At first glance, it feels a bit like a cattle sale, as men both big and small talk size and scale -- "legit 6'10" says one, "250 easy" raves another -- like it's a meat market. And it is a business. For all of us. It's a give-and-take for guys like me covering the event, for the NBA scouts scarfing down free sandwiches and, most tenuously, for the family of Andrew Bynum, the 7'0" 250 pound man-child with a baby face all these businessmen from the Hornets, Raptors, Rockets, Knicks, Hawks, Grizzlies, Jazz, Bobcats and about 15 other teams are here to see.
We're welcomed by Bynum's AAU coach, Larry Marshall, who tells a little about what we're going to see and how it came to be. I am impressed with Marshall, who looks like a man used to driving a Ford who just stumbled across a Porsche with the motor running. It's his job to shield his star player from the rough stuff, to keep the agents and intricate NCAA rules in place, all while trying to maximize the once in a lifetime opportunity for young Bynum.
Marshall, part of the Kids Plus Youth Development Corp. who is sponsoring this event at Baruch College in Manhattan, explains to those gathered that the family is paying for everything, keeping it all above board so as to best do a "feasibility study" on his charge's future. He shows a tense and single-minded focus that can and must be the only way to survive the wolves of professionalism.
Joining Bynum, clearly the main attraction, will be Louisville center Otis George, Jack Ingram, a sharp-shooting big man from Illinois and Jamaal Levy, a wiry jumping jack from Wake Forest. Not joining the four is Wake junior Eric Williams, who, judging from the groans of a few in attendance, was anticipated but was unable to attend.
I mill around the room looking for clues as to what the men assembled might be thinking, but they are wearing poker faces. Or if they are smiling, it is at the recognition of an old scouting friend. I ask one scout if this is the way all these things are and, after looking me up and down and judging by my "media" nametag that he should be judicious about his comments, he warily replies, "Pretty much. Except this one has food."
In the background, a DVD of Bynum's highlights plays on an endless loop. Slow motion replays of agile blocks, his dunks in the McDonald's All-American game and his manhandling of 6'3" high school forwards have little or no audience. These men, whose lives revolve around knowing good from great, real from fake, player from pretender, will wait to see the real thing in action.
We enter the Baruch gym, which looks like any gym you've ever seen, and sit down on the bleachers. I ask another scout who sits by himself whether all these teams are genuinely interested in what happens here today. He tells me that most of the teams with scouts in attendance probably have little or no interest in Bynum or the others. But they are here because to not know about the 'next big thing' would be far more detrimental to a team than to know about him and pass. This, it turns out, is the cardinal rule of scouting and drafting.
As the players warm up, it's clear that Bynum is being protected. The biggest of the three players accompanying him is probably George, but he's visibly smaller than Bynum, if more defined. Bynum looks more lean and built than I expected from a high school kid. His workouts with these three and Eric Williams over the past month have clearly been designed to wipe out his baby fat and showcase an NBA body. The kid is a huge physical specimen, with long arms and no awkward movements as he runs basic layup drills to get started.
The players dribble up the court right-handed for a layup, then back down the other side left-handed. Bynum shows a decent handle for a 7-footer with either hand, and takes time to dunk the ball on each end ferociously rather than lay it in. For a guy his size, it's probably just easier.
The man leading the drills is Kevie Dixon, a friend of Coach Marshall's. He's an athletic middle-aged guy who looks and sounds like a coach. Of Bynum, he will say, "He's gonna be the next big Shaq," and it's clear that while all four players go through the same drills, Dixon makes sure Bynum is a little more focused when it's his turn.
The players run pick-and-roll drills and it's clear right away that Bynum wants to be close to the basket. While Ingram steps out to showcase his accurate jumper, Bynum tries to dunk or bank everything in from within five feet. The former Louisville product George runs each drill like it's his last, and I note to a fellow scribe that you could tell which player had spent the past few years running drills for Rick Pitino. Bynum, on the other hand, is not crisp, rolling softly off screens and showing more attention to shooting than to setting a hard -- if simulated -- pick on his man.
The drill shifts to a pick and slide to the wing mode, where each player drifts away from the hoop and toward the baseline. Ingram and Jamal Levy show off their university-honed jumpshot form, while Bynum tries to will the ball into the basket. For such a big man, I'm surprised at Bynum's shot. It's very smooth, showing no hitch on the release, and I gather that, depending on the day, it can be either effective or useless. But it's straight on, from the chin-level, and looks to me like a grown-up version of the way kids first learn to shoot the ball, putting all their force behind it to send it high enough to reach the rim. Bynum then gets hot on a few, and the scouts scribble in their notebooks.
Dixon gives the players a breather and sets up orange cones for shooting drills. The players then line up and take turns running from the right elbow of the lane to the baseline, where they are passed the ball for a dunk. Ingram looks less comfortable than when he was shooting. George yelps with each dunk, as if angry at the ball, while Bynum silently stuffs every pass, never fumbling or adjusting his footwork. He's smooth for his size, and, if not exactly intense, the kid rarely looks rattled. The players post up, spin with either hand, and dunk or lay in the ball. Each player misses a dunk or layup except Bynum. He loves to dunk the ball, looking more comfortable with each passing drill. I realize I may have mistaken his comfort earlier for passiveneess, though the structure is clearly still relatively new to him, as it would be for almost any such gifted high school player.
Levy shows impressive hops, but he's pencil-thin. George overcompensates for his size by trying to dunk everything. Ingram seems the most focused on simply getting the job done right, which he does most of the time. But Bynum is the most impressive. When he leaps, he soars three feet above the rim, and his long arms and giant hands flush the ball through. I comment to the other writers how big he seems and they nod their heads in rapid agreement.
The players get another quick breather, and Dixon and some much smaller players -- probably Bynum's AAU teammates -- set up cones in a circle around the lane. The rest of the workout is going to be jumpshooting. Like a game of horse, the players shoot from each spot around the lane. Levy hits from the baseline like he's playing Maryland. Ingram tries as hard as he can to scoot out past the three-point line and his shot looks better the further out he goes. George's shot looks more labored, but goes in.
Then it's Bynum's turn. He shoots from the right elbow, about free-throw distance, and he's off. A miss, another miss. He's 2-for-10. His head bows a little as the players switch spots. Bynum's turn comes again and he's just 4-of-12 from straight ahead at the free throw line. But the form is good, it just doesn't fall. The players scoot over again and when Bynum shoots -- this time from the left elbow -- he's got the range and he hits 7 or 8 in a row. Then he repeats the feat from the left lower block. Turns out, the kid has "a spot."
Once the shooting drills end, Dixon moves to Bynum's bread-and-butter, and the players post Dixon up. Bynum shows off a nice drop step to the left, a head fake that gets Dixon airborne and more dunks. The kid dribbles with either hand and even crosses over once. It's impossible to tell if any of this impresses the scouts, who show only scowls from my vantage point.
And then it's over. After roughly 90 minutes, the players, sweating and huffing take to water bottles and Marshall reappears. He gives the scouts the rules, telling them that they each will get a number and can have a maximum of 15 minutes with the family upstairs in a conference room. Understandably, the media will be last.
Since the players are three feet from me, I ask them a few questions. When I pose the former Illinois forward Ingram the question of how this experience relates to playing in the Final Four, he smiles and notes wryly, "If I screw up here, I let myself down. If I screw up there, I let my whole team down." And as I nod in total agreement, I wonder if perhaps this attention to team hurts or helps a guy like Ingram, a team player whose complimentary skills can be hard to quantify. Ingram clearly impressed teams with his play in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, and he has already appeared in Boston with Will Bynum, Pat Carroll and Tiras Wade.
Levy is quiet, but friendly. He tells me he's worked out for the Knicks (with Wayne Simien), Houston, Milwaukee and the Wizards. All have the same agent (except Bynum, obviously), and I can tell that they have been working hard in preparation for the workout. Curious, I ask the guys if it bothers them that despite their long college careers they are not the showcase on this day. Ingram points to a banner behind us that says "Andrew Bynum" in large block letters and says that any exposure is good exposure.
I track down Dixon while I wait my turn with the family and ask him how he thought it all went.
"It went well, pretty good," he says, still dripping sweat. The kid is an "amazing talent," he adds. When I ask him whether the showcase was set up to show off certain skills, he replies that it was, particularly shooting. Bynum is gone now, and I can see the back of his mother in the window upstairs, meeting with all the scouts who have just seen her son perform.
After waiting my turn, I'm escorted by Bynum's brother upstairs to meet with the family. When I enter the room, I fumble for my tape recorder and pad and pen and when I look up, there are seven or eight adults in the room, including Coach Marshall and Bynum's mother. I thank them for having me, and begin to ask questions.
The questions I have are mostly about the process, since I know this is new to them. To the people assembled -- aunts, uncles, family friends -- he's just Andrew, but to these scouts, he's something of a commodity. So what's it like to go through this process?
Bynum's mother, Janice, speaks softly but assuredly and says, "It's been wonderful, actually, to even have a chance for your son to go through something like this. It's been absolutely wonderful."
But isn't all the attention draining?
"Sometimes, sometimes. The recruiting process for college was pretty draining, and this is starting to be," she says. Then she smiles brightly and quickly adds, "But it's a good thing as well, so..."
Curious about Bynum's mindset as far as the college versus professional route goes, I inquire to the group that, since Coach Marshall mentioned that part of the reason for doing this workout is to see where Andrew stands, is the college option still being weighed equally at this point?
Leaning back in his chair with a look of confidence, Marshall explains, "It's not so much what you're weighing at this point so much as you take a complete 'feasibility study' to determine what your options are. And until all your options are placed on the table, you can't make an intelligent decision. It's our position at this point to put all the opportunities on the table so that when a decision is made, whenever that may be, it will be an intellectual decision and one that is in [Bynum's] best interests."
I nod and he continues.
"Without understanding the whole picture of what's available for that decision -- whatever it may be -- if you make a decision without knowing all the components, success is never going to be a part of your character."
I like this part about character. The family seems strong, focused and, most of all, protective of their big kid.
"[Andrew] needs to make sense of all these opportunities, and in order to do that, it takes a solid foundation," Coach Marshall says. Then he motions toward the people in the room. "And as you can see, he has one."
It's true. Any family would want to get all the information possible in order to make an informed decision, no matter if the decision were sports related or not. Turning to more specific questions for Andrew, I ask about his game.
"Do you mind of I call you Andrew and not Mr. Bynum?"
Since is focused more on the NBA than on college, I want to know what Bynum believes he is going to bring to an NBA team at this point.
"Rebounding ability, be able to block shots, a strong inside presence."
Noting all the shooting drills we'd just seen out there, I ask if that was supposed to show his jumpshot off.
"Yeah, actually it was. But I had an off day," he says sheepishly.
I flip the question around and ask him what things he feels he could stand to improve on.
"Mainly just conditioning, strength," Bynum says.
"Did you get tired out there at all?"
"No, I didn't get tired. We went through the workout for about a week."
Knowing now that Bynum has been working through the drills with the same players, I ask him whether it must be hard, since those guys are all 22 or 23. Ingram just played in the national championship game two months ago. So what's it like to play against that?
"It's exciting," Bynum says, smiling. "It's not really hard. I have actually surprised myself. I do a lot better than I thought I would. You have to step your game up, you can't just go up and shoot a shot. Normally, it's a 6'5" guy, here it's a bigger height... just minor adjustments."
"What's the pressure like on you? Up until April you were pretty set on going to college, now people like me are asking you questions about it."
"It's not really pressure. I've got a great supporting cast. They really keep a lot of that away from me, all I got to do is keep playing basketball."
Opening the question up to the rest of the family, I inquire if all of them are ready for his life to change, if he were to stay in the draft. Suddenly, he could be a man with responsibilities and money versus a college kid. What's the mindset going into that transition?
Bynum speaks first, saying, "I know it's going to be a tough transition, but I have a lot of help. The league provides a lot of help, things like investing money. Generally, just being smart and making good decisions."
His mother chimes in.
"It's tough to think that my life is gonna [change], but without a doubt I would have no problem with that."
Feeling the talk getting a bit heavy, I turn back to Bynum and want him to answer like a kid again.
"Do you have a favorite player in the NBA right now?"
"Duncan. Tim Duncan."
I remember the bank shots from before, so I ask if he tries to pattern his game after Duncan's.
"Yeah, I try to."
At this point, after four hours, I feel the family has probably had enough. I thank them for being so gracious with their time and wish them luck, shaking hands with each person in attendance. Coach Marshall looks exhausted, but smiles.
He shakes my hand last and says, "No problem, thank you."
And as I pack up my things, I feel like maybe this whole business -- this thing four hours past I was willing to compare to a cattle showcase -- is not intensely personal, if not for a guy like me, then very much so for them.