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Andrew Bynum has turned a corner in managing his injuries

July 21, 2010 | 11:30 am

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There Lakers Coach Phil Jackson stood outside the locker room before a game in March, imagining brighter days ahead for Andrew Bynum. He shared how his conditioning level changed partly because of his willingness to arrive to practice early so he could work on his strength. Jackson predicted Bynum would become an All-Star center "someday." And when I asked Jackson whether Bynum had learned to overcome the psychological component of worrying about his injury history, he pointed to that factor as a significant part of Bynum's growth.

"Just going to Memphis to play a game in January was a concern for Andrew. He had a six-point night or something like that," Jackson said of Bynum, who missed 46 regular-season games in the 2007-08 season because of a partially dislocated kneecap suffered against the Memphis Grizzlies. Bynum was sidelined for 32 games last season because of a right-knee injury, also suffered against Memphis. "He's carried the injuries he's had against Memphis the last two seasons with him on that road trip "Even though one was at home and the other one was in Memphis, they both happened in January. It was a mindset. He had to overcome just that thought or that suspicion that hit him. I think he's pretty clear with that now."

The backdrop of this conversation proved to be a bad omen. Bynum strained his left Achilles' tendon later that night after running up the court in the third quarter during an uneventful regular-season game against Minnesota in March, causing him to miss the final 13 regular-season games. The injury woes continued in the postseason when Bynum hyperextended his right knee during Game 6 of the Lakers' first-round series against Oklahoma.

Laker fans have tested their patience level with Bynum, who has yet to reach his full potential because of what he acknowledged as an "injury-prone" career thus far. The conversation that took place before the Lakers-Minnesota game perfectly illustrated how one moment it can appear that Bynum's on the upswing, and the next moment another injury happens. That's why it wasn't surprising that fans openly shared their suspicions after the team announced Wednesday that Bynum will have surgery for the second time in three years on his right knee on July 28. That's 10 days after the date Bynum originally planned to have it,  although The Times' Broderick Turner  wrote that the delay merely points to the fact that Bynum's doctor, Dr. David Altchek, didn't have an appointment available until later this month. Turner quotes Lakers spokesman John Black as saying, "Supposedly he'll be 100% by training camp," although he adds that the team will have a more definitive timetable after Bynum has the surgery.

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I understand the never-ending anxiety regarding Bynum's injury, and I'll admit I'm not fully confident myself that Bynum can get through a season injury-free. But the way he responded to his  injuries in the 2009-10 season shows he's managed to handle his injuries better and has learned to remain effective despite them.

When Jackson arrived at practice the day after Bynum strained his Achilles' tendon, he noticed Bynum had the same even-keeled approach immediately after his latest injury. It would've been understandable had Bynum sulked. He wanted to get through one full season without suffering a major injury. He had also entered the contest against the Timberwolves averaging 15.9 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks on 56.8% shooting in March, including a four-game stretch where he posted 20 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks on a clip at 63.3%. With frustrations often getting the best of Bynum, I asked Jackson at the time whether his optimistic outlook served as an example of his growth in handling adversity.

"There wasn't as much remorse and ruing the fact that it happened and what it could possibly have been," Jackson said after practice that day. "I was kind of pleased with that."

The Lakers were also pleased with how Bynum responded. He took medicine to help alleviate the pain that extended from his calf muscle to his Achilles' tendon. He alternated between using ice and heat compression, going through laser therapy and wearing a boot. Bynum became fully healthy once the playoffs began, and he exceeded expectations with 13 points in 30 minutes in the Lakers' 87-79 Game 1 victory over the Thunder, surpassing the 24 minutes Jackson originally thought Bynum could play. 

The enthusiasm among Laker fans proved to be short-lived, however, because Bynum injured his knee five games later and his effectiveness was limited throughout the rest of the postseason. But after missing the 2008 NBA Finals and most of the 2009 playoffs, Bynum blocked out the pain, knowing his teammates were playing through injuries and this was an opportunity to prove his maturity. He constantly received treatment to minimize the swelling. He drained his knee twice during the NBA Finals, a procedure he had previously opposed because of his fear of needles. And even through his physical limitations, Bynum's presence alone caused matchup problems, discouraged opponents from driving to the basket and provided another option for easy rebounds and putbacks, resulting in an of average of 7.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 25 minutes during the NBA Finals against Boston. He shared during his exit interview that he planned to work out with a Lakers trainer in Los Angeles and Vancouver after his surgery to rehab his knee and improve his core strength, with both approaches intended as preventative measures against future injuries.

Regardless of how Bynum's career turns out, the 2009-2010 season proved to be a significant turning point. Bynum should be lauded for learning how to play alongside Pau Gasol. More importantly, Bynum should be lauded for learning how to play through injuries. He won universal praise in the locker room, never made excuses and took pride in contributing on hustle points. Sure, his surgery may be followed by more setbacks regarding his health. But if that happens, fans should be comforted in knowing that Bynum will do whatever it takes to fight through them and still remain effective.

--Mark Medina

Follow the L.A. Times Lakers blog on Twitter: twitter.com/latmedina. E-mail the Lakers blog at mgmedin@gmail.com

Photo: Lakers center Andrew Bynum battles Boston center Rasheed Wallace for a rebound in Game 7 of this year's NBA Finals. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

Photo: Lakers center Andrew Bynum has the upper hand for an offensive rebound in a battle with Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love during a regular season game in March. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times


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