Will the Thrill: Part IV

After going undrafted, Will Bynum picks up the pieces and regroups

Bynum had to regroup after going undrafted in June 2005.
Gregory Shamus (NBAE/Getty)
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 story is Part IV 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 Friday in Part V: How a phone call from Joe Dumars changed Will Bynum’s life.

Those stinging stab wounds he felt as names he well knew from his college and AAU were called and his was not ebbed within minutes of his going undrafted in June 2005 – and Will Bynum was off and running again. Boston called. Danny Ainge wanted Will to join his Summer League roster. He passed that test and got invited to training camp, where Ainge told Will he wanted to keep him for the regular season but had too many guaranteed contracts.

So Bynum hooked up with the new NBA Development League, playing in Roanoke under a veteran coach, Kent Davison, who gave Bynum the chance he craved in college – a chance to run his own team.

“He gave me the ball and let me go. It was great for me. I was able to show what I could really do in the D-League. I would dominate those games. I would have high turnovers, which I hated, but it was good for me to learn what I was doing wrong. Kent and (assistant coach and NBA veteran) Chucky Brown helped me out a lot.”

His D-League play got Will noticed. Golden State signed him to two 10-day contracts and eventually for the rest of the 2005-06 season. But when the Warriors made a trade over the summer that landed them Derek Fisher, while also putting them over the maximum of 15 guaranteed contracts, Bynum again got caught in a numbers crunch. Rather than wait around for an uncertain NBA future, he took guaranteed money in Europe and a chance to continue growing as a point guard.

“All the top teams from Europe wanted me because I had played so well in Summer League. And financially, I wasn’t able to wait. I decided to go to Israel, a one-year deal.”

To a kid from Chicago, Israel might as well have been the dark side of the moon. But the more he heard about Israel, and about its premier team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, the more intrigued he became. He asked ex-Michigan Wolverine Maceo Baston, who came to training camp with the Pistons last season following great success with Maccabi, and got a ringing endorsement.

“My first thoughts of Israel was of bombings – it’s going to be bad. Maceo said, ‘It’s nothing like that. You’re going to love it. Don’t even worry about it. Maccabi is like the Lakers of Europe.’ ”

Baston wasn’t exaggerating. When Bynum touched down in Tel Aviv on a flight with another fledgling NBA player, Rodney Buford, a thousand fans greeted them.

“Media, people going crazy, chanting our names,” Bynum said. “I’m like, wow, I’m in a whole ’nuther place. It was crazy.”

It was about to get crazier. Fans in Europe take their basketball seriously. Bynum was pumped for his first game against Malaga of the tough Spanish league. It was a packed house in Tel Aviv in an NBA-sized arena. In a back-and-forth game. Bynum was at his best, slashing and scoring inside over bigger players with highlight-reel plays. He scored 30 points and Maccabi won by two.

“So the next day in the paper, they’re dogging me. They said I didn’t manage the game properly. They were dogging me everywhere I went. I’m out at a restaurant, they’d say, ‘Bynum, you’re real talented, but you need to watch tapes of Sarunas Jasikevicius. We love you, but you need to watch him and learn how to manage the game.’ ”

His coaches never said a word about it, but the fans and media kept at it. Jasikevicius had tried his hand at the NBA but was a half-step too slow to make an impact. In Europe, though, he was a legend, considered the consummate point guard who’d led Maccabi to the coveted Euroleague title. After a while, Bynum decided to see what the fuss was all about. He’d heard the same thing from NBA people. Yeah, we know you can score, but can you run a team?

“So I kept playing, but I watched some tapes, too. And you know what? They were right. He played with Maccabi all those years, they won like three championships in a row. Him and Maceo and Derek Sharp and Anthony Parker. He would run the show, get guys off and get them in position. He led that team. It was those things I was missing and it opened my eyes to it. I valued it a whole lot more, like I did when I was younger. I got that feel back for playing the position. That was critical for me, going over there.”

It was getting back that proved a little tricky.

‘It Was Horrible’

The occasion was his 25th birthday. Will Bynum was in the mood to celebrate. His older brother, Jerome, was staying with him and the Bynum brothers and a few of Will’s teammates decided to head to Planet Hip Hop, a Tel Aviv disco. It was in a neighborhood where Bynum’s Israeli-born teammates wouldn’t visit, but more because they were rock stars than any inherent dangers.

“To me, compared to where I come from, it was like Hollywood,” Bynum laughs. “All the American guys in Israel would party there every weekend. But everybody knows Maccabi, so the Jewish players, they wouldn’t go there. We didn’t want to listen to Israeli music all the time – we wanted to listen to hip hop.”

When Will Bynum wants to party, understand this: He doesn’t smoke and he doesn’t drink. Cancer didn’t just take down his father and threaten his mother’s life, it’s torn through both sides of his family. Aunts, uncles and cousins have been bombarded with sad cancer stories. Bynum is mindful of everything he puts into his body.

So the notion that Will Bynum got in his car after a night of drinking and intentionally ran someone down outside the streets of Planet Hip Hop, well, that never happened. But that’s what witnesses were telling police as Bynum sat in the stench of his Israeli prison cell.

It happened like this: Bynum and his brother exited Planet Hip Hop to find a menacing crowd fanned around them. About 20 men, he recalls, were flashing knives. His first instinct was to run to his car. In order to start the ignition, he had to enter a four-digit code and wait for a beep. That was a little more stressful than usual when a crowd throwing bricks at the car was closing in.

“I’m trying to press the code, but they’re throwing bricks at the car and the window is starting to give. My brother jumps out of the car before the window explodes on him. I didn’t know where he was. I started the car and panicked. I put my head down and drive and felt I hit something. It was the guy – the guy tussling with my brother. He’d thrown a brick and my brother caught it and as they were tussling, Jerome saw the car coming and moved out of the way. I felt the car hit something. I backed up, my brother jumped in the car with one of my teammates, Vonteego Cummings, and we left. It was crazy.”

Once again, it was about to get crazier.

The fans, who’d come to adore him, were on his side from the beginning. But the law? He wasn’t so sure about that.

“They didn’t give me a Breathalyzer, but they thought I was drunk. I spent four days in jail. It was horrible. I really couldn’t understand why I wasn’t out. I didn’t do nothing to nobody. This guy was saying I went outside, got in my car and just started running people over. C’mon. What am I going to do that for? There was some stuff back here saying it was over a girl. It was all just so crazy.”

It took the rest of that season for Bynum to have his name cleared. Just like when he went undrafted, just like when he scored 30 points and was told he needed to manage the game, he took the experience to heart.

“I learned from it. Hopefully, God blessed me and I’m fortunate enough not to get in another situation like that. Now I try my best not to be in those situations.”

“Israel changed Will as a person and as a basketball player,” said Jameel Ghauri, his old AAU coach. “I always tried to get Will to play the game from the shoulders up, not the shoulders down – play the game with your head. I see it in his game. When he went to Israel, the basketball IQ of players is higher at the top level of Europe than it is in the NBA. It forced him to play the game with a higher basketball IQ. It’s made Will a much more effective basketball player.

“As a man, Will came from that Chicago street basketball environment where everybody is a con man, everybody wants to get paid. I dealt with some of that with Will. You’ve got street agents, you’ve got coaches, all kinds of people who are playing games. What you grow up believing is that everybody plays games and nobody can be trusted. Now all of a sudden you’re in Israel, playing for a beautiful organization. He had people who were good, honest people. Now all of a sudden you see the world differently. Over in Israel, he finally got the chance to see life.”