Lakers center Andrew Bynum gets ready to play against the San Antonio Spurs… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
It was a radiant night in Miami, the city's trendiest restaurant bristling with energy as wealthy South Beach patrons and their entourages nibbled on sautéed Hudson Valley foie gras and Hawaiian bigeye tuna tartare.
Then Lakers center Andrew Bynum walked through the door. Alone.
He grabbed a table in the corner, chatted pleasantly with a few women at the next table and ate briskly. Then he left, stepping out into the South Beach night the same way he arrived.
The largest player on the Lakers, seven feet tall and close to 300 pounds, couldn't be any more different from the one who held his post a decade ago.
When Shaquille O'Neal arrived in Los Angeles in 1996, he wrapped his arms around as many people as possible. He was everywhere, handing out gifts as a giant Santa in the winter, enjoying cigars on city sidewalks in the summer, always clowning around with anybody who approached him.
People were fascinated by O'Neal, who broke basketball backstops with his forceful dunks and popped up in a slew of TV commercials and movies.
Wherever the Lakers went, nightclubs eagerly trumpeted the arrival of Shaq. They advertised in advance, paid him a generous appearance fee and often claimed to be celebrating his birthday, regardless of accuracy.
"Shaq thrived being in the spotlight and having a lot of attention on him," said Brian Shaw, a former O'Neal teammate and current Lakers assistant coach. "Andrew kind of shies away from that. He's more introverted. They're totally different in every way."
O'Neal had a home off Mulholland Drive, overlooking Los Angeles with a massive Superman logo stenciled onto his front door. Bynum has lived almost his entire NBA career with his mother on a suburban street in the shadow of Los Angeles International Airport.
O'Neal openly defied Kobe Bryant, offended by the kid's reluctance to acquiesce to the older and allegedly wiser veteran, leading to years of discomfort between the two.
Bynum gladly defers to Bryant. As the Lakers emerged from their midseason swoon and embarked on a 17-1 run, a reporter asked the suddenly soaring Bynum if he was the best player on the team.
"Are you kidding me?" he said incredulously. "We have Kobe Bryant and we have Pau Gasol. Kind of silly …"
Bynum, 23, can often be found before a game with a Kindle in his hands, either enduring a round of Sudoku or scrolling through an e-book. One of his recent titles billed itself as the "original science" of self-improvement and success. Yes, he's smart. And he wants to learn.
He owns a fleet of luxury cars and has had memorable on-the-town moments, but they're more aberration than reputation.
He was once photographed at a party with a Playboy bunny on his shoulder. He also "made it rain" at a club on his 21st birthday, dropping money from a stage, mostly in low-denomination bills. He later told Lakers Coach Phil Jackson he threw $100 … total.
"I guess it drizzled, actually," Bynum said in retrospect.
Bynum's teammates like him. He will engage in card games on the plane and drop sarcastic put-downs from time to time, getting laughs out of them.
His nickname when he arrived was "Socks" because he used to wear them while getting clean in locker-room showers. Now his nickname is simply 'Drew.
The physical comparisons to O'Neal began the night Bynum was drafted 10th overall in June 2005. The Lakers had recently missed the playoffs for only the second time in 22 years, and their fans were hungry for a savior.
Bynum even made reference to O'Neal that night, promising to be a better free-throw shooter than his predecessor.
But O'Neal had three years of seasoning at Louisiana State, then four years with the Orlando Magic before signing as a free agent with the Lakers. Bynum played sporadically in high school because of injuries and an ineligibility ruling after a transfer.
"Totally different foundation there," said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has mentored Bynum over the years. "Shaq had a much longer apprenticeship in basketball, was a lot more attuned to the game coming to the Lakers than Andrew. Andrew had only played two years of high school ball and didn't finish either year. It's a big difference."
Wracked by knee injuries, Bynum has been a continual work in progress. He just experienced the best playoff series of his six-year career, averaging 15.2 points and 10.3 rebounds against undersized New Orleans in the first round.
"Andrew's a nice guy and he has a tough, mean side but you have to really, really poke at him to get it to come out," Shaw said. "Shaq is a nice guy in that he's very generous, but you don't really have to prod him to get [on-court anger] to come out. Once he steps on the court, if you try to get in his way, he's going to run over you. He's going to try to tear a rim down. He was trying to dunk everything that was close to the basket. If you came driving into him, you were going to hit his body and go backward.