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Bobby Corbin was working in the service department at Fry's Electronics in Manhattan Beach, Calif., when a 7-foot teenager approached the counter. Corbin glanced up at the boy giant's stubble-free face and assumed he was a college basketball player. Maybe he needed help tricking out his dorm room. "You know how it is with those guys," Corbin says. "They don't usually have to do much for themselves." The kid explained that he was looking for a personal computer, and while Fry's carries half a dozen brands, he was not interested in any of those. "I want to learn how to build my own," he said. He rattled off his desired components: a 500-gigabyte hard drive, four gigs of RAM and a graphics card. Corbin was amused and intrigued. He picked out the parts, and as he stood on one side of the counter assembling the machine, his 285-pound customer stood on the other and studied his work. Corbin wondered if this was really a basketball player or just a very tall techie. The next day a Fry's colleague asked him, "Do you know who that was?" Corbin shook his head. "It's the new Laker."
That was the fall of 2005, when Andrew Bynum was the youngest player in NBA history (18 years, six days), and no one knew what to make of him. He did not go to college and never finished a full season at St. Joseph High in Metuchen, N.J. He never led the team in scoring or shots. He sat out the fourth quarter of his last game. He made his decision to turn pro just two weeks before the draft, and because he was not invited to the green room, he bought a ticket and sat in the stands in the theater at Madison Square Garden. The rebuilding Lakers acknowledged that he had no advanced post moves, limited stamina and a physique that portended future injuries, but they still took him 10th, with their highest pick in more than a decade. When general manager Mitch Kupchak spoke after the draft at his alma mater, Brentwood High in Long Island, a boy came up to him and said, "Mr. Kupchak, I played against Andrew Bynum in AAU, and he wasn't very good. What do you see in him?"
Bynum is massive even by NBA standards, taller than Magic center Dwight Howard and 20 pounds heavier, with downy-soft hands and feet made nimble from a childhood playing tennis and soccer. But all the scouts could see that. What Los Angeles noticed was the gray matter. Growing up, Bynum cracked open telephones so he could examine the circuitry and put them back together. At seven he was in the chess club at his local Barnes & Noble. At 14 he was installing Microsoft Windows on broken laptops his mother found in her office. His favorite subject in school was physics. He only considered colleges where he could major in mechanical engineering. His plan after graduation was to land a job as a computer programmer. He can describe the difference between a quad-core and dual-core processor in such detail that it almost makes sense. "He cares deeply about the way things work," says L.A. coach Phil Jackson. The Lakers knew Bynum would encounter setbacks, but while the typical teenager might shut down, his instinct was to keep tinkering. It's how he is wired. "I want to master everything," Bynum says. "I want to understand what the hell is going on."
He is cramped behind the wheel of his silver Ferrari F-430, driver's seat pushed all the way back, shouting over the engine. He interrupts himself to point out the apex of his turns. Bynum has taken car-racing classes at the Los Angeles Air Force base, but before Lakers officials reach for their defibrillators, he clarifies that he remained in the passenger's seat the whole time. Today he is simply battling L.A. traffic from a Ferrari dealership on the west side—where he crawled under his car to show the mechanic a hole he discovered in the belly pan—to Crustacean, his favorite Asian restaurant in Beverly Hills. He arrives to a symphony of honking horns. A passerby yells, "We're proud of you!" A panhandler asks him for money and then takes his picture.
The locals have seen Bynum grow up, through two seasons on the bench, three knee operations and annual trade rumors, through one Finals where he couldn't play, another where he couldn't play well and a third where he couldn't run. The Lakers were able to win the past two championships when he was at half speed. Only now, as they aim for their 17th title (to match the Celtics), Kobe Bryant aims for his sixth (to match Michael Jordan) and Jackson aims for a fourth three-peat (to give him a sweet send-off as he heads into the Montana sunset for good), do the Lakers deeply need him. At 23, Bynum is the keystone of their new defense and the reason their front line is so difficult to counter. Leaning on him, however, is a high-risk proposition. He acknowledges that his knees will never be fully healthy, and every time they buckle, the gasps make Staples Center sound like a haunted house. On April 12, Bynum stepped on the foot of Spurs forward DeJuan Blair and spent more than a minute sitting in the key, clutching his surgically repaired and heavily braced right knee. The Lakers held their breath until an MRI the next day revealed that it was only a bone bruise, and then they could breathe again.
As is often the case with the Lakers, they relaxed too much, losing Game 1 of their first-round playoff series to New Orleans on Sunday despite 13 points and nine rebounds from Bynum. The Lakers, who dropped five straight games in early April and barely clung to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, insisted they would get serious when more was at stake. But they opened the playoffs with another dud, failing to stop jitterbug point guard Chris Paul (who scored 33 points in Game 1) and not getting the ball inside to their power base. Bynum wants an increased load, but the Lakers have to trust that he can carry it.
"I feel like I haven't done enough for this team," Bynum says over a lunch of garlic noodles and beef satay. "Sometimes I feel like they can win without me. This is the opportunity I've been waiting for, to really prove my worth. I'm in a position to offer more than I ever have." Bynum is emboldened by what the Lakers believe have been the best two months of his career. After the All-Star break he averaged 11.0 points, 12.0 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and countless altered shots, proving that a true center does exist outside of Orlando. "He's got the right hook, left hook, drop step, spin move, the whole smorgasbord," says L.A. director of scouting Bill Bertka, who in 38 years with the club has tutored Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal. "If he can stay healthy, he could be one of the top centers to play the game." There is always that caveat—if he can stay healthy—accompanied by a knocking of wood.
Even after signing his four-year, $57.4 million contract in 2008, Bynum still lives with his mom, Janet McCoy, who raised him alone in Plainsboro, N.J., because she believed the area's acclaimed public school system would challenge his inquisitive mind. They are joined in the house in Westchester in West L.A. by seven computers, several of which Bynum assembled on his own, and are among the fastest Corbin has ever seen. "Drew could be an engineer," says Corbin, who became a friend. "He built the George Jetson of computers." Bynum also put together a remote control car that could reach 100 miles per hour, to the delight of kids in his neighborhood. He trained a Labrador, Max, and plans to breed them this summer. He leased a garage where he keeps most of his 12 cars and hopes to open an auto-body shop. He loves projects.
Developing himself was the most ambitious one of all.
The first time the Lakers saw Bynum, at the McDonald's All-American Game three months before the 2005 draft, they were unimpressed. "He was a chubby kid, 40 pounds overweight, a big lump of clay," says Kupchak. Just to be safe, the team sent assistant general manager Ronnie Lester to New York City for Bynum's individual workout in early June. Lester found the clay hardened and chiseled. He called Kupchak urgently. "This is not the same kid," he said. Bynum had gone from more than 310 pounds to 285 by running in combat boots every morning along the beach in Laurence Harbor, N.J. Nevertheless, he did not receive much affection from teams and reasoned that he should enroll as planned at UConn.