PHILADELPHIA—In the adjacent room of the National Constitution Center, unsuspecting little old ladies posed for pictures with statues of the Founding Fathers, the men who were instrumental in the birth of a nation.
Chances are they’d never heard of Andrew Bynum, the man whom the Philadelphia 76ers hope will be just as instrumental in their own rebirth as a true NBA power.
Into the center of the hall he marched Wednesday, ringed by hundreds of boisterous basketball fans whose voices have been silent far too long. Gaze out the window, and there’s Independence Hall, where the document declaring the colonists’ intent to free themselves from their British oppressors was signed. Throughout the building you’re surrounded by history, proud reminders of how it all came about.
This is where the courtship of Andrew Bynum officially began, the Sixers welcoming a kid who grew up only an hour or so from here, cheering his every word, imagining what his new team might be like now that he’s manning the middle.
Being the object of all that affection might skew anybody’s sense of self-importance, especially a precocious 24-year-old with a ton of talent but with legitimate questions about his health and his attitude. But when Bynum appeased the masses by saying “To be honest, my first experience here’s been so great, I’m really looking forward to making this my home,’’ he probably could’ve been elected to office on the spot.
The Sixers have loftier goals in mind—at least as far as they’re concerned. That’s why they brought Bynum — as well as Jason Richardson — to such a unique spot to witness such an outpouring of love in a press conference opened to the public.
They’re hoping he’ll be willing to sign an important document, too: His own personal declaration to extend his contract well beyond this year.
That’s really the whole purpose of this.
Having revamped their roster—with no fewer than eight roster changes from the time Rajon Rondo put the finishing touches of their Game 7 demise in Boston back in May—the Sixers suddenly see themselves as a factor in the East. They’re asking themselves: Outside of LeBron and the champion Heat, who’s better?
Sixers’ coach Doug Collins, who admits the best big men he ever coached prior to this were Dave Corzine in Chicago, Theo Ratliff and Mark West in Detroit and a raw rookie named Kwame Brown in Washington — the same Kwame Brown who’ll now be Bynum’s backup here — can’t wait to get started putting all the pieces together. As excited as he is to have Bynum in the fold, to go with returning guards Evan Turner and Jrue Holiday, frontcourt men Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen and free agent acquisitions Nick Young, Dorell Wright, he concedes it could’ve just as easily have played out differently.
“Obviously we’ve gone from being an undersized team to a power team,’’ said Collins, still shaking off the effects of jet lag after returning from London less than 48 hours ago. “We have such a big lineup and we’ve added shooters.
“It’s amazing.. Probably 10 days before the draft we were concerned we were going to come back with the same team and be a luxury tax team with no place to go.
“Sometimes you put all the work in and it doesn’t shake out. ‘’
Incredibly, this time it’s all clicked. Now the Sixers have depth up front and on the wings, not to mention a potentially dynamic backcourt with Turner and Holiday. Ironically, what was probably their greatest strength: small forward, with Olympic hero Andre Iguodala and highly regarded draft pick Moe Harkless sent packing in the mammoth 12-player deal that shipped Dwight Howard to Hollywood and consequently brought Bynum here, might be their biggest weakness.
But it will be much easier finding the right 6-foot-8 wing player who can knock down the open shot (something Iguodala rarely did) and take it to the hole than a legit big man.
That’s what makes Bynum, who looks every bit the 7-0, 285 he’s listed when you’re standing next to him, such a precious commodity that they came out in droves yesterday just to get a look at him. The big man, admitting he’ll soon be off to Germany to have the same kind of blood platelet procedure performed on his knees as ex-teammate Kobe Bryant, said all the right things — as you’d expect under such circumstances.
But words are one thing unless they’re backed by actions.
From here on, Philadelphia wants only two things from the big guy. High level performance on the court and his signature on the dotted line of that extension—not necessarily in that order, either.
“This is his team,’’ said Richardson, who hopes to bounce back from what he calls the worst season of his career and muffle the naysayers who believe he was included in the deal strictly for salary cap purposes. “We go as far as he takes us.
“He’s dominant down there. He’s a threat.
“I’m excited for him.’’
Even if Richardson finds himself in all too familiar circumstances, playing for a team with a big man envied by all as he enters the final year of his contract. Having witnessed firsthand how disastrously that all played out in Orlando with Howard, perhaps he can be the voice of reason, the one who warns Bynum not to play that game.
“I think it was good for both,’’ said J-Rich, once the No. 5 pick in the 2001 draft by Golden State, who’ll be playing for his fifth NBA team. “Dwight got to go somewhere where he could win a championship and Orlando can start all over.
“It was a bad situation that needed a divorce.’’
Bynum sensed his days as a Laker were numbered, though, well before the deal went down making it official.
“It really hit home they were gonna do something when Brook Lopez signed with the Nets,’’ said Bynum, knowing that precluded Brooklyn, Howard’s preferred landing spot, from making a deal for him. “Once that happened I pretty much was expecting something to happen because they weren’t talking to me about re-upping.
“But I’m looking forward to this. It’s the next step in my career. I’ve never seen anything like this. Now I’m looking forward to what it’s like at a sold-out arena.
“I’m think it’s like I’m coming home. I’m super excited. I love the city. I’ve been here two days and I’m really enjoying it.’’
Someone should’ve handed him a pen on the spot, so he could’ve written his own piece of Philadelphia history right there.
Instead, there are 82 games to play—plus who knows how many in the playoffs—plenty of time for Andrew Bynum’s torrid love affair with the city to really ignite or flame out.
But make no mistake, the courtship of Andrew Bynum got underway here yesterday with a real bang, leaving even the most skeptical Sixers fan believing this could be the start of something big. Of course there are always those convinced it will end with a whimper, dooming a franchise — once was perennially among the game’s elite with big men like Wilt Chamberlain and Moses Malone — to eternal mediocrity.
For Bynum, it is an opportunity to stamp his name on a franchise that longs to recreate the kind of history that used to be the norm rather than the exception.
Who knows? Do that and maybe one day those little old ladies who wondered what all the ruckus was about inside the Constitution Center will be singing his praises, too.
Jon Marks has covered the Philadelphia 76ers from the days of Dr. J and his teammate, Joe Bryant (best known as Kobe’s dad). He has won awards from the Pro Basketball Writer’s Association and North Jersey Press Club. His other claim to fame is driving Rick Mahorn to a playoff game after missing the team bus. Follow him on Twitter.