CHICAGO – There’s considerable freedom in the United States these days.
It truly was the first modern democracy where, at least in theory, citizens could choose to become anything they wanted.
Unless, of course, you are very tall.
Because if you are very tall and don’t want to be a basketball player the view is there may be something wrong with you.
After all, how can you reject all that glamour and potential earnings?
And even if you wanted to ignore all that there always was some coach or friend or girlfriend or parent pleading or begging or demanding or whispering. Please, please, please.
What’s a man to do?
That’s not to say that’s exactly what’s happened with Andrew Bynum, the Cavaliers’ giant who recently was suspended for the classic “conduct detrimental to the team,” essentially put up for auction and eventually traded to the Chicago Bulls before his $6 million buyout deal in early January kicked in.
But one sees this more and more around pro basketball these days and perhaps another reason why there are so few true big men in the game anymore. The ones who really want to play become big men shooters like Kevin Durant. The others tend to fade away out of indifference and perhaps to their calling away from basketball.
Bynum only was an experiment this season, anyway, after he missed all last season with the Philadelphia 76ers with knee problems.
But there always have been questions surrounding Bynum since he became one of the last players to go directly from high school to the NBA in 2005 as the 10th pick in the NBA Draft to the Lakers.
Bynum famously was sort of a computer and mechanical geek when he came to the NBA, fond of taking apart and putting together computer and electronics. Eventually it would become teams, though accidentally.
He happened to end up on a team with Kobe Bryant, fond only of shooting basketballs. As the Lakers stumbled in that era and Bryant even demanded to be traded, Bryant took time out to demand the team trade Bynum when talks came up that they could get Jason Kidd for him.
But the Lakers saw amazing promise in the 213-cm center, who was almost 140 kg with light feet and soft hands.
Perhaps more than ever in this era, everyone hungers for a true big man. The Pacers have been revitalized with a clumsy one in Roy Hibbert.
Imagine if you could get an athletic one that size?
Eventually, the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol and Bryant calmed down as the Lakers went back to winning titles.
And Bynum began to get hurt, anyway, with balky knees. But he became a contributor on two championship teams, averaging about 15 points in about 30 minutes per game behind Gasol.
Though Phil Jackson labeled Bynum “intermittently competitive,” it was enough with what the Lakers had.
Bynum drifted, though mostly kid stuff, like parking in spaces reserved in public for disabled, practicing 3-pointers when he never took them in games.
Then Bynum became a starting All Star, averaging 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds for the Lakers in 2011-12. But he still didn’t seem all into it as he stopped working with Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
When Bynum was suspended by the Cavs, Abdul-Jabbar wrote on his Facebook account:
“I believe Andrew has always had the potential to help a team when he puts his heart into it. He just doesn’t seem to be consistent with his commitment to the game. That can lead to a lot of frustration for any team that has signed him.
“When I worked with Andrew I found him to be bright and hardworking but I think he got bored with the repetitive nature of working on basketball fundamentals day in and day out —but they are the keys to long term success.
“In my opinion Andrew is the type of person who walks to the beat of ‘a different drummer.’ So we won’t know the facts until Andrew decides to tell us what actually is the issue and shares his thoughts.”
Yes, there were big men who loved the game. Perhaps none more than Bill Walton.
Abdul-Jabbar played since he was a small child in New York City and searched the parks for games during the summers.
Bill Russell loved the competition.
But Shaquille O’Neal would rather have done anything else. It was the source of his estrangement with Bryant. Bryant couldn’t understand not being a serious competitor. Shaq wanted to jet ski.
Eddy Curry, another big high school kid with talent for the game and interests everywhere else, played on for the money. He was always happiest when not playing.
Luc Longley won three titles with the Bulls, but spent more time body surfing on road trips to warm climates rather than practicing.
These days there are many more like Shaq and Curry than there are like Walton or Kareem.
The Lakers in the summer of 2012 had a chance to put together what they believed would be a super team with Dwight Howard. So they traded Bynum in a four-team deal. He ended up with the 76ers and never did play.
Some there thought he could. He once reinjured himself in Philadelphia going bowling. He came to games wearing outrageous new hair styles and clothing. He was having fun, being Andrew Bynum.
That was OK if it came to it, it seemed.
But Bynum had been red- flagged at the draft. He could have knee problems.
And they have gotten worse. But he has been in the NBA nine years. He’s had contracts totaling more than $50 million. His net worth is estimated at more than $25 million.
He may play again once he’s traded.
He could be a difference maker if he’s healthy and interested.
But if he doesn’t play no one will be surprised and no one believes Andrew Bynum will be sad.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”