The last time a high profile center arrived in Cleveland, shuttles were needed to transport Cleveland media and select fans from a chuckhole-littered parking lot of a downtrodden bowling alley to the pristine expanse of Cleveland Clinic Courts. An oversized and well-traveled Shaquille O’Neal was greeted with a giant card which welcomed him to this midwestern town. His press conference was held on the practice court as a means to provide enough space for all in attendance. Laughs were had, morale was high. After all, the larger-than-life future Hall of Famer provided national headlines, waxing poetically on his sole endeavor of winning a ring for the King.
The introduction of Andrew Bynum was met with considerably less pomp and a complete absence of circumstance. While O’Neal’s tenure in Cleveland kicked off with a fan-laden ceremony, Bynum’s was akin to a job interview. O’Neal arrived to an elevated stage, greeted with a tunnel of local children from St. Martin de Porres Family Center who all were on hand to high-five a legend. Bynum merely appeared on a bar stool that was placed in the front of the media workroom, roughly one-thirtieth the size of the adjacent practice courts, with nary a child in sight. O’Neal was clad in a custom-made suit, crisp white shirt and a pink tie with a knot the size of a regulation softball; he owned the room as he displayed a printed picture of him standing suggestively behind a bent-over Danny Ferry which was taken during the former Cavalier general manager’s playing days. Bynum wore a white Cavaliers polo which draped, untucked, over a pair of black wind pants; no pictures were unfurled, the only smiles shared were during the unveiling of the center’s new jersey, and the only knots were those at the ends of his freshly done cornrows.
While the Cavaliers’ signing of Bynum to a team-friendly two-year deal came with it’s own headlines—Bynum, just one year earlier, was acquired by the Philadelphia 76ers for an All-Star, a young big man well on his way to even bigger things, and two first round picks—the bar of expectations is set so low that even a seven-footer with damaged knees could merely step over it. In his introduction, the 25-year-old with two NBA Championship rings said all of the right things—his goal is to play the entire season despite missing all of last year; he referred to Kyrie Irving as “world renowned,” saying that Iriving the best point guard he’ll have played with; and he looks forward to playing alongside Anderson Varejao. The team, however, has made zero attempts to hide the fact that Bynum, presently 25 pounds over his desired playing weight, has a long road ahead of him if he is going to see the basketball court for any extended period of time. There is plenty of discussion surrounding a plan—a strict and time-sensitive workout and rehabilitation regimen that began on Saturday, involving the team and the Cleveland Clinic—that aims to have the former All-Star in playing shape by the onset of the 2013-14 regular season.
“The medical staff is great,” said Bynum of the team which he has already met during his short time in Cleveland. “They’ve put together a plan going forward—I pretty much just show up and work hard. I really believe in the doctors here and in the training staff. I’m in a different place because after the surgery I feel a lot better than I did last year. With time off I’ve been able to get the swelling out. I’m just ready to work. I’m here. I moved up here already, found a new location to live. I’m going to be in this gym as much as possible to get my game back to the level that I know I can.”
The “different place” referenced by Bynum is in regard to the mental state which has been cause for much concern. National columnists have slammed the 25-year-old’s work ethic after he missed an entire season due to an injury sustained while bowling1. There were issues surrounding Bynum’s status as a sideshow after he appeared on the Philadelphia sidelines in street clothes donning a myriad of different hairstyles. Then there is the infamous run-in with his three-point shooting with the Lakers under former coach and now current coach Mike Brown. Bynum, when prompted by WFNY, did not hesitate to categorize any opinions that err toward the negative as completely unfair. “There’s a lot to be said for people who think that way, but once you get to know me and you look at how hard I have worked to get to where I am now, that’s nonsense,” said Bynum2.
Bynum says he brings leadership. He undoubtedly brings experience and talent. Having suffered multiple injuries through his still-young career, he knows what it takes to return to the floor and to participate at a high level over the course of an NBA season and the team says that he is “owning” the process laid in front of him. While there will undoubtedly be an element of motivation in proving doubters wrong on a personal level, the fact that he is already being labeled as damaged goods by many shows that there is already limited downside. Hell, Bynum will be playing on a team that managed just 24 wins despite having one of the best young point guards in the NBA playing alongside multiple lottery selections large in part due to a litany of injuries. If he doesn’t see a minute of work, Dan Gilbert will be out $6 million, but his Cavaliers are no worse for the wear.
Bynum averaged career highs of 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds during the 2011-12 season with the Lakers. During his final season in Los Angeles, Shaquille O’Neal provided similar numbers, averaging 21.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per contest. Both men won multiple NBA Championships and also blocked around two shots per game. But this is where the similarities end.
While Bynum is in a “different place,” so are the Cavaliers when compared to the days—what few there were—of O’Neal owning the paint3. But O’Neal, amidst all of the fan fare and ticker tape, was brought in as the final piece of the puzzle, the physical presence that would provide a stopper on the defensive end. Bynum is just a wild card, an X-factor who could be the next Leon Powe4, but one who could also singlehandedly help elevate a once woebegone franchise to levels of postseason play. The King, in the singular form, already has his rings, doing so without Shaq. Cleveland fans, complete with their newest seven-foot-tall resident, are still waiting for theirs. Bynum could completely flame out, his knees proven irreparable, another young talent becoming a narrative of what-ifs5. But during his introduction, no guarantees were made, no fives were given, and no laughs were had. Bynum answered every inquiry thrown his way, some revolving around health, others around attitude. The desire to get his career back on its All-Star course is undoubtedly there. What it manifests into remains to be seen, but if Friday morning was any indication, the ball is firmly in Bynum’s court and he has nowhere to go but up with the city of Cleveland waiting in the wings.
“We have the chance to all rise together and do something special,” Bynum said. “We have the talent, all it’s going to take is the work. Everybody with the team, especially myself, we’re all ready to put that in. Going forward, I want to get back to All-Star level, I want to make some noise. I think Cleveland fans deserve that.”
Photo: Scott Sargent/WFNY
Bynum has not hidden this fact, calling the reports “one-hundred percent accurate.” [↩]
Bynum carried himself very well through the entire press conference. While I wouldn’t expect him to roll into town acting like an arrogant ass, he certainly did not come off as any sort of malcontent at any point. His replies were all well-thought, he expanded at times when he could have merely offered a few words. All in all, a solid first impression [↩]
Anderson Varejao is the only player remaining from the 2009-10 squad [↩]
Who also inked a low-risk, two-year, team-friendly deal in hopes of providing some added toughness in the paint. [↩]
The Cavaliers have until early January to decide such. [↩]