With 8 minutes and 21 seconds left in the game, and in his season, Andrew Bynum decided he had had enough. No more hedging on screens. No more helping the helper. No more watching as the Dallas Mavericks blew by the perimeter defender of their choice. He saw J.J. Barea, the child-man who was symbolic of everything that had gone wrong with the Lakers championship hopes, blow by his defender one more time. Drew stepped over and, instead of attempting a block (on the one play in which Barea tossed up a shot just begging for rejection, I might add), he delivered an elbow to Barea's chest, just under the right arm, and then immediately started walking towards the exit, not even waiting to be told he was ejected.
It was a disgusting act. You don't need Kobe Bryant to tell you that, but he did. You don't need Mitch Kupchak's approval to deem it so, but judging by the look on his face after it happened, he approves of your label. You don't need a Lakers fan to agree with you, but we do. There are few throughout Lakers Nation with the temerity to attempt any sort of justification for what Andrew did. The fanbase is as unanimous on this as one can reasonably expect when it comes to assailing the character of a beloved player. Mike Tirico called it, on the spot, as "the most bush-league thing I've ever seen", and while ever is a pretty big word, there can be no doubt that Bynum's offense will likely join the montage of unsavory moments that are remembered throughout history any time something of this nature occurs, along with Kermit Washington, Kevin McHale, and Ron Artest.
Disgusting. Bush-league. Classless. These are all the proper terms to describe what Andrew Bynum did. These are the terms that have Laker fans ashamed of him. But none of them are the proper terms to describe why what Andrew Bynum did is a serious problem.
The classless nature of Andrew Bynum's act is not what makes it extraordinary or unique. At the fundamental core of Drew's actions, his frustration at his team's lack of performance, and the growing deficit between the two teams, reached critical mass, and Drew decided to take out his frustrations on his enemy. While this is in no way acceptable, it is also hardly uncommon. It is the same emotional cocktail that caused Lamar Odom to do what he did just a few minutes earlier. It should also be pointed out that this exact set of circumstances is what caused Jason Terry to push Steve Blake into the courtside photographers in the last meeting of the regular season between Dallas and Los Angeles. The capability for overwhelming frustration goes both ways. It goes all ways. Any time there is a big lead, any time the score of a game is embarrassing for one of the two teams playing, the potential for this type of behavior exists.
That potential is a good thing. Please read these words carefully so as to not misconstrue my argument, but it is good that players get so angry and frustrated when getting embarrassed that the potential exists for an explosion. I'm glad that Andrew gets so frustrated at times that he can hardly contain it. It shows you that he cares. It's not good that he can't contain his emotion, and it's terrible that he has unleashed that emotion in this particular fashion, but the emotion itself is admirable. There are two things that separate most NBA players from the common man. The first is that, in some form or another, the NBA player has won the genetic lottery. The second is that the NBA player is insanely competitive. He hates to lose. You can be an NBA player without the second part, but you can't be a great one, or even a good one really. Without that insanely competitive drive, any NBA player is destined to under-achieve relative to their athletic ability and skill, because his opponents will always want to win more than he does. None of this is to say that boiled over frustrations should be condoned, or that their punishment should be metered. You do the crime, you do the time. That said, I feel safe in my belief that the league is better off in the 99.9% of the time in which this display of frustration does not exist because of the very passion that might lead to the needless, classless, aggressive acts that make up the 0.1%.
But Andrew Bynum is different, because his frustration is unleashed with a dose of recklessness that is completely and totally unacceptable. A big part of this is Andrew's size. Drew's act of frustration is different than Jason Terry's, because Jason Terry is a rock, and Andrew Bynum is a mountain. It might seem unfair to you that Bynum must regulate his actions to a greater degree than those who are smaller than him, but with great size comes great responsibility. There's a damn good reason why the U.S. government has entire military units and bases guarding nuclear missiles while their handguns sit in lightly secured warehouses. Capability to do damage matters, and Drew has shown the capability to do a great deal of damage.
Another important factor is that Drew continues to unleash his frustration on his opponent when they are at their most vulnerable, in the air. All three of these incidents involved heavy contact with an opponent that was airborne, and thus less capable of controlling their body once Bynum delivered his blow. Obviously, Bynum has a history here, with similar incidents involving Gerald Wallace (who ended up with a collapsed lung) in 2009, and Michael Beasley earlier this year. In all three, Andrew delivered his blow to the player while they were airborne, and all three hit the ground hard. Beasley and Barea seemed to escape without serious injury, but the degree of danger involved with these acts is off the charts.
That recklessness is getting worse, both in the sense that he continues to commit reckless acts despite their consequences (both for himself and for his target), and that the acts themselves are becoming increasingly pre-meditated. I've long felt that the Wallace incident was just a hard foul that went horribly wrong. The result was absolutely terrible, but the play itself looked like a late rotation with Bynum deciding to take the foul and make sure Wallace didn't turn the play into an And-1. He hit him hard, no doubt, but he did so with his arms. It was a relatively standard basketball play, except that the force he used to make the play ended up being far too excessive. The Beasley play was worse, because his action left the realm of basketball completely. I don't know that it was Drew's intent to hurt Beasley, but it was most certainly a cheap shot in every aspect of the word. Still, that play turned into what it was in flash. One second, Bynum was trying to rotate, playing good defense, the next, he was sticking his elbow out to clip Beasley in the side. It was an egregious and terrible decision, but it was a decision Drew made in the blink of an eye. In no way does this attempt to justify what happened, but the rashness of quick decisions is something that everyone deals with in life at one point or another. In the world of Minority Report, these are what you might call red ball crimes.
But the hit on Barea does not have a single mitigating circumstance that can temper our contempt in any way. Bynum watched Barea get past his defender, travelled two steps to meet Barea near the top of the key, and raised his elbow immediately to make the play that he did. Barea wasn't past him, he wasn't preventing a lay up. In fact, as I've previously mentioned, Bynum actually had a very good chance of blocking the shot had he just made the normal basketball play that the situation dictates. From beginning to end, Bynum probably had 2-3 seconds to consider exactly what he was doing. In decision making, especially as it pertains to sport, that is a lifetime. It was as pre-meditated as the sport of basketball allows.
Because of this play, because of his history, Andrew Bynum will surely carry the reputation of being a dirty player, of being classless. It's difficult to disagree with the label. But the presence of class is not binary. It is not black and white. One classless act is not enough to convict a man indefinitely. Three classless acts isn't enough either, necessarily. The presence of class is a qualitative equation in which one adds all the good and bad deeds and qualities that define a person. You consider all the information and spit out a final "number". Drew has many positive qualities that we can add into that equation. He is honest, more so than many athletes, even when that honesty causes him trouble. He is hard working. He sacrifices for his teammates, both in the sense that he is willing to forego a greater portion of the offensive pie that his ability might deserve, and because he has repeatedly shown a willingness to risk his personal well-being for the sake of team success, even if his contribution to the team is marginal. He is not a practitioner of dirty play in general, doesn't throw elbows on rebounds, doesn't flop. He plays the game the right way, except for these not so isolated instances in which he makes horrible decisions. Were it not for this one terrible character flaw, I would absolutely want to have Andrew Bynum on my team, and very little of my reasoning would have to do with his tremendous gifts as a player. But the flaw overwhelms it all. As of right now, should he keep up his current pace of both good and bad, the reputation of dirtiness will be well deserved.
For that reason, I hope the league drops the hammer on Drew. Five games, 10 games, 15 games, in the end the actual time missed doesn't matter, but the message should be clear. And then, no matter what the league doles out, I think the Lakers should add five games themselves, because the message should be unanimous: Continue doing what you are doing, and you won't be welcome here. If Andrew Bynum can correct this one negative aspect of his persona, he will become an extremely valuable asset to the league and to his team, but, without reform, the bad apple among the bunch of Drew's good qualities will ruin everything. He will do damage to the league, to his team, and, God forbid, to whichever poor schmo happens to be the target of Bynum's ill will.
By now, Bynum has apologized for the event in his exit interview. He has said that it was terrible, and it will never happen again. If he keeps his word, I will root for Andrew Bynum for the rest of his career, whether with the Lakers or otherwise. He has a long way to go before the equation of his class gets back in the black, but redemption is most certainly possible. He need only look across the locker room to Ron Artest for an example. But if he refuses to learn this lesson, and continues to be willing to do serious damage to his fellow professional just because he happens to be having a bad night, then I won't want him on my team, and I won't want him in my league.
Fix this, Drew, and you are golden. Refuse, and you are a plague. The choice is yours.