Andrew Bynum's bittersweet return
PHILADELPHIA -- As last summer wore on, the scans of Andrew Bynum's knees landed in inboxes around the NBA. They were forwarded to the top professionals in the field for evaluation. Over and over they came back with some version of a "rejected" stamp.
Bynum said this week that he seriously considered retiring after his disastrous non-season with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2012-13. Even now, after fighting his way to get back on the court, he still considers the option when he's frustrated or in pain or depressed. But to put what he's doing in proper prospective, understand that retirement was a choice that was nearly made for him.
In an effort to prove he could continue his career, Bynum sent MRIs of his knees to NBA teams when he became a free agent in July. He had surgery on them in March only after months of failing to recover from bone bruises and other cartilage issues that were as mysterious as they were troubling.
Team after team decided to pass; doctors were too troubled by the damage and general managers too nervous about the risk.
Only the Cleveland Cavaliers made anything resembling a real offer. The bottom line said $24 million over two years, but only a quarter of it was guaranteed. A 2012 All-Star, Bynum could get a deal that was only one-quarter guaranteed, essentially a three-month make-good deal. That's how bad those MRIs looked.
On Friday night, when Bynum is hoping to play in Philadelphia for the first time since he signed with Cleveland -- his status is up in the air after he suffered some knee pain Wednesday night in Milwaukee -- the fans figure to boo him. It drove them crazy how Bynum arrived with the promise of joining the ranks of great 76ers centers only to see him repeatedly unable to play without ever suffering a specific injury. The stories about him getting hurt bowling and seeing the pictures of him Flamenco dancing when the season was over didn't help.
"I don't really care," Bynum said about the expected reaction. "My knees are where they are and that's really it. I got bad news with the diagnosis on my knees, but I tried to get back continuously."
For everything that's happened to him, you have to give Bynum this: He's always been frank -- both with himself and with the Philadelphia fans who were so let down last season. The best example of it may have come on the day when Bynum admitted he'd been hurt by a night of bowling and put his situation in stark terms.
"If I did that bowling, what would happen when I dunked?" he said.
When the Cavs got him into their facility, which happened just days after he signed in late July, they made his situation very clear to him. Their doctors had, of course, seen his MRIs and given him tests of their own. They told him he had to lose weight to take stress off the knees and to do everything he could to build up the muscles around the knees. It wasn't going to fix it, but it was his best chance of keeping them stable. It was either that or his career was going to be over at age 26.
Every day for weeks, Bynum came to the Cavs' facility and worked. Not very much of it was on basketball or with the coaches. Most of it was in the weight room, on the treadmills and in the pools with Cavs physical therapist George Sibel, who helped Bynum lose more than 20 pounds and get healthy enough to actually play basketball again.
These may seem like rather basic things for a player who is trying to earn a 10-figure salary, but let the pushback from the 76ers fans be the guide; he just wasn't able to work out like this last season.
Bynum knows the number by heart: When he played for the Cavs on opening night, it was the first time he'd been in a game in 567 days. He's had his moments since, including a 10-point, three-block game earlier this week against the Minnesota Timberwolves when he became such an issue during one stretch that the Wolves actually had to double-team him.
But he's so scarred from his miserable season in Philly that he's having trouble seeing the positive; his personality trait to focus on reality keeps pushing through.
"I just want to be able to play without pain and find the joy again," Bynum said. "Right now I'm battling pain and it's annoying. I'm not able to do the things I'm used to doing and it's frustrating. I still can't jump or slide or anything."
The Cavs are applying no pressure. Unlike in Philly, where he instantly became the franchise player, the Cavs are just hoping he can slowly become a valuable role player who can help them win a few games and maybe reach the playoffs.
"We have no expectations of him," coach Mike Brown said.
The Cavs are encouraged by his progress after all the offseason work and hope to incrementally move him forward. They are trying to teach him different footwork and ways he can use his 7-foot frame without having to put too much stress on his body.
It seems that Bynum is still trying to figure out if he can do this -- if he can accept what's left of his career and his abilities and make the best of them.
Some days, when his knees are sore and the only thing he can do is get in a pool, it seems that there's no way. Other days, such as when teammates sprinted off the bench to embrace him after he nailed a key jumper in the Cavs' win over the Wolves, it seems that it's possible.
He has millions of dollars and two championship rings. If Bynum thought all of this wasn't worth it, it would be understandable. But for now, something keeps him going. One minute he's saying he's a shell of himself, and the next he's talking about reinventing himself.
Where this ends up is unclear to everyone. What is known, though, is that if he plays Friday night versus the Sixers, regardless of the reaction of the crowd, will take at least some sort of medical miracle.
"I can still be a double-double guy in this league, but it's going to take some modifications to my game," Bynum said. "And accepting the challenge of trying to do that."