By Sam Smith
Will Bynum can play in the NBA. He knows that; he’s been there. His 43 points earlier Wednesday for the Windy City Bulls at the D-league Showcase, the league’s midseason fashion show, is proof enough. Will just turned 34, a barely six-foot guard, who has made some money. He had five full seasons for the Detroit Pistons and an impressive two years in Israel with the top team, Maccabi Tel Aviv. But the love isn’t easily extinguished. Sure, there are the long bus rides and modest hotels, sparse crowds in some places. But it’s still hoopin’. Will’s a hooper.
“For the love,” said the Windy City Bulls point guard. “I just love playing. That’s what it’s all about, The D-league is one of the best options as far as the NBA being right up close and the competition is good. But don’t get me wrong. As long as I’m playing, I’m fine. I’m a humble guy. This is basketball. I’m home with my family, so it’s best for me.”
I asked Bynum why not retire. He’s got a nice home in the Northwest suburbs near Medinah, two young girls and a son a few months ago. So in some respects Windy City is ideal. The team is in Ontario, Canada this week for the annual Showcase and then back home for two games Jan. 27 and 28. So it’s also a chance to continue to play while also being near home to help with the family.
“My wife had a tough pregnancy,” Bynum says. “She came for a month (when he played in China last year); it’s been tough on her. So it’s been a blessing for me to be here; especially with the early pregnancy. Stay here and help out a lot.
“But this is the best job in the world,” says Bynum. “Whether you’re here, Windy City, overseas, the NBA, I’m doing what I dreamed about doing when I was a kid. I’m extremely blessed and try to take advantage of it.”
This is what I love best about the D-league, stories like that of Alfonzo McKinnie, the Chicago kid who is starring in the league out of a public tryout, NBA veterans like Will Bynum who have lived at the top of the game. Will set the Detroit Pistons record with 26 points in a quarter in 2008-09 in a late season game that knocked Charlotte out of the playoff chase and gave the spot to the Pistons. The following season he had a 20-assist game, the most for a Piston since Isiah Thomas and thus leading to his first NBA guaranteed contract for three years. He’d get another for two years with the Pistons, making some 30 starts with the team as a tough, reliable backup point guard with excellent pick and roll instincts.
“I was sitting in my office preparing for the draft watching film of Omri Casspi,” recalls then Pistons general manager Joe Dumars. “Omri’s playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv at the time and I kept seeing Will making incredible plays and finally I called one of our personnel people and told him we needed to find out what was happening with Will Bynum because I really liked what I saw.
“Will was absolutely great for us, one of my favorite players ever,” said Dumars. “He absolutely loves the game and is a really good guy. Will has the ability to walk on the floor and completely change the game, the tempo of the game. I was not surprised he could put up 26 points in a quarter and have 20 assists in an NBA game; he’s that talented. Will also is inspiring. He’s small in stature but he has a big heart and great spirit. Too often people make up their minds who a person is and never take the time to see if and how they’ve grown and gotten better and who they are.”
That’s the story for many of the guys in the D-league, good enough to be in the NBA, perhaps better than many. But there are all those rookies with three-year guaranteed contracts whom you are paying. So the guys who don’t fit the profile, like Will, slip through. He’s short, but with surprising jumping ability. He learned overseas how to run a team and has become an amazing passer. People make judgments about how you look before who you are.
When the Bulls’ Bobby Portis and Paul Zipser went to play with Windy City, he set them up for basket after basket even as you knew he could score at will, as it were. Will the Thrill, they called him growing up. He’s averaged 16.3 points in his three Windy City games. Then he went to the Showcase in front of dozens of NBA scouts and scored 43 points with four of seven threes and 13 of 13 on free throws with four assists and three steals.
It’s just the joy of playing the game he loved and perhaps saved his life.
Will’s story is familiar to many who grew up in Chicago, through his early itinerary was almost an inventory of thee worst of the Chicago Housing Authority, running the gauntlet of despair.
“Projects,” he says about where he grew up. “Ida B Wells, Stateway Gardens, Robert Taylor Homes.”
All were ordered torn down by the government. That’s how bad they were, dens of murder and drug addiction. Of course, Will wasn’t even supposed to survive birth as the last of his mom, Rose’s, seven children, the one who came after her bout with kidney cancer. The miracle child.
Will took up basketball small, as most of the kids do, and though diminutive had a big game. He started as a freshman at West Side Crane, which also was where he saved the life of his childhood buddy, Tony Allen, the longtime NBA player now with the Memphis Grizzlies.
They grew up playing together, but Tony had drifted, by then with gangs, not even playing basketball. So Will persuaded Tony to transfer to Crane and get a life.
“Me and Tony always played AAU,” said Bynum. “I’d known him since I was eight or nine. I saw him one day and found out he was not playing. ‘You not playing?’ I asked. ‘Crazy.’ He was a (high school) junior with no credits. I said, ‘You got to come to Crane.’ So they moved to the West Side, got him to transfer, moved to Henry Horner (homes). I moved in with him, to make sure he was going to class. Went to Saturday school, night school (to make up credits), worked out mornings to make sure he was going to class.”
I asked Bynum why he did all that. He looked at me quizzically.
“That’s my guy,” he said. “That’s what you are supposed to do.”
That is who Will Bynum is, which is why point guard—in addition to the lack of height—is who he was. He was about also making it better for others.
“Sad, but it’s the norm, pulled over for no reason, people thinking you are a drug dealer because you drive a nice car. All perception and always a negative thing,” says Bynum. “I’m the same person who stops at parks teaching kids; you get pulled over and think something different. I take the good with the bad. I had a friend shot. This summer one of the young guys I was mentoring since high school was killed. These kids need opportunities; it’s the only thing that will take them away from this violence. You have to provide as a people for everyone so people have hope; a lot of people don’t have hope.”
Bynum excelled and got the invite to Point Guard Haven at the U. of Arizona, where the likes of Jason Terry, Mike Bibby and Damon Stoudemire played, Gilbert Arenas to come. His class included Channing Frye and Andre Iguodala.
But it was a desert too far. When his mom became ill, Will decided he needed to be closer and transferred to Georgia Tech. He played behind Jarrett Jack there, but he was the guy who made the last second shot in the 2004 Final Four to knock out Oklahoma State and Tony Allen and go to the final game against Connecticut with Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor.
Underappreciated by the pros because of his size and backup status, Bynum went undrafted even as he routinely outplayed the best of the college guys and even pros in the Chicago summer games. Tough to shake the labels.
But Will was going to be playing basketball for a living; sounded fine to him.
“One of the good things about me is I never listen to what people say, tell you about not being good enough, can’t make it,” says Bynum. “I was determined, I was focused. When guys were out partying, I was in the gym. That’s been me from Day 1 and that’s going to continue to be me. I understand my history, my background that makes me mentally tough. I can be in any situation and I can get the best out of myself in that situation, being able to adjust and stick to my principles, staying focused, taking advantage of opportunities and outworking guys; that’s what I’ve been doing my entire life.”
He’s as straight arrow as they come, and yet there he was in jail in Israel.
The Celtics signed him for summer league after the draft and he spent the 2005-06 season between the D-league and a few NBA 10-day deals. Then someone suggested Israel. War, bombings, terrorism? Wasn’t the South and West sides enough? Bynum dodged his share of bullets to get to school, family members were everything from jailed to a pastor, friends and relatives shot dead.
“Israel is one of most amazing places,” says Bynum. “I knew all bad things, so I talked to (Anthony) Parker and he said it was amazing and encouraged me to go. Once I got there they show you nothing but love, one of best places I’ve ever been. First class organization; Tel Aviv is one of best places in world, beautiful, on the beach, the way to run an organization top to bottom.
“It’s also when I learned the game,” says Bynum. “I learned the value of the pass, had great coaches, watched a lot film of European point guards. Their leadership and passing and I kind of stole a lot of that when I was there; it helped me out, helped me to get my career to where it went.”
But first a stop in a Tel Aviv jail, which wasn’t so first class.
Will and a brother were jumped in a robbery attempt coming out of a club. It was a popular place for Americans. Will doesn’t smoke or drink, his father having died of cancer and his mother contracting cancer. So he was just out for a night to relax. His car was surrounded by a gang of about 20 and he later was accused of using his car to run down people.
“That changed my entire life from that moment,” he says. “I knew I’d get out because I didn’t do anything wrong, but that was horrible going through that for my family, my wife and mom. Back then with no social media I couldn’t get my side out. Stories were circulating. I’ve never done anything wrong my entire life, and then to have that in another country. I was locked up there four days, the slowest time of my life, seconds seemed like hours.”
It also wasn’t quite the luxury of where he stayed in Tel Aviv, the jail sparse and feces and rodent infested. He would be cleared by an Israeli court of all charges.
He went home and then came the call from Dumars. Illinois’ Dee Brown, who was going to summer league, signed with Washington. There was a spot for Will.
In 2014, he was traded to Boston for Joel Anthony, was released and went to play in China, came back to finish the season with the Wizards, returned to China last season and then got some strings pulled so he could be selected by the Windy City Bulls, who needed a point guard after the Nets signed Spencer Dinwiddie.
It’s Hoffman Estates now and Bynum’s having fun; it’s basketball.
“It’s all part of the business,” says Bynum about his D-league adventure. “I just stay prepared and keep working. I try not to focus on anything negative, just try to focus on what I can control and what I can control is staying in great shape and being ready for the opportunity. That’s what I’ve been doing my entire career.
“I’ve been on teams with Allen Iverson, Chauncey Billups, Ben Gordon, Rodney Stuckey, guys who made it,” says Bynum. “I’ve been through the toughest battles regardless of where I am at, whatever situation. I understand the business aspect, so I’m not emotionally attached. I understand my game and who I am, what I bring to the table.
“I’m still in great shape, no major injuries,” Bynum noted. “I’m a basketball player at heart; that’s what I do. I live it 24/7; you have to live it coming from where I come from to get the opportunity. It would be the same thing in a (business) company. I would live it, give it everything I have. With those principles you can succeed in whatever you do.”