Yesterday, like most days in my life, I argued with one of my co-workers, a former D-1 basketball player, about NBA basketball. I had been informing a couple of hoops-ignorant Chinese-born students I was tutoring about the greatness of Yao Ming, comparing him to the various players they had heard of (“Is he better than Michael Jordan?” “Well no, but…”), when the comparison came to the current day Rockets and their freak talent, James Edward Harden Jr. Relishing the opportunity to pour on the superlatives, I had nary said a word more than “He was definitely better than Harden” before my co-worker loudly disagreed, mentioning that health is a talent. I might add that this man is a former point guard, a Chicagoan, and a casual NBA fan, so his lack of appreciation for a mid-Aughts, enormous center from a team that only kind of mattered at the time is unsurprising, but it is representative. There is an entire generation of fans that thinks Yao Ming was not all that great of a basketball player, and this crushes me. This always will crush me.
Not a couple of years later, and Andrew Bynum stands here, if barely able to stand, on the precipice of this same irrelevance, that familiar dismissal by those who don’t care enough to remember what those huge, soft hands could do near a basket or how easily that monstrous frame got that close to the rim in the first place. Perhaps the looming presence of Bynum’s replacement in the purple and gold always prevented Philly’s new pivot from registering as this league’s best center, but never were Bynum’s endless gifts around the basket more apparent than in the last two years, years where the Laker’s once beautifully fluid triangle offense was halted by quickly aging ballhandlers and the need for more traditional post-ups because, well, the Lakers’ best offensive option was often Bynum on the block. While his constantly on-the-brink knees always kept him from being the defensive marvel he appeared during Los Angeles’s back-to-back title runs, he used his gargantuan mass to own space and navigate it nimbly on both ends of the court, an offensive powerhouse in an era in which centers simply aren’t cut out to be such.
And yet, like this, it may all be falling apart. There will be shouts and murmurs associated with the bowling that apparently has done in Bynum’s left knee, not the right knee for which he was already missing the first couple months of the season, but we all know that if some recreational throwing of a 16-pound orb of plastic and reactive resin can genuinely sideline the giant, there are likely worse things in store for those joints. All of the controversy surrounding the bowling story reminds me of the yearly pieces chiding the Chinese government for its use of Yao on its national basketball team, disabling him from recovering in the offseason. For him, as it is for Bynum, these are strawmen, incoherent side arguments tossed about to try and circumvent these great tragedies, the loss of yet more pivots with extraordinary talent to injury, to fragile bodies that just couldn’t keep doing what their marvelous bodies had previously allowed them to do.
For Andrew Bynum and the Philadelphia 76er fans who won’t saddle the big man with their disappointment with parts of the guy’s body (other than, I suppose, his brain), I truly do empathize because it just might be that some day soon you’ll find yourself arguing with someone who just doesn’t get it, who just doesn’t understand how good that guy used to be. You know, before it all came apart.