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"What's stopping you?" Mumford asked. Bynum thought hard. "Nothing," he replied.
In a win over the Bobcats on March 4 Bynum pulled down 17 rebounds while taking only four shots. Against San Antonio two nights later, he pulled down 17 while taking only two. He had another 17-rebound game against the Warriors, 18 against the Magic and a career-high 23 against the Jazz. According to Synergy Sports, since Bynum's meeting with Jackson, opponents shot just 32.8% and averaged .73 points per possession on half-court plays in which Bynum was the initial defender. "What people wanted him to do, he's been inspired to do," says Mumford. "No one person can give you that inspiration. It's been incubating in him for quite a while."
Mumford introduced Bynum to Tai Chi, gave him the self-help book The New Psycho Cybernetics and showed him that his brain can be the most powerful motherboard of all. "Do you know that your brain recognizes targets and destinations?" Bynum asks. "So when you are thinking, Don't miss the ball, your brain is actually hearing, Miss the ball." His technical mind expanding, Bynum read Drown, the collection of Junot Díaz short stories that Jackson bought him this season, and then dove into The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Díaz's acclaimed novel. "I like the descriptions in both, but [Wao] is even better," Bynum says. "It won the Pulitzer." When Bynum reflects on Bryant and the infamous video, he invokes Gandhi and nonjudgmental justice, a principle that opposes negative thinking. "Yeah, I was mad," he says. "But I let it take care of itself, and lo and behold, I was of some value."
Some teams might be alarmed by a player with such a wide worldview, but these are the Jackson Lakers: Gasol goes to the opera. Ron Artest campaigns for mental-health awareness. They all meditate. "We like our guys to have an outlet," says L.A. assistant Jim Cleamons. "We believe you have to step away from the game to come back to the game." That helps explain why the Lakers let Bynum travel to South Africa last summer, where he sat 10 feet from a lion during a safari at Kruger National Park and touch-passed a soccer ball with 30 tourists on their way to the World Cup. "Greatest time of my life," he says. Bynum was criticized for pushing back his knee surgery—he missed the first 24 games of the season—but he says his personal doctor wanted to see how the knee responded to nonbasketball activity. Instead of removing the torn portion of his meniscus, which the Lakers initially thought necessary, Bynum's doctor was able to repair it. "That was the best thing," Vitti says. "In the long run repairing the meniscus will add to the life of the joint."
Bynum packs his knees with ice after every game. He wears orthotics in his shoes. His workouts with Zarzana have become so renowned that they were filmed for the Celebrity Sweat fitness DVD series. Yet he aches even when he climbs in and out of his car. He has a fear of people being around his legs, which he is forced to confront every time a guard sneaks into the paint. "You just want to get them away," Bynum says. Other general managers call Kupchak, believing he will eventually tire of the anxiety and make a trade. The list of players reportedly dangled for Bynum over the years reads like an All-Star team: Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett, Chris Bosh and, most recently, Carmelo Anthony. But if Bynum can sustain his performance of the past two months for a full season, Kupchak believes the calls will cease forever. "Everybody will know we would never trade him," he says.
Big-market franchises are often tempted to swap challenging prospects for proven veterans, but Bynum represents an organizational undertaking. It is hard to find anyone in the Lakers' directory who did not have some role in his development: the coaches who taught him, players who pushed him, trainers who mended him and executives who stuck by him.
Guards blossom early, usually by 23, because the ball is constantly in their hands. Centers take longer, often until 26, as they learn to control their limbs. If he can stay healthy, Bynum is the bridge not only to this year's title but also to the next era in L.A., when Bryant fades from the marquee. Bynum refuses to mention himself in the same sentence as Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and O'Neal—"That just muddies their names," he says—but he still aspires to have his picture on the wall. "He will get better because he's so thirsty for knowledge," says Gasol. "He's got a desire for growth. He's ready to absorb."
Bynum hits the gas on Sepulveda Boulevard, hard enough to make a passenger lose his satay, and the Ferrari lurches forward, leaving rush hour behind. He is considering the difference between basketball players and computers, human beings and machines, as he avoids the potholes. "I can get the biggest database in the world," he yells over the engine, "but that's not enough. I have to go out and apply it. That's what I'm working on right now." So he is still a project after all these years, all that tinkering. "Aren't we all?" he shouts happily. "And isn't that what's great? It's one project that's never done."