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Before Bynum could pull his name out of the draft, the Lakers invited him to work out with two college seniors in Chicago. Bynum was easily winded. He struggled to jump twice in succession. When he caught the ball in the post, he knew only how to face up and shoot. But he did not mind contact, and as the workout progressed, the two college seniors drifted out to the three-point line. "They didn't want to get embarrassed," says Jim Buss, L.A.'s executive vice president of player personnel. Buss, a son of Lakers owner Jerry Buss, had worked in the team's front office for seven years, but he had never taken a hard stance on a player. "Shut down the rest of the workouts," he told fellow officials. Bynum was flown to L.A. for an interview, and as he strolled through the team's headquarters, he stared at photos on the wall of Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and O'Neal. "Wouldn't it be nice if there were a picture of you up there someday?" Kupchak asked. Bynum beamed.
The Lakers were high on his potential, but not on his timing. Jackson was returning from a one-year hiatus. Bryant was in his prime. The team was built to win, not wean. Trainers learned that Bynum underwent his first knee operation when he was 12 and were concerned about his Q angle—the relationship between his pelvis, leg and foot. According to head athletic trainer Gary Vitti, a wide Q angle can affect the way the kneecap glides along the thigh bone and can also cause increased foot pronation, both common sources of injuries. "Andrew is challenged in terms of his skeleton," Vitti says. "But we can work with those issues to some degree. What you can't do is take someone with a normal Q angle and make him 7 feet, 285 pounds."
While Vitti designed exercises to correct Bynum's postural alignment, Abdul-Jabbar was hired to shape his game. "He didn't really have any moves," Abdul-Jabbar says, "but that might have been the best thing." The 64-year-old Abdul-Jabbar laments how many modern big men are taught guard skills as kids. They never learn to play with their back to the basket. Bynum was the blank slate he wanted, so green that he wore socks in the shower because he couldn't find shower shoes to fit his size 18 feet. Once, during his rookie season, Bynum walked off the court in the middle of practice because he was feeling light-headed. Assistant coach Kurt Rambis found him in the lounge eating Froot Loops.
Abdul-Jabbar worked with Bynum before or after every practice. He sat behind the bench every game jotting notes. He went to Bynum's house at night to watch film. Bynum tried to block shots by standing in one place and raising his arms, so Abdul-Jabbar gave him a video of Bill Russell called Block Art, illustrating the need to jump. Bynum averaged just 7.3 minutes as a rookie, but in a nationally televised game against the Heat, he used Abdul-Jabbar's spin move to wheel around O'Neal for a baseline dunk. "That made everything tougher," Abdul-Jabbar says. "People saw what he could do and thought he should be doing it all the time."
Bynum's second season ended with him playing three minutes in a playoff loss to Phoenix, backing up Kwame Brown and Ronny Turiaf. The Lakers were patient, but Bryant was not. He too went from high school to the NBA, and unlike Bynum, he produced immediately. "At 17, Kobe was already going hard, trying to kill everybody, be better than Michael Jordan," says veteran Lakers forward Lamar Odom. "Most of us take longer." In the summer of 2007 Bryant was frustrated by many in the organization, but Bynum was the one he singled out to two fans with a digital camera at an Orange County shopping mall. "Andrew Bynum?" Bryant said on the video that went viral. "F------ ship his ass out."
The Lakers had charted Bynum's course so carefully, nurturing him for two years, and Bryant was jeopardizing the grand plan. Or, perhaps, accelerating it. Bynum's former AAU coach, Larry Marshall, flew to Los Angeles and told his former prodigy, "Kobe has a right to do this. He wants another championship. It's time to show him that the road there goes through you." While Bryant stewed for the summer, Bynum flew to Atlanta and went through five-hour-per-day outdoor workouts in record heat with trainer and chiropractor Sean Zarzana, who made him run with parachutes strapped around his waist. Bynum never complained but always questioned. "He has a computer chip in his head," Zarzana says. "You can be doing a basic pull-up, and he wants to know what it's all about."
Bynum started the following season back on the bench, but by Thanksgiving he was L.A.'s starting center and primary interior option, piling up nightly double doubles. The Lakers were contenders again. Even Bryant gushed. Then Bynum dislocated his kneecap in January 2008, and while the Lakers eased the sting by trading for 7-foot Pau Gasol, their budding star felt disposable. "There was this huge amount of hype—next great young center!—and it felt like something big was happening," Bynum says. "And then it was gone. I lost my place in this franchise for three years."
His identity became his injuries, as the team originally feared, a torn MCL limiting him in the 2009 playoffs and torn meniscus hobbling him last spring. Bynum frequently had his right knee drained during the '10 Finals against the Celtics and still keeps on his cellphone a picture of an 80-milliliter syringe filled with red fluid. He saw how Gasol supplanted him as the Lakers' inside threat and concluded that they did not need him anymore. "I wasn't getting the shots I used to," Bynum says. "I wasn't fitting in. You can go one of two ways in that situation. You can stop caring or you can find something else the team needs. It took awhile, but I figured out what it was."
The Lakers changed their defense this season to exploit their inherent size advantage and keep their big men closer to the basket. Bynum, who used to scramble out to the perimeter and help guards against pick-and-rolls, was encouraged to stay in the lane and protect the rim. Assistant coach Chuck Person devised a system where the Lakers try to funnel ball handlers to the spot where the baseline meets the corner of the key, so Bynum can rush over for the trap or rise up for the block. "Everything we do now revolves around him," Person says. "He's the boss."
Bynum always thought of himself as a scorer, able to shimmy around centers or shoot over forwards. But he was searching for a niche, and in a meeting with Jackson during the All-Star break, he lobbied to be L.A.'s new guard dog. Bynum had already been discussing it with George Mumford, a Boston-based sports psychologist and Jackson's longtime mental-health consultant, who addressed the Lakers before they played the Celtics in February. Bynum sought out Mumford afterward, and they began to talk every other day via Skype. Bynum told Mumford that he wanted to commit to defense, believing he could guarantee the Lakers another title.