Why We Watch: Andrew Bynum and The Tyranny of Want

Andrew Bynum could be one of the NBA's greatest big men. But he'll have to do it in a city that loves The Little Guy like no other.
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An NBA player and a team executive sit at a podium in July. The player is not just any player, though. This player is a seven-foot center, renowned for his ability to dominate an end of the floor. This is not a normal press conference, either. The player in question is being introduced by a new team’s brass, after leaving his last team under controversial circumstances and with precious little to show for it. The player is asked how he feels about his former team’s fan base, asked if he knows that they hate him. He winces slightly, hesitates for a moment. And then he delivers the typical platitudes about leaving it all in the past, of embracing a chance to begin anew.

That, more or less, sums up Dwight Howard’s recent past. It also represents a possible future for the biggest key in the deal that sent Howard from Orlando to Los Angeles, and who is himself a player facing down a strange destiny. In Philadelphia, who and what Andrew Bynum will become will be due not to whether he succeeds or fails, but instead to how he goes about succeeding or failing. It's different when you're that big, that good, and yet still so much an unknown quantity.

But it will be doubly different in Bynum's new place of work. Had the Lakers traded Bynum most anywhere else, his production—he's a lock to flirt with 20 points and 10 rebounds per game as the newly established focal point of an offense—would rule the day. As long as he handled his business, he would unequivocally be embraced for what he is: a 25-year-old center with a superstar’s skill set and a gargantuan physique. That is, embraced as the ultimate human resource commodity in a league so desperate for quality pivots that even its best—Dwight Howard among them—are regarded as cover bands struggling to capture what the position once was, rather than autonomous figures.

Only Bynum didn’t get shipped most anywhere else. He wound up in Philadelphia, a city whose sports scene is governed, cruelly, by something best described as the tyranny of want. It’s become cliché to lump Philly in with Cleveland as cities with a deeper-than-average and less-sated-than-average hunger for winning. But that kinship breaks down upon examining the ‘why’ of it all. Winning, to Cleveland, is utilitarian, which is a perfectly reasonable mindset to have when you’re marooned on a uniquely haunted island of despair; after 48 years and counting between titles, methodology becomes peripheral. But for Philadelphia, winning goes hand-in-hand with a very specific deontology. It isn’t enough to merely thrive in Philly; rather, one must thrive while displaying visible, demonstrated, concerted effort—win the wrong way, and you still lose.

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Generally speaking, "want" is a connotative term that elevates limited protagonists to higher levels. It's praise that undermines itself: isolate the want from Brian Cardinal’s basketball DNA, and you’re left with a balding white guy with little basketball skill beyond hitting the occasional corner three. This isn’t nearly as fun or romantic a way of viewing things.

In Philadelphia, though, "want" is the commerce that drives the country’s fourth-largest media market. There, it’s possible to become an icon powered by exclusively by want, the way Vince Papale—they made a movie about him; he was played by Mark Wahlberg—did, in spite of making exactly one play per season over a nondescript three-year NFL career. It’s also the place where even the perceived lack of "want" can be grounds for eviction, as it was for Mike Richards and Jeff Carter last summer after they declined to sign a Flyers team-wide pledge to give up alcohol for the playoffs. It hardly mattered that Richards was the lead-by-example captain that took the team within two games of the Stanley Cup the year before, or that Carter banged in 115 goals over the past three seasons; what they had once accomplished became even greater cause to blame them when they were unable or unwilling to do more. If that sounds ridiculous, it's because it is. But it's how things are done in Philadelphia sports, where outcomes and process fuse together as they do nowhere else.

This can only spell trouble for Bynum, whose mannerisms are far too immutable to justify the wealth of descriptors that inevitably bubble to the surface. Like Derek Zoolander, Bynum’s catalogue of facial expressions is remarkably limited: there’s catatonic, staring-off-into-space Bynum; there’s goofy, impish, smiling Bynum; and there’s slightly perturbed, quasi-petulant Bynum. That’s the entire list. In motion and in context, though, he demands an entirely different set of adjectives. When he plays well, Bynum is collected, precocious, composed, innocent. When things go badly, he’s immature, detached, apathetic, spoiled. The problem is that context is much less a byproduct of truth than it is fact-plus-license; given such a narrow bank of data to work with, people extrapolate and—because we are people, and because this is Philadelphia—overreact. That puts Bynum in a precarious position. Just by being and looking like himself, he runs the constant risk of igniting Philadelphia's perpetually dry tinder box, and being injured in the blast that follows.

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A lot of this is Rocky’s fault. Rocky ran on premium want, a self-made man who graduated from delivering mob beatings to winning the heavyweight title, getting the girl and, later, single-handedly ending the Cold War. And it’s around the ideals of that fictitious mush-mouthed, punch-drunk pugilist that Philadelphia has compulsively built an identity as a hardscrabble, relentless, gritty underdog. That didn’t happen as much through Rocky’s milestones, important as those were, as they did through the visceral, buffet-sized portions that he choked down to achieve them. The potency of the Rocky narrative is borne out of the struggle. He didn't even win that first fight against Apollo Creed, after all. He just went the distance.

On its own, that complex could only saturate to a point, mostly because Rocky is—not to put too fine a point on it—not a real person. But then Allen Iverson came along, and went beyond just bringing the Rocky concept to reality—he made it obsolete. Iverson achieved the same rags to riches outcome with an even rougher backstory—he was the progeny of a 15-year-old single mother and the recipient of a bogus 15-year prison sentence eventually curtailed by gubernatorial pardon—and, as a 5-9 whippet waging war against men a foot taller and far thicker than him, even longer physical odds. He swapped out Rocky’s one-liners for four-letter words, traded in the high trunks and shaggy hair for baggy shorts, braids and tattoos. If Rocky is the Liberty Bell itself in Philly sports, then Iverson is the signature crack—a quirk that a more refined place would label a blemish, but that Philly called charming and claimed as its own.

And so Iverson bitched about practice and openly loathed his coach, but once the pregame countdown read zeroes, he would doggedly hurl himself into the lane, bouncing off defenders to the shrills of referee whistles the way a pinball pings off bumpers in time with an arcade's beeps and bells. No matter how often his brittle bones creaked otherwise, Iverson fancied himself as that tiny indestructible ball of alloy. Because this is Philadelphia, he was worshipped for it.

Bynum’s plight is a matter of degrees: The issue isn’t so much that he’s not that; it’s how decidedly not that he truly is. Bynum wasn’t born in the projects; he grew up middle class in the New Jersey suburbs, where, according to Lee Jenkins’ superb SI feature, he spent his free time cavorting with the local chess club, fixing up computers and studying physics. When Bynum was 18, at the same age Iverson was when he was sent to the state pen, the Lakers paid him seven-figure NBA money to soak up garbage minutes. They did this not because of anything he accomplished—Bynum had an exceedingly mediocre high school career—but because he had been privileged with every physical advantage required to prosper. When those advantages alone weren’t enough to develop a competent post game, the team’s recourse was to hire the most decorated player in the history of the sport, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to teach him one. Bynum has known struggle, primarily with the balky knee that now delays his 76er debut indefinitely. Yet it’s a markedly different kind of struggle than the turmoil Iverson survived, a softer kind. Among the many things Philly is known to revile, few rank above softness.

That fissure also colors the perceptions of the biggest commonality between Iverson and Bynum, which is their shared penchant for acting out. Iverson has done his fair share of over-the-top things – his strong feelings on practice are a matter of public record; tossing his naked then-wife Tawanna out of their house is notably less endearing. No matter how preposterous or bizarre or wrong- or thick-headed any of it was, though, Iverson brought his own strange and hard-earned gravity to it. Even those at the lowest rung of competition understand why practice is important but if the guy who dutifully toiled through destitution, wrongful incarceration and chronic injury decided that, of all things, such routine monotony was the issue worth raising hell about, perhaps it merited some attention. Iverson chose some odd battles, but they never dulled the resonance of his battle cry.

Bynum, on the other hand, deals more in eye rolls than stands on principle; where it was easy to see Iverson as a sort of warrior-poet, it can be difficult to see Bynum as anything but a bratty teenager throwing tantrums for no discernible reason. Bynum's personal rap sheet is comprised entirely of adolescent misdemeanors: parking his car in a handicapped space, racking up traffic tickets, high-fiving fans with a smirk upon getting ejected, jacking up mindless three-pointers. It’s the exact behavior one would associate with his life to date. As many implicit "want"-related questions as Bynum's track record brings, the more overt repercussion is that it’s just hard to take him seriously.

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So, consider Andrew Bynum, born into a life of relative comfort and coasting since then on his genetic good fortune, standing now as Goliath in the City of David. He is doubly blessed in every sense, but he has to play his home games in Philadelphia. And in that regard, and for those reasons, Andrew Bynum seems somehow doomed.

His failure is hardly preordained, of course. There’s every chance Bynum recovers from his knee injury to wreak havoc on the East and, regardless of what he’s been to this point, it’s certainly possible for the city to assimilate him the way it once did Iverson, who—lest we forget—arrived on the scene with a crew cut and nary a drop of visible ink on his skin.

But Bynum doesn’t have history on his side. He does not with his story, either. The way he acts and the way people think he acts probably won't help much. If Doug Collins’ efforts to accommodate Bynum by shifting the Sixers away from their devil-may-care tempo to the NBA equivalent of ground-and-pound are for naught, Bynum may not even have on-court production to fall back on. Perhaps the only thing that can save Bynum in Philadelphia is to go a dozen rounds with the adversity he has not yet faced in the NBA, to embrace the struggle. As Bynum’s knee has no doubt made him aware, man can break. The myth endures.

Illustration by Nicholas Kastner/Double Scribble.


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