Will the Thrill: Part V

Joe D's phone call gave Bynum the break he needed to crash the NBA

A phone call from Joe Dumars changed Will Bynum's life.
Gregory Shamus/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 story is Part V, the final installment, 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.

A few months after getting cleared of wrongdoing in Israel, Will Bynum took that phone call from Joe Dumars that changed his life.

“His words were like a dream,” Bynum says. “It was going slow. I couldn’t believe it. It was like a crank phone call. It was great for me to hear it and for him to call just gave me extra motivation. He said he looked for guys who have that edge, who have that passion, who just need that chance. He thought I was one of the guys who just needed an opportunity and that it was my time to show that.”

Tim Anderson, who’d been with him since before the glory days at Chicago Crane, was with Bynum when Joe D’s call came. Thrilled as he was that the opportunity he knew Bynum craved had arrived, he felt compelled to snap him back to reality. Dumars was offering a chance, with a good Summer League showing, to earn the NBA minimum salary of less than $500,000 in the first year. Teams in Europe were offering far more.

“That’s my best friend,” Anderson said. “That’s my brother. I told him he had the opportunity to go to Barcelona and make $2.8 million. And I said if you make the Pistons, you’ll be making the league minimum. Why risk all this for the league minimum?

“He looked me in the face and said, ‘This is why I play basketball. I never cared about the money.’ If it was me, I would have taken the money. But Joe called, his eyes lit up like Christmas trees. We were eating turkey sandwiches. Right after the conversation, he didn’t even let his food digest. He said he was going to put up 500 shots and make 300. It took him 485 shots. He said, ‘Man, it’s Joe Dumars – from the Bad Boys.’ ”

Bynum rode the wave during a rookie season marked by tumult around him. The Goin’ to Work Pistons who’d gone to six straight conference finals were in transition. One of the great appeals to signing with the Pistons was the thought that his point guard education would continue apace under Chauncey Billups’ tutelage. But two games into the season, Dumars, motivated by the chance to get below the salary cap to pursue young building-block free agents the following summer, shipped Billups to Denver for Allen Iverson.

“When Chauncey left, it was a downer,” Anderson said. “Chauncey was showing him how to be a professional. He showed him how to walk on the court. But to get Iverson, he was excited about that. Iverson was a role model to us when we were coming up. He was excited.”

With Michael Curry determined to milk the Iverson experiment for all it was worth, Bynum’s role shriveled. He had some nice moments early in the season as the Pistons went without an injured Stuckey for a few games and without Iverson for a few others as they awaited trade clearance. But only over the last 20 games, when Iverson had gone home with a back injury and the Pistons were desperate for a spark, did Curry give Bynum a bigger role.

On many nights, he was simply the best Piston on the floor. Never was that more true than an April 5 game with Charlotte, which was sneaking up on the Pistons and threatening to squeeze them out of the playoff field. With the Bobcats matching them basket for basket, the Pistons needed everything Bynum could give them – which turned out to be 32 points, 26 of them in the fourth quarter as he eclipsed Thomas’ franchise record of 25 in a quarter.

That was the night he knew he belonged. He always suspected it, at least since his college days when he’d go back to Chicago and dominate Pro-Am summer games sprinkled with guys who’d at least had a cup of coffee in the NBA.

“I’d be destroying them, scoring like 60 or 70. But it was the little things I wasn’t doing – playing defense, rebounding, running my team, getting guys in position. Those were the things I didn’t know how to do that separated me from them.”

That 26-point quarter made everybody sit up and take notice. The Pistons signed Will Bynum to be their No. 3 point guard, convinced as they scanned the big board in Joe D’s office that lists depth charts for every NBA team that he would hold his own or better with anybody else’s No. 3. By the time they traded Chauncey Billups, they were convinced he could do the same with anybody else’s No. 2.

But that 26-point quarter suggested bigger things.

“In Will’s mind, he just wants an opportunity to show he can lead a team,” said Jameel Ghauri, his former AAU coach and still a friend and mentor. “In the NBA, you get labeled. Will is trying to work through that label that he’s a good guy off the bench but not a guy capable of running a team.”

Yet Bynum didn’t cringe when the Pistons brought Iverson on board, nor when Dumars used his salary cap bounty in July 2009 to bring in Ben Gordon from Chicago.

“I thought, man, we got another good player,” Bynum said. “I knew Ben from Chicago and from UConn. We played in the national championship game. I was knee deep in training with (Tracy) McGrady and Gilbert (Arenas) and a bunch of other guys – there were so many pros – and I was standing out there, so I knew I belonged. I was just trying to do everything possible to make sure if I get an opportunity, I could show those guys that I’m really good, too.”

Eat, Sleep, Dream

Five hundred shots on a full stomach – anybody who’s ever known Will Bynum isn’t surprised by that story. If anything, the people around him try to get him to cut back. Bynum worked out so maniacally last summer under Grover, he lost 15 pounds from a frame already packed with muscle. A few days before Pistons training camp opened last fall, Bynum had to be taken away by ambulance after feeling lightheaded at the practice facility, hospitalized overnight while being rehydrated.

“I’ve been around a lot of pro guys,” Anderson said. “Never in my life have I met someone who works as hard as Will. When we were in high school, we’d start at 7 in the morning and play basketball until class started. We’d get out of class at noon and we had a work internship, so we’d go eat and play basketball until practice started at 3:30. After practice, we’d go to the James Jordan Center, we’d drill every day for two hours.

“Now it’s 9 o’clock at night, and if it’s a school day I’d go over and spend it at Will’s house and we’d do it again. On the weekend, we’d be at the track at Crane at 9:30 running with jump soles. Will used to wear those shoes and race in them. Will is so competitive. It’s hard to walk in those shoes, let alone run.

“He wants to beat you running to the door. He wants to compete to see who can eat the fastest. He’s always told me, you have to eat, sleep and dream academics and basketball. I wasn’t working as hard as Will, I was just dragged into it. I’ve been around a lot of pros – Arenas, Wade, Luther Head. Still never seen a guy who works as hard as Will.”

Renowned Chicago-based trainer Tim Grover saw the same thing over the summer. Get to his gym at 9 in the morning, work on the court for 60 to 90 minutes, head to the weight room for another half-hour, then play pickup basketball with whatever assortment of NBA stars and college hopefuls happened to be there that day. Get a bite to eat, go back out and get up more shots. Go home – only to come back at night two or three times a week to crank up another 500 shots.

“We knew he would have a breakout season this year,” Grover said midway through the 2009-10 season. “Which he was having until the ankle injuries.”

Ah, yes. In the strangest sort of injury bad karma to ever wash over the Pistons, Rip Hamilton played a brilliant season opener before turning his right ankle late in the game, missing the next 21, later missing time with a hamstring pull. Ben Gordon turned his left ankle Nov. 25 against Cleveland and missed 10 games, only to return and be shelved by a groin strain. Tayshaun Prince, who didn’t miss a game due to injury in his first seven seasons, ruptured a disc in his back that cost him 26 games, then came back only to go down with a sore knee.

Bynum turned his right ankle in November, came back too soon and turned his left ankle in December. Just when he was nearing clearance for a return, he overdid it in a pickup game and reaggravated the left ankle sprain.

“He needs to be smarter about that,” Grover said. “Will likes to play so much, he didn’t want to take any time off. I believe Will can perform at a starting level for an NBA team and play at a very, very high level. But there are still things he needs to learn and the things he needs to learn are not basketball-related stuff, it’s more health care and injury prevention. With the little heartaches he’s gone through this year, it’s starting to sink in.

“He’s so gifted athletically, he’s never had to work at some things. But when you’re that gifted athletically, you’re so much more susceptible to injury. Muscles are more susceptible because of the force you exert. He generates speed and forces and torque on his muscles that somebody like an average NBA player can’t imagine. Look at the Olympics. Those people are sprinting at a pace that 99.999 percent of the world can’t, but they’re always pulling hamstrings. Their bodies have to be in perfect alignment.”

‘A Great Spirit’

Getting to the NBA isn’t how Will Bynum’s dream ends. Leaving a mark on the NBA is how it ends. A big one. His dream wasn’t to spend two years coming off the bench, making the minimum. That contract he signed with the Pistons in July 2008 expired when last season ended, and as much as Bynum enjoyed his time in Israel, and for all the growth he realized as a basketball player and as a man, he wasn’t about to go back.

Ghauri’s never seen anyone who walked through the doors of the Bray Center with a fire in his belly for basketball quite like Will Bynum’s.

“Like I said, Will can look intimidating – like a hard, tough, mean guy. But he’s easy to get along with. He’s as tough as anyone I’ve ever been around, but he’s also as humble as anybody I’ve ever been around. He’s got a really good heart. He just loves basketball. In fact, that was the difference when I looked at Will and looked at Caron (Butler, who grew up in Racine and played for Ghauri.) Caron loves what basketball can do for him. Will just loves to play the game.”

Bynum became a restricted free agent in July. Any team could have signed Bynum to an offer sheet, but the Pistons would have had seven days to match the offer. And Joe Dumars made it known to any of his peers thinking about pocketing Will Bynum for their own: think again.

“I think there will be people interested in Will, despite what the economics may be,” Dumars said before free agency. “I look at him as a game-changer and whenever you have a player like that, people are going to be interested. But let me be clear, sitting here right now, we have no notion of letting Will walk out of the door. We’ll re-sign him and he’ll be one of the core members here for a long time.”

That was fine with Will Bynum, who isn’t about to stop running made clear his preference for sinking roots with the Pistons.

“I love Detroit. I love the fans. It’s close to home and it’s pretty much my family now. In a sense, I feel like I owe Joe that loyalty, because of how loyal he was to me. That was one of the things growing up, in my household, we really value.”

There was too much going on here for Will Bynum to fulfill his NBA destiny somewhere other than Detroit. Getting his shot only because his Small Fry rival, Dee Brown, got a better offer. The striking parallels to Isiah Thomas’ story. The connection between the president who gave him his chance and the kid chasing a dream who grabbed it with both hands.

“Will has a great spirit about him,” Joe D said. “And I like that spirit. I like being around people like that, guys who appreciate opportunities like this in life, and this kid does. I’ve never been surprised at what he’s doing. I don’t know why. It’s just … he’s got something special about him. He’s the poster child of when you get that opportunity, don’t let it slip. And he hasn’t. He hasn’t let it slip.”

There’s no time to slip, not when you’re running, chasing a dream moving at its own swift pace. Will Bynum has been halfway around the world and back. He knows there are others out there chasing that same dream, the dream that’s been the wind at his back since he was racing to get to that brick building before the bullets started flying. He puts his faith in this: If it comes down to who wants it more, if the dream is really just about who’ll work hardest to breathe it to life, the NBA won’t ever forget Will Bynum.