone. I'm not saying that's him. But greatness in this league is defined over a period of time. So really, let's look back on this 10 years from now."
Bynum gets this, too. He always has.
"Just come in and play great every night. That's the definition of it," he said, when I asked what it meant to be a superstar. "You've got to be a solid player and I'm starting to do that."
The more he does that, the more the Lakers will let him do. The more power he will wield. The more respect his voice will command. But he's not there yet. There is still much to learn and listen to.
For now though, Bynum seems determined to learn these lessons on his own.
"I've got to let him grow some, too," Brown said. "People kind of have to find their own way at times. You can help them a little here and there. As long as it doesn't affect, nor hurt the team, I'm OK with it."