Young at heart and on court

They’re going down to the crossroads. . . .

Having embarrassed themselves memorably in their last trip, the Lakers are about to show who they are:

NBA title favorites?

A young team that’s merely one of several contenders?


The NBA version of “Animal House”?

Not that it was a great sign after their Game 5 wipeout to see the Lakers insist it wasn’t payback for Game 4, maintaining the nonchalance that prompted ABC’s Jeff Van Gundy to blurt, “What are they thinking about? What do they care about?” during Sunday’s game.

On the other hand, Kobe Bryant struck a dark new tone, however briefly, after a season of looking as tranquil as a Stepford wife.

Bryant was asked if his young teammates are picking up playoff basketball.

“They better,” said an unsmiling Kobe.

We’re only starting to understand how young this team is, with a rotation that includes Andrew Bynum, 21; Jordan Farmar, 22; Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown, 23; and Sasha Vujacic, 25.

And it’s a heady, bewildering time for young players, dealing with all their riches and fame.

No, really. Take Farmar, whose blog from his website now runs on Playboy’s site too, having become a must read after he wrote about school life at UCLA (“Groupies are always part of campus life and it’s something you have to watch out for. Girls used to come to our dorm room all the time, knocking on our door, leaving off notes and propositions.”).

Meanwhile, we’re just catching up with the fact that Bynum has been boycotting the press, more or less.

We in the press usually notice boycotts. Andrew’s, however, was so low key and intermittent, we missed it until he left without talking Tuesday after going back into the starting lineup and scoring 14 points in his best performance in the playoffs.

It couldn’t be because he was afraid we were going to ask a lot of tough questions about his relationship with Coach Phil Jackson.

We were just going to ask the usual, like:

How did you deal with being benched? (“The coaches and my teammates told me to stay ready and my chance would come.”)

Do you want to start? (“I want to help the team any way I can.”)

What explains the greatness of you? (“Hard work.”)

Actually, Andrew hasn’t uttered a word of complaint about being benched, or the press. He has been available most of the time, and sometimes calls press people “Sir.”

Behind the scenes, his people and his agent, David Lee, were distressed, as they were last spring when Andrew was coming up for an extension, making them hypersensitive to any conjecture about his rehab, including Jackson’s.

If Farmar is a celebrity, Bynum is second in popularity only to Bryant among Lakers fans, according to our page views.

Andrew is also spreading his wings, as when he “made it rain” at last fall’s birthday party -- throwing $1 bills, he said -- or hoisted a Playmate on his shoulders.

Not that most of us had that much fun at 21, but at least no one was following us around, posting the highlights on the Internet.

For his first three seasons, Bynum had been the anomaly of anomalies. Overweight and unfocused in high school, he quickly turned into a dedicated young professional, keeping his anguish about not playing to himself, enduring Jackson’s jibes -- and Bryant’s outburst about trading him -- and soaking up Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s directions like a sponge.

However, with this season’s slow start after getting a $58-million extension, Andrew looked like he was feeling the weight of expectations, if only his own.

“His first couple of years here, I mean I was just thrilled to work with someone who wanted to learn and who listened,” says Abdul-Jabbar. “That’s what made me feel good as a mentor, that he was listening and getting it right.

“I don’t want to appear as if I’m criticizing him, because it’s only going to add fuel to the fire, but he has his own thoughts now on dealing with the press.

“I would really like to see him change his approach with the press. It’ll benefit him so much to be accessible, but there’s only so much influence I have.”

By the way, while Andrew and Jordan figure out how to handle fame, the Lakers are still on their relentless (?) quest for a title.

With his team underachieving through the postseason, Jackson has kept protecting his young players with reassuring comments, but that can’t go on forever.

If they’re going to win a grown-up title, they’re going to have to put away childish things.

Otherwise, after two idyllic seasons with the Lakers everyone’s choice as The Next Big Thing, the young players will move on to a new learning experience, called consequences.