The basketball media is struggling to figure out Andrew Bynum.
by David J. Leonard / @DR_DJL
What feels as commonplace as a Derrick Rose injury this season and New York Knicks streaks (winning and losing), media and fans joined hands this week to criticize Andrew Bynum. Mirroring the entire season, this week’s criticism has been a recipe of 1-part “your game ain’t right” and 9-parts “your attitude, effort, and demeanor ain’t right.” In fact, his critics have little to say about his game since numbers don’t like. During the Lakers’ seven-game series versus the Nuggets he averaged 16.7 pts/game on 51.2 percent shooting, 12.3 rebounds, and 4.0 blocks. Compared to his 18.7 points/game on 55.7 percent shooting, 11.8 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks during the regular season, it is hard to see how pundits are bemoaning his performance. Sure, his FG percentage is down, but facing double teams and a defensive intensity unseen during the regular season, his numbers are quite impressive. His stretch vs. the Nuggets wasn’t an exceptional performance ever given his inconsistency, but I cannot imagine any team scoffing at this kind of production.
Not surprisingly, his critics have focused elsewhere, lamenting his attitude his suspect work ethic. For example, with the Lakers up 3-1, Bynum stated, “Closeout games are actually kind of easy. Teams tend to fold if you come out and play hard in the beginning.” Rather than potentially reading his statement as an effort to motivate himself or the Lakers’ to come out strong, pundits turned into yet another piece of evidence of his arrogance, sense of entitlement, and disrespect for his opponents. In article and after article, his statement was presented as if he said that, “close games were easy” or that the Nuggets were weak and soft. To me, he was simply noting that when teams seize upon the opportunity to finish a series, opponents often whither under the pressure and the prospect of goin’ fishin’. History has actually shown this to be the case, most recently with the Lakers’ Game 4 loss to the Mavericks and the Knicks loss to the Heat. His comments were not evidence of arrogance or entitlement yet it was used to authenticate a narrative that follows his every move.
Andrew Rafner goes all in with his denunciation of Bynum focusing not so much on his game, but his attitude and character:
Andrew Bynum is the worst. And not in a “You’re the worst, but we still love you because you’re so awful at everything you do” kind of way, like Britta from “Community.” He’s just actually the worst.
And why, you may ask is arguably the most talented true center in the league the worst? Well, to put it simply, Andrew Bynum is the worst because of his totally shitty attitude and penchant for making the worst possible decision at all times. … He openly criticized Mike Brown at nearly every opportunity. He took inappropriate 3-pointers during meaningful possessions (not to say that it was any worse than the inappropriate 15-footers he’d been taking for years, but this just LOOKED worse), leading Brown to bench Bynum during the fourth quarter in a March game against Golden State. After being questioned about the incident, Bynum responded by saying “I don’t know what was bench-worthy about the shot, to be honest with you. I made one last [game] and wanted to make another one.” This guy….With Andrew Bynum, it will only get worse for the Lakers. This is only the start. The shitty attitude, the lack of hustle on defense, the stray grey hairs, the insulting quotes before playoff games (see: prior to Game 5, when he said “close-out games are actually kind of easy.” And that “teams tend to fold if you come out and play hard in the beginning”…. As far as Andrew Bynum is concerned, his attitude seems to be “Deal with it.” But as fans of a league filled with the most likable talent it’s ever had, should we have to deal with it? No. That’s why Andrew Bynum is the worst.
The criticism directed at Bynum seems to be more about his personality than anything. He doesn’t look like he is having fun; he doesn’t seem to possess the ferocity of Dwight Howard or the motor of Shaquille O’Neal, who would often sprint from “box to box” only to get a dunk.
I get it, but my questions: (1) Why does the fan and media care if he is enjoying himself out there; Why do people care if he is smiling, laughing, and looking like the basketball court is the beginning, middle, and end of his life? It is his job, and the demand that he enjoy his job for the sake of fan and media enjoyment is neither fair nor realistic. The criticisms that he shot a 3-pointer as if he is the only player in the NBA ever to take a bad shot, that he isn’t engaged in huddles as he is alone in tuning out instruction from one’s bosses (check yourself at your next staff meeting) are telling.
Any and every moment where Bynum doesn’t embody the expectations of him on-the-court, he seems subjected to wrath and unmerciful criticisms about his game and demeanor. More than his game itself, the contempt for Bynum emanates for his inability to meet the desires for larger-than-life NBA big men whose on-the-court strength and ferocity is balanced out with a teddy-bear type sweetness. He isn’t Shaq or Dwight Howard and the bigger question is, Why do we want him to be?
The uber criticism directed at Bynum embodies the media treatment of NBA players. While clearly reflected of the history of race within the NBA, and efforts to “discipline” NBA players to “shut up and play” the right way, the constant chatter about his head, his expressions, and his attitude illustrates the ease that people see NBA players. Whereas NFL players hide behind their masks, and baseball players stand around a lot (in the field away from our gaze; on the bench), the basketball player is subject to nonstop scrutiny and analysis of their every move and facial expression. Yes, different sports require different approaches, but surely the NBA player is subject to unwavering analysis of his every move.
Given the larger history of labeling black athletes as surely, angry, lazy and aloof, the criticism directed at Bynum feels particularly unfair. They also embody a certain amount of nostalgia in that these same media critics and fans who celebrate the great players of previous generations condemn Bynum with the same sort of talking point as those directed at Jabbar, Russell, and other great big men. In “Kareem just kept on winning,” Larry Schwartz reminds readers how fans and media saw Jabbar, descriptors eerily similar to those of Bynum:
A Muslim since his college days, Alcindor legally changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the fall of 1971. Many fans were outraged. Abdul-Jabbar, moody and aloof before, became virtually unapproachable after the adverse publicity. But it didn’t bother his performance as he won his second straight MVP, averaging a league-high 34.8 points.
Add to these the claims that he doesn’t get back on defense (remember the scene in Airplane), we can see almost a carbon copy of the anti-Bynum coverage. Similar words were used to ridicule and denounce the great Bill Russell: “During his NBA career with the Boston Celtics, Bill Russell had the reputation of being aloof and standoffish—with the media and with fans. ‘It wasn’t real easy to create that image,’ Russell said with a laugh.” This points to a larger history of describing NBA big-men, particularly African American centers, in terms very much concerned with personality, demeanor, and attitude more than anything else. It points a common narrative that says as much about us, as fans, as media pundits, as basketball consumers, than Jabbar, Russell, or Bynum.
Scoop Jackson brilliantly highlights Bynum’s place in this history and challenging readers to both check oneself and to respect and enjoy his game.
Extremely overrated, living off potential instead of productivity, young, dumb, looking for someone to pacify his masked insecurity, undisciplined, disrespectful, arrogant, aloof.
And this was my opinion before he turned coward in last year’s playoffs and tried to end J.J. Barea’s career by flagrantly fouling him in a way that cost him four games to begin this season.
To say I had no respect for Andrew Bynum would be pleasant. At times I’ve called him less than a man. Done the radio/TV host thing and called him out of his name. …
Bynum has finally come into who he is supposed to be, the dominant center the Lakers have seen all along. I was slow to notice, blinded because I looked no further than the surface.
So Drew: If you see me, don’t kick my a– or pull me off into one of those side rooms in the Staples Center and beat me down. Just understand, it took me a while to comprehend you, to fully understand why the Lakers handled you the way they have all these years, why they put up with you, why they had such faith. Now I get it.
One of the greatest teachers I ever had in my life was my graduate school “Introduction To Statistics” professor at Howard University, Dr. Leon Jones. Dr. Jones said to begin and end every class: “Always see the big picture.” That wasn’t statistics he was teaching us; that was life.
With Andrew Bynum, I always disregarded that lesson. With him I never saw the big picture. Until now.
It is time to look at the big picture and enjoy Bynum’s game. It is time to let him make mistakes and let him be human all while basking in the glory of his jump hook, his rebounding ability, and his defensive prowess. It is time to stop hatin’ and start celebratin’ because, indeed, the NBA is where amazing happens.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogs at No Tsuris. Follow him on Twitter @DR_DJL.