Will the Thrill: Part II

Basketball helped Will Bynum survive Chicago's mean streets

Will Bynum used basketball to help him survive the mean streets of Chicago.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Editor’s note: Will Bynum, who re-signed with the Pistons last week as a restricted free agent, went undrafted out of Georgia Tech in 2005 and spent part of the next season with Golden State in the NBA and the rest in the D-League, then the next two years in Israel before the Pistons invited him to Summer League in 2008. The following is Part II of an updated version of a story that originally appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Courtside Quarterly, the official magazine of the Detroit Pistons. Coming Wednesday in Part III: Will Bynum lights up Chicago, starts his college career at Arizona and enjoys one shining moment at Georgia Tech.

Rose Robinson never wondered about the whereabouts of her seventh child, her miracle baby. Will Bynum was at the gym, whatever gym he could find open. Getting there and back without running afoul of the ubiquitous Chicago street gangs, that was another matter.

“God was with him,” she says today. “He went through bullets to get to school. He went through gangbangers who would literally try to stop him from going to high school. He would have to go through those people. I had to get the police to make sure he gets to school every day. Gangs don’t care about whatever you’re doing. I refused to let that stop him. He refused to let that stop him.”

Bynum and his older brothers and sisters lived in a series of southside projects – “the poorest of the poor,” he says – where getting to school required guerilla warfare knowledge.

“I remember when I was young, this one time in particular. I went to Price Grammar School. I lived in one project, the school was in another project. I’d be on my way home from school and they’d have drive-bys on a big street – a wide street like Woodward. You’d run to get to the brick building, then you’d get to the brick building and turn the corner. It was automatic – you’d wait until you’d hear no more bullets, then run to the house and get in the tub. I’m like 6, 7 years old. It’s just the way it was.”

Will Bynum has heard the story of Ben Wilson. Bynum was 22 months old in November 1984 when Wilson, who as a junior led Chicago Simeon to the Illinois state championship and was ready to begin defense of the title the next day, was shot to death on a Chicago street corner. The No. 1 recruit in the country, the object of a fierce recruiting battle between Illinois and DePaul, that was Ben Wilson, a silky 6-foot-8 forward who could fly. The 25th anniversary of Wilson’s death was marked last November. Not much has changed.

Last September, 16-year-old Derrion Albert was beaten to death on a Chicago street, caught in the crossfire of a gang turf war. The beating was caught on videotape and again focused national attention on Chicago gang violence.

“I know the story,” Bynum says of Ben Wilson’s slaying. “But that kind of stuff happens all the time. All the time.”

It’s why he first chose Arizona for college, and when a health scare with his mother prompted a transfer closer to home, he chose Georgia Tech, where he had family, rather than DePaul or another school that would have brought him back to the city. Even when still in high school, Bynum avoided the Chicago AAU circuit, landing instead with a Wisconsin-based team coached by a man who to this day remains a friend and mentor, Jameel Ghauri.

Ghauri grew up in Racine, south of Milwaukee, an hour north of Chicago. Lots of Chicago transplants in Racine, lots of the same issues with poverty, gangs, drugs and violence. Ghauri set up shop in the middle of it all, the Bray Community Center, as a father figure for kids without fathers of their own. There were parts of Racine that struck Bynum as every bit as dangerous as Chicago – Caron Butler, another Ghauri protégé, was almost out of chances, running afoul of the law, before basketball helped save him – but in Ghauri he found the structure and safe haven he sought.

Bynum spent many weekends bunking at the Ghauris, working out two or three times a day at the Bray Center. On weekends of AAU tournaments, Ghauri would pack his players in vans and head to Indianapolis or St. Louis or Detroit, swinging by Chicago to pick up his star guard.

“The areas we would go to pick up Will were some of the toughest areas I’ve seen,” Ghauri said. “The Bray Center is in a rough area. We have a gang problem here in Racine. So we had rules when we went to pick up Will. You always stay on the main street. When you go on the back street, you know what back street you’re going down.”

Sometimes, even that isn’t good enough.

“Every day … you don’t understand unless you’ve lived it,” said Tim Anderson, one of Bynum’s dearest friends, a former teammate at Chicago’s Crane Tech who is now the varsity basketball coach there. “I’m from the south side, like Will. You can be going to a grocery store, shots will ring out. You can be on a basketball court, a dispute, somebody gets shot. The only comfort you have is those bricks in a project. People shoot through windows all the time. No one really cares about you playing basketball. It’s all about where you’re from and where you grew up. You can turn the wrong corner and it can end your life.”

Just like Derrion Albert last September or Ben Wilson 25 years ago. Go back a few more years, even.

On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Reagan, gravely wounding him. With the NCAA championship game hours from tipping off, there was serious debate over whether to play the game. When it was over, and Indiana had beaten North Carolina, reporters asked the star of the champion Hoosiers whether he thought the game should have been played.

“Where I come from,” he said, “people get shot in the head every day.”

If you think the whole Dee Brown incident meant it was providence that Will Bynum become a Detroit Piston, peel back another layer of the story. Go back to Will Bynum’s roots, sunk in the same hardscrabble Chicago soil as those of the most decorated player in Pistons history, Isiah Lord Thomas III. It was Thomas who led Indiana to that 1981 NCAA title and couldn’t understand why the world would be put on hold just because somebody else got shot.

Thomas was the last of nine siblings of a single mother, Mary Thomas, who died at 87 in January. A 1989 NBC movie, “A Mother’s Courage: The Mary Thomas Story,” famously showed her confronting Chicago gang leaders to stay away from her youngest son, who’d seen so many of his brothers fall prey to the drugs and violence that pervaded Chicago’s west side.

Some of them ended up dead, some of them ended up behind bars. Bynum has two brothers and four sisters.

“My uncles, all my uncles have been in jail for pretty much everything you can name,” said Bynum, whose father, William, married his mother when Will was a junior in high school and stayed with her until his death of lung cancer in 2007, just days after the birth of Will’s daughter, Laila Rose Bynum.

“My brothers have been in and out. One for misdemeanor stuff. He went through the whole drug thing, and also my oldest brother. He’s doing real well now, though. Now he’s about to become a pastor. He did it when he was younger. It’s tough, though, when everybody around you is the same. That’s all you see, every day. You see killings, you see shootings.”

Will Bynum saw enough early to know he didn’t want any part of it. It was never a conscious decision, but if you marinate in the ravages daily – uncles and brothers and kids who’d be in school one day and disappear forever the next – you seek refuge where you find it. Basketball became Will Bynum’s refuge from a very young age. And Bynum knew enough to be wary of Chicago.

Rose’s Miracle Baby

Nearly 23 weeks into her seventh pregnancy, Rose Robinson was diagnosed with kidney cancer. They had to take the baby. Less than a year later, she learned she was pregnant again.

“I was high risk – they didn’t want me to have it. It was too soon and my whole kidney was out. But I was having nightmares from the baby they took early. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t rest, not after seeing the baby and everything. I just couldn’t get no rest at night.

“Will was a miracle baby. He was. And I’ve been proud of him ever since.”

From the beginning with Will, there was basketball. He was a toddler as the legend of Michael Jordan was budding in the Windy City and everyone became swept up in basketball, from the southside projects to the tony northern suburbs where the Bulls made their base in Deerfield.

Will started playing in something called the Small Fry League when he was 5, on 8½-foot goals. Among the first rivals he remembers? Dee Brown. Even at those tender ages, talent finds talent. Will’s teams would compete against the best in Chicago, and then the best in Illinois, and at the end of the season, the best from states as wide-ranging as New York and Florida. He did that until he was 11, by which time he knew he was better than most kids his age.

Certainly he was the best in his little corner of the south side, which gave him his first clue that basketball was a currency that enabled him to cross boundaries. He got hooked up with an AAU team, where he met the best player in the neighborhood one over, befriending him through junior high and into their high school years.

The friend, like so many Chicago male teens, got swallowed up by the gangs.

“He was the best player in his neighborhood, but he wasn’t playing at his school,” Bynum said. “He wasn’t going to school. He wasn’t doing nothing. He was in high school and I was just going into ninth grade. I was going to Crane, on the west side, and he was going to Julian” – a southside school whose star, Sean Dockery, was another of the many great guards who poured out of Chicago in that period. “But he wasn’t playing. He was into gangs and stuff.

“But I kept after him and I got him to transfer to Crane, he started going to school and that’s how his whole thing got turned around.”

Today, Tony Allen just completed his sixth year with the Boston Celtics, backing up Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, after finishing at Crane, getting into junior college and landing at Oklahoma State – where his path would cross that of his old southside Chicago pal’s at a Final Four thriller. Allen, like Bynum, became a free agent this summer, and got a lucrative new deal with Memphis.

“I love him to death,” Allen says of Bynum. “He’s like my little brother. At one point, I didn’t know if I was going to play basketball, didn’t know what I was going to do. He encouraged me to come get my grades together at a school he was attending. That school was bad, as far as their play. He turned that program around. He needed some help – told me to get eligible. I had to do a lot – a lot – of work, did it and we’ve been friends ever since.

“He told me this was my last opportunity, and if I gave a hoot, I should take advantage of it. I listened to him and haven’t looked back since.”