by Nima Zarrabi / @NZbeFree

Andrew Bynum is going gray.

It’s difficult to notice on television, but the phenomenon strikes me immediately as his 7-foot, 300-pound frame dwarfs the group of reporters surrounding him. He’s 23. I check his scalp again from a few different angles to make sure.

Yep, still there—dude has about 25 white hairs generously spread across the top of his dome—a result of the weighing promise, potential and expectation perhaps?

He speaks softly and with humility, deflecting praise and a reporter’s comparison to Bill Russell. “I don’t have time to listen to what other people are saying,” Bynum says. “All I can do is get rebounds.” He says this following one of his best all-around games as a Laker—a dominant 10-point, 18-rebound performance against the League’s best center Dwight Howard, including 4 blocked shots and the altering of several others en route to a convincing L.A. win. His body language is different, confidence high as he discusses being able to fully identify with his role as the team’s defensive force and dominant rebounder.

Four years ago, Phil Jackson sat on a stage in Staples Center during an event for season-ticket holders. Someone in the crowd asked him a question about the promise of then-20-year-old Bynum. Phil claimed Lakers management would soon have to make a very difficult decision about the youngest player ever drafted in NBA history: whether or not to extend to him a lucrative contract before they could evaluate his full potential. “Andrew will not totally mature into his body until he is 24,” Jackson said.

Due to injuries, it’s difficult to determine if Bynum will ever reach the historic heights Laker fans are hoping for, but the big man’s post-All-Star production has proven his importance in the chase for a three-peat. “He’s understanding how valuable he can be for us, rebounding and really being the centerpiece of our defense,” Derek Fisher says. “To consistently hold teams in the 80s like we have in the last couple weeks begins and ends with his presence, and he’s been phenomenal. Since the All-Star break, people have asked why we are so much better. I start with him.”

Lamar Odom believes the key to another ring lies in the Lakers’ defensive approach. “Our offensive balance comes from our defense,” Odom says. “When you exert a lot of energy defensively, it makes you want to move the ball and play team basketball on offense. Andrew is a force. You probably don’t understand how strong and big he is. He’s 300 pounds. His understanding of what the team needs has grown. When you have a guy that can protect the basket, it helps a lot.”

A Foot Locker PR woman has seen enough. She steps in front of the autograph table, demanding the crowd’s attention. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she says sternly. “This is an appearance for Lamar Odom only. Khloe will not be signing any autographs or taking any pictures. Thank you.”

Following the announcement, Odom’s January appearance at the Beverly Center House of Hoops is under way. The most versatile player in the NBA chews on Skittles and Starburst while mingling gracefully with his fans. He is a natural.

What Odom allows the Lakers to do on a nightly basis is extremely valuable—playing any position on the floor depending on necessity, a blueprint no other player in the League can match. His focus offensively is simple: Make the right play, a goal apparent in his statistics this season. He is shooting 38 percent from the three-point stripe and 54 percent from the floor overall, both tops for his career, to go with 14 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists per. Defensively, he is prepared for whatever body type and skills are put before him. Lamar Odom

Odom credits some of his mentality and commitment to the game to his relationship with Bryant. “Oh, man, it’s big brother-little brother,” he says with a smile. “I’ve learned a lot from him. Not just on the court, but how to carry yourself off the court and be a professional. To commit myself to the game. At this point in my career, to play with arguably the greatest player to ever play this game, you know I’m blessed. I always let him know, too. I always tell him, Thank you. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be a part of history.”

Similar to Phil Jackson’s final squad in Chicago, the Lakers feature two of the world’s greatest players in Bryant and Pau Gasol. Any chance at a three-peat surely hinges on their play. But like Phil’s ’97-98 Bulls, the Lakers also need consistent play from complementary players with defined roles and a willingness to make bigger contributions. Ron Artest, Steve Blake, Shannon Brown, Matt Barnes and DFish all understand what is expected.

“When you play on this team you have to make sacrifices,” Fisher says. “Constantly looking in the mirror and saying to yourself, I’m willing to exchange All-Star appearances or higher statistics to be on a championship team every season. When we do things in a way that empowers Andrew, empowers Ron and empowers Lamar coming off the bench, empowers Steve Blake (see sidebar) to come off the bench, that’s imperative to our success.”

Bryant sustained a nasty ankle sprain in mid-March during a victory over Dallas. There was speculation that he would miss time, but true to form, Bryant refused to sit, rehabbing his way back in 48 hours. Barnes was hardly surprised: “His foot would have to be cut off and put somewhere else for him not to play.” Kobe’s remarkable commitment to his craft and his body allow him to push the limits when it comes to fighting injuries. Jackson cites Kobe’s flexibility as a reason he’s able to recover quickly.

Two nights after the injury, Kobe plays 31 minutes against the Magic and takes a game-high 19 shots. Post-game in the locker room, Kobe’s stall is closest to the door that leads to the showers, and a heavy media crowd is waiting him out. “Oh damn,” Bryant exclaims as he arrives from his shower, not pleased to see a bunch of eager scribes with recorders in hand. He steps inside the circle and explains how his ankle size went from softball to baseball to golf ball. Bynum is the next topic. “This is how he should play and how he’s going to play,” Bryant says proudly. “It was a big statement that he can do this against Dwight Howard. He’s motivated and he doesn’t want his man to score. He’s on the bench, Pau is in the game and Dwight scores, and he gets upset. He’s kind of got that motor going for him.”

Writers on deadline push the Bynum narrative, hoping Kobe delivers a quote that fits. “Everybody finds challenges,” he says. “For me it’s scoring. For Andrew it’s rebounding. For Ron it’s shutting people down. Everybody has that thing that they do to help us win ballgames and gets them excited.”

Kobe’s just about done with all the questions; he’s ready to get dressed, his head is on tilt, his facial expression daring someone to ask another question. It comes. At this point, are you concerned with teams that have a better record?

“Home-court advantage is overrated to me,” Kobe says. “You split the first two games and you don’t have home-court advantage. You gave it up—it’s a five-game series. If it’s a five-game series and you go back to Boston you have to take that shit back, see what I’m saying? And we did that. I’m not worried about it. That’s for y’all, man.”