Will the Thrill: Part III
Will Bynum takes the Windy City by storm
Will Bynum started on the varsity as a freshman at Chicago Crane, which played in the Public League’s Blue Division – one tier under the Red Division, maybe the toughest league in the country. With Bynum and Tony Allen starring, Crane won the division and moved up to Red.
That summer, his AAU team went to New York, Bynum now thinking the dream of making a living playing basketball was within his reach. In the class two ahead of him, there was a crop of point guards in New York – which likes to think of itself as the incubator for great point guards – that had all of college basketball drooling. Big East coaches followed the best of them around at all of the AAU haunts.
“That was my reality check,” Bynum said. “I was in the ninth grade and I didn’t know anything about them, but we saw all these point guards – Andre Barrett, Taliq Brown, Omar Cook, all in the same tournament.
“I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘Man, if they’ve got guards like this, I’ve got a long way to go.’ Once I saw that, I stayed in the gym. That’s when I started watching a lot of film, and when I got back to Chicago, I would dominate the guards in my class.”
He was a pass-first point guard back then, but as his ballhandling improved from thousands of hours in the gym, and his body turned thick and powerfully compact, Bynum’s ability to beat his man and split double teams and get to the rim became a devastating weapon.
Bynum didn’t draw national recruiting attention, though, until exploding the summer after his junior year at Crane, when he joined Jameel Ghauri’s Nike-sponsored Racine team. That’s when he blossomed as a dominant scorer, though Ghauri didn’t know what he was getting when longtime college coach George Raveling, working for Nike, recommended Bynum to him.
“Will’s high school coach brought him down to the Bray Center,” Ghauri recalls. “I said to Will, ‘I heard you’re a good athlete. I heard you could jump a little.’ ”
“Yeah, I got a little hop.”
“Well, you want to show me?”
So Bynum took a basketball, bounced it high in the air, went up and got it at his waist and hammered home a windmill dunk that took Ghauri’s breath away.
“Yeah,” he said. “You’ve got a little hop.”
Bynum’s legend took a while to take hold in his hometown. Two local filmmakers spent the winter of 2001 tracking the careers of three high-profile Chicago-area athletes. There was Kyle Kleckner from suburban Downers Grove, who wound up playing football at Illinois; Eddy Curry of Thornwood High in South Holland, who would be the No. 4 pick in the 2001 draft; and Sean Dockery, a junior at Julian on the south side already being chased by elite college programs.
Early that season, while the cameras were trained on Dockery, Crane and Julian played; Bynum leading Crane to the win. So the project expanded and Bynum nudged his way into the storyline. Later that season, it came to another Crane-Julian game in the Public League’s final four, with Julian, ranked No. 1 in the state, the solid favorite.
The game was designated to be played at a neutral site. In reality, there was nothing neutral about it. They played at Corliss High, two blocks from Julian. Because of the ever-present threat of violence, students of the two schools were not allowed to attend the game. So the adults that packed the gym, all southsiders, were Julian fans.
“Thousands of people there,” Bynum said. “The gym was really packed. There were so many people there, the floor started to sweat. The fourth quarter came, players were slipping. It was crazy.”
“It was standing room only,” said Tim Anderson, Bynum’s backcourt partner and Crane’s varsity coach today. “That atmosphere, thousands of people there, police barricades around the court. A lot of people say that was the best game ever in Chicago.”
It went four overtimes. Crane won with Bynum playing the game of his life. He had to, because Dockery played the game of his.
“My mom was so into what she was doing – working, trying to do whatever she could to help us, she didn’t even know I was really good,” Bynum said. “That was the first time she came to a game. I would be glancing over during timeouts, trying to be normal, trying to be a man. I’d glance over and see her crying. It was crazy. We went four overtimes. I had like 60, Sean had like 50. We ended up winning the game, mom was hugging me, we were crying. It was big.”
“Will being the competitor he was, he wanted to guard Sean,” Anderson remembers. “But our coach didn’t want him to be worn down on the defensive end. Will scored the last seven points, a 3-pointer and four free throws to seal the win. I was real frustrated with some things and I remember Will pulling us in and saying things I’ve never heard him say. He told us, ‘We’re not losing this game.’
“That was the best game I’ve ever played in, the best high school environment I’ve ever seen.”
“I had never seen a game so intense and that many people,” said Rose Robinson, who still has all the trophies Will won starting with the Small Fry League, all the newspaper clippings, including the many spawned from that Crane-Julian thriller. “I’d never seen him go through anything like that. It was the best game I’ve ever seen.”
One Shining Moment
“We had a squad,” Bynum said. “It was great, from day one until I left.”
Except for one thing: When the games would end, and everyone spilled out of the locker room to be greeted by parents, brothers and sisters. Everyone except for Will, whose family couldn’t remotely afford the airfare.
The skids were greased for his exit in the summer after his freshman season, when the Wildcats were on a summer trip to Australia. While there, Bynum got word his mom had to be hospitalized. That’s all he knew. So they packed him on a plane and sent him back to the United States. Rose Robinson was diagnosed with diabetes, highly treatable, but suddenly the distance between Chicago and Tucson seemed too great, and the cost of getting back and forth too daunting to a family still struggling to put food on the table.
“That’s when I started to think about coming back home. I didn’t know much about it, but my mom had one kidney and she had diabetes. It wasn’t about me anymore. It was about her being able to see me play and me be around and be closer to her.
“I wasn’t going back to Chicago. It would be a distraction. I know pretty much everybody. I’m like the son of Chicago in a sense. I played at a westside school and everybody knows me on the south side. It would be difficult to concentrate on what I was trying to do with so many people in my ear. So I chose Atlanta. I had family there. It was good for me – it was good for my family.”
He found another loaded roster at Georgia Tech under a new coach, Paul Hewitt. They butted heads, Hewitt demanding Bynum’s presence at mandatory study hall, Bynum preferring to spend free time in the gym, chasing the dream.
“Basketball was his ticket,” Anderson, his Crane teammate, said. “Will would always say he was going to use basketball, not let basketball use him. He didn’t want to end up in Chicago on a corner or playing basketball in an open gym for the rest of his life. He was going to use it for a free education.”
But the dream was to get to the NBA, and college was the surest avenue to get there.
“Coach Hewitt would always be on me,” Bynum said. “We would always have arguments. He would want me in study hall, and I understood him. But he wasn’t trying to hear me and hear my dreams. But it turned out to be great. Now he really respects me a lot. Now he sees my vision, the same thing I saw back then, what I was trying to do.”
Bynum’s one shining moment in college basketball came in the 2004 Final Four when his last-second basket lifted Georgia Tech to a win over Oklahoma State and Tony Allen and into the title game against Connecticut, whose stars included his current Pistons teammates, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, as well as Emeka Okafor.
Bynum never was a full-time starter in college, playing behind Jarrett Jack at Georgia Tech, and admits he expected more out of his college career.
“Yeah, I did. I expected to run my own program from the point guard position, to run a program and learn and develop while playing the one. I came off the bench, but it wasn’t a problem. It helps me now.”
Chicago-based Tim Grover, who became a guru to NBA players from his days as Michael Jordan’s personal trainer, was well aware of Bynum going back to his days at Crane. Last summer, Bynum joined such Grover regulars as Dwyane Wade, Gilbert Arenas and Devin Harris working under his eye.
“His game wasn’t really suited for college,” Grover says. “That really didn’t surprise me at all.”
Ghauri believes Bynum’s underwhelming college career went deeper than playing style. He thinks some of it had to do with Bynum’s visage – hard and intimidating, and that led to coaches not quite understanding what they had with him.
“When you see Will Bynum and don’t really talk to him, but you see him, hear he’s from Chicago, a Chicago playground legend, that can be intimidating,” said Ghauri, who admits he thought some of the same things, even though he’s seen plenty of rough characters around Racine. “Will looks like he could be a hard, mean, rough guy. When I first saw him, I thought, tough guy, Chicago guy, tough as they come. I don’t know if his college coaches ever figured Will out.”
Bynum snagged a late invitation to the Chicago predraft camp and was one of the standouts, lifting his hopes of getting drafted. But 60 names were called – none of them Will Bynum’s.
Point guards went 3, 4 and 5 – Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Raymond Felton, the latter an ACC rival. Bynum had scored 35 against Felton in March, lifting Tech to the ACC tournament finals. Two of his Arizona classmates, Frye and Stoudemire, went 8 and 31. Nate Robinson, a point guard at least 3 inches shorter than Bynum’s 5-foot-10 – he’s listed at 6-foot-0 – went 21. His Georgia Tech teammate, Jack, went 22. The Pistons took Amir Johnson, a high school kid from Los Angeles, 56th, and Pepperdine’s Alex Acker with the 60th and final pick.
“I sat and watched it with my family,” Bynum said. “It was painful. Every pick, it was like getting stabbed. That’s what it felt like.”