PHILADELPHIA – Here unfolded the ferocious, final minutes of the opening night that this Philadelphia 76ers franchise had fantasized for itself: The 7-footer with the big hair reaching into rafters, blocking shots, bobbing for baskets and the Wells Fargo Center sellout crowd letting loose with an "MVP… MVP…" chant to punctuate a victory.
It wasn't the outgrown afro of Andrew Bynum, but the magnificent mullet of Spencer Hawes delivering an inspiring performance in an 84-75 victory over the Denver Nuggets. Bynum is the future of this franchise, an All-Star center plucked down in the middle of this Eastern Conference, a weapon the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics remain without.
The Sixers had expected Bynum to be prepared for the start of training camp, but a knee procedure didn't allow it. They expected him to be healed for Wednesday night, but his knee still hurts, and they won't let him play until the pain stops. The Sixers have turned the franchise over to Bynum, turned over the promise, the possibilities, of contending in the East.
For now, the Sixers have a chance to stay competitive without him. With Bynum, they're an enormous threat in the Eastern Conference. Jrue Holiday is 23 years old, Bynum still 24, and there's a core of talent that will be a problem for everyone in the East.
For everything that had come with Hawes' 16 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks in Wednesday's 84-75 victory over the Denver Nuggets, he understands he has a chance to be the great beneficiary of playing with Bynum. As Sixers coach Doug Collins would say, Hawes was one of the important reasons the Sixers had their terrific start a season ago, and it was no coincidence that the team's struggles paralleled Hawes going down midseason with a heel injury.
After a summer of working relentlessly on a 3-point shot – he hit two of three on Wednesday night – Hawes waits for a center, Bynum, who'll make his life so much easier next to him at times this season.
"What we've got to realize is this: We don't know what life is like with him yet," Hawes said. "In the mean time, we've been together for six weeks with his new group. We've had time to jell and mesh. We've got to hold down the fort until he gets back."
Around the Sixers' locker room, they love Bynum's presence. From afar, they could never tell. "When he was out in LA, he didn't get a lot of the individual attention," Hawes said. "Maybe it was more about Kobe [Bryant], or [Pau] Gasol, or someone else, but we've seen here what a great personality he has, what a teammate he's going to be for us."
For everyone clamoring for Bynum on opening night In Philadelphia, Hawes and the rest of these Sixers gave him the kind of night, the kind of performance that makes it easier to wait on him. Around the organization, they remember Bynum at the opening news conference in downtown Philadelphia in a big public rotunda, and how he relished that it was suddenly about him. No more Kobe Bryant. No more Pau Gasol.
Bynum is the star here, and Sixers management marveled over his grace and command of the moment. A thousand people had shown for the event, and they saw how Bynum noticed the roar that let go when he suggested he could imagine signing a contract extension next summer to stay here for a long time.
Until he's on the floor again – until he proves he can stay on it – there will be justifiable concerns about that right knee, about his history of problems, about whether the big deal to bring Bynum here will be Elton Brand all over again.
For now, though, the Sixers insist they're being prudent and patient. It won't be too long until the big noise in the Wells Fargo Center, the chants of MVP, will belong to Bynum. For now, the rest of these Sixers work to hold down the season and hang in contention in the East, but eventually Andrew Bynum will have his own opening night, and that will change everything.