Now that they had him, what could they do with him?
If the Lakers’ decision to draft 17-year-old Andrew Bynum had been either a heartwarming Cinderella story or Looney Tunes, the best and worst was yet to come.
How many teens molder on an NBA bench, are called out by the team’s unhappy superstar and wind up winning the big guy over and saving the day?
That’s what happened to Bynum, whom Kobe Bryant railed about trading . . . before Bryant decided he wanted to be the one to go . . . after which Bynum became a monster and Bryant did what he so rarely does: reconsider.
Even with Bynum’s season ending Jan. 13, his giant leap had already turned Bryant around. If Bynum was unable to return last spring as the Lakers advanced to the Finals, Bryant now knew what he had in the young center.
“He’s a legitimate, 7-1, long-wing-span, natural shot blocker,” Bryant said, “so add Andrew, it takes us to another level defensively.”
When they found themselves being outrebounded in their second-round series with Utah, Bryant was asked if that was the first time they had missed Bynum.
“We’ve missed Andrew the whole time,” he said.
The secret is out. CBS Sportsline just ranked Bynum No. 3 among NBA centers in potential impact this season, behind Dwight Howard and Yao Ming . . . and ahead of No. 4 Shaquille O’Neal.
All it took were three of the wildest seasons the Lakers had ever seen.
If Bynum would turn out to be a hard worker who soaked up coaching, no one would have guessed it after a high school career that consisted of two half-seasons.
His major influence wasn’t Mark Taylor, his coach at St. Joseph’s High in Metuchen, N.J., but his AAU coach, Larry Marshall, who put him on a crash program after he played in the McDonald’s All-America Game at 300-plus, taking 25 pounds off him and inviting NBA scouts to see him.
Assistant GM Ronnie Lester, attending for the Lakers, passed the word they had better check this out, leading finally to Bynum’s selection in the 2005 draft.
It was a bold move, but the Lakers weren’t running a kindergarten. Newly returned Phil Jackson had a three-year deal and liked veterans. He would play savvy young guys like Jordan Farmar, but that left Bynum out.
To no one’s surprise except his own, Bynum disappeared as a rookie but kept his disappointment to himself, studied at the feet of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and stayed out of everyone’s way . . . with one large exception.
On Jan. 16, 2006, with Miami in town, Kwame Brown out and Chris Mihm in foul trouble, Jackson was obliged to throw Bynum in against O’Neal.
O’Neal liked to let young guys know who was who and may have also heard about Bynum joking that he could make free throws when the Lakers drafted him.
In any case, O’Neal flattened Bynum, running him over to get an offensive rebound and dunking in vintage Shaq style.
The coltish Bynum raced to the other end, demanded the ball, spun around O’Neal and threw down his own fearsome dunk.
Then, showing just how young he was, Bynum ran back on defense, jumping up and down with glee, and greeted O’Neal with a double forearm shiver as the referees jumped between them.
“He dunked on me first,” Bynum says. “I fell down and looked all goofy getting up. I was just like, ‘I’ve got to do something to get him back because I can’t go out like that.’
“When I got him back, the crowd had gone all crazy. I got crazy. It was just a really fun moment. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
To everyone’s surprise, starting with Jackson, he had to open the 2006-07 season with Bynum as his starter because Brown and Mihm were out. In a stunner, Bynum scored 18 points with nine rebounds and five assists against Phoenix.
Jackson liked the more experienced, if klutzier, Brown -- “With Kwame, you can have a predictable defense,” Jackson said -- but there was no keeping Bynum out of the lineup.
Bynum improved steadily, averaging 11 points and 9.0 rebounds in January. Then with Lamar Odom out, the team fading after its 26-13 start and the heat coming down on everyone, Bynum cratered.
No one stopped to soothe his feelings. Once assistant coach Kurt Rambis gave him a talking-to that was so pointed, Bynum was near tears.
“He was yelling at me because for a workout before the game, I was getting there a little late,” Bynum says. “This is during the time I knew I wasn’t going to play.
“He was just trying to explain to me about being a professional, taking that next step and getting there on time.”
Weeks after their dismal 42-40 season that ended with a second consecutive first-round ouster against Phoenix, Bryant went off. One of his chief complaints was management’s refusal to trade Bynum for New Jersey’s Jason Kidd, which, to Bryant, meant they were rebuilding in spite of their promises.
Or as Bryant put it graphically in his famous parking-lot address, captured on video by four fans:
“Andrew Bynum, what the . . . are you kidding me? Ship his ass out! C’mon, Jason Kidd? Why wouldn’t you want to do that?”
By then the Lakers, aware they had to do something to keep Bryant, were willing to trade the young center for the right superstar, offering Bynum and Odom for Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett.
Lakers fans weren’t that picky.
“Look, just in the last off-season, people would have put him [Bynum] in any deal,” says AM 570’s Steve Hartman. “It was a no-brainer. Trade him for Jermaine O’Neal? Do it! Jason Kidd? Do it!”
Point of no return
If the Lakers looked as if they had passed the point of no return, Bynum, spending the summer of 2007 in Atlanta with a new trainer, took Bryant’s rant as well as possible.
“I was just like, ‘Wow, you never want to be blamed for anything,’ ” Bynum says. “It definitely did motivate me, because I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to make sure it’s not me next time.’ ”
In a surprise, there was a next time.
After a turbulent preseason, with Buss saying he would “certainly listen” to offers for Bryant and Kobe going out and getting him some, they lost the opener to Houston as Lakers fans booed Bryant in what looked like the start of the Lakers Apocalypse.
Instead, it was the start of a turnaround no one saw coming. Bynum became a starter in the ninth game and took off like a rocket, even becoming a force on defense as Abdul-Jabbar encouraged him to stop merely trying to stay out of foul trouble.
“It was like in a period of three days,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “On the third day he was moving and all of a sudden, nobody could get an easy shot in practice. It was that quick.”
Going into their Jan. 13 victory over Memphis in which Bynum was hurt, he was averaging 19 points, 13 rebounds and 2.3 blocks for the month and they were 24-11.
The next night Bryant scored 48 points in an overtime win in Seattle. Ending months of stony detachment, Bryant wished Bynum well in the postgame interview, adding the 10 words that heralded a new day: “We’re a championship-caliber team with him in the lineup.”
Unfortunately for their championship hopes, Bynum didn’t make it back, finally undergoing arthroscopic surgery in May.
It was a tense time. With Bynum up for an extension and his family sensitive to anything that suggested complications -- even as Bynum’s rehab dragged on -- the Lakers issued terse statements when they said anything at all.
The tension is gone. Bynum has spent the last few weeks scrimmaging at the Lakers’ practice facility, looking fine. He’s now eligible for an extension worth $88 million with the team reportedly hoping to bring him in at about $78 million.
“I think it goes without saying, the more you see him play at a high level on a consistent basis, the more comfortable you become,” General Manager Mitch Kupchak said. “But it’s our intention to secure Andrew’s future with this franchise as soon as possible.”
Last spring Bynum said he just wanted to be a Laker, noting, “It doesn’t have to be the max for me.”
Now his agent, David Lee, says, “I think Andrew warrants the max. He commands and demands that respect.”
Welcome to the big leagues. We’re at the part of the story where the prince goes door to door with that glass slipper, looking for Cinderella.