LOS ANGELES – To hear Andrew Bynum tell the story of losing his starting job, he sounds like that befuddled sophomore trying to explain the "F" for over-sleeping on his midterm exam. Here he was, buttoning his shirt at Staples Center and speaking softly like a teenager trying to talk his way out of trouble.
"I knew that Cap' (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) wasn't going to be at practice, so I didn't think I had to get there early," Bynum said the other night.
Bynum lifted his eyebrows, gave that goofy half-smile and said, "I didn't know I was still supposed to come in."
Then he thought for a few more seconds and said, "Then they told me that I had been late a couple of days, too, so …"
And so it goes with the Los Angeles Lakers' chance for championship contention, the maddening maturation of a 7-foot, 285-pound kid whose coach, Phil Jackson, asks these questions and is almost afraid of the answers: "Would Andrew have been an athlete if he wasn't a 7-1 kid? Would he have been a competitor?"
The Lakers have to live with the fact that the answer is probably no, but they understand that to be NBA title contenders again, everything centers on the 19-year-old Bynum. They have the best player and best coach in the sport, but there is no taking the Lakers seriously in the shadows of San Antonio and Dallas until Bynum's bewilderment is replaced with responsibility, until his indifference discovers desire.
Until he gets it.
"There have been a lot of players that have been able to come to this game and get numbers and get salaries, but haven't learned to compete," Jackson said. "That's what we want to instill in Andrew."
Perhaps it was inevitable that his surprising success to start the season would be met with a screeching stop. League executives and scouts watching him early were astounded. "His hands, his footwork, the way he was offensive rebounding, just incredibly impressive," one Western Conference official said.
Off his season-opening week – 18 points and nine rebounds against the Suns, 20 and 14 against Minnesota – the impulse was to declare Bynum an accelerated success. Yet after delivering 12 and 13 on the Bulls' Ben Wallace on Nov. 19, there started a decline of production and minutes that resulted in totals of 26 points and 25 rebounds in L.A.'s last six games.
Yes, Jackson did instruct the team in a film session last week that they were missing chances to get Bynum the ball inside. And Jackson did take a $25,000 fine for ripping NBA refs for the way they officiated Bynum last week in Utah.
Still, Bynum showed up late to practices, and Jackson stopped blaming outside factors. He took back the kid's starting job, something he declared hadn't been earned, but "inherited," with the preseason injury to Chris Mihm. In consecutive games before Monday night, Kwame Brown started at center.
"He was reading his press clippings instead of going out and playing hard," Jackson said. "He has to learn a work ethic."
When the Lakers drafted Bynum out of a New Jersey high school two years ago, a kid with no accomplishments and no comprehension of competing, officials considered him the project of projects. They didn't promote him. They didn't make him accessible for sit-down interviews. The franchise sheltered him. They closed the doors to the gym, dragged him onto the court and made him work.
Sometimes, he did. Sometimes, he didn't. Now, the Lakers need him. They've seen the flashes and the possibilities, and they know that this 11-5 start to the season (first place in the Pacific Division) is something of a mirage with a home-heavy schedule. The franchise is waiting on the kid now, waiting for him to grow up. He could be good, maybe great. Everyone knows it.
The thing with Bynum is that he's almost apologetic talking about it. He's a nice, nice kid; he's just completely clueless of the burden thrust upon him now.
"If I just get in early, like (Jackson) says, lift weights, work on individual skills, work on a little bit of defense, I'll be pretty good," Bynum said. "The sky's the limit for me. I'm just going to start coming out and working hard. Don't give them an excuse, you know what I mean? Just don't give them an excuse to cut back my minutes. I'm going to show up on time now.
"I learned my lesson. I'm going work as hard as they want me to work."
Really, Andrew Bynum promises.