"This whole season has been a great learning experience for me," Howard said late Wednesday night after the Lakers' 99-95 overtime victory over the Rockets. "It's been a humbling experience, but also a learning experience. I had to learn from my mistakes, learn from watching guys like Kobe and Pau [Gasol], dealing with the L.A. media, it's a lot different."
He understands now that injuries — he was recovering from back surgery when the season started and says he is still not fully healed — are no excuse for intensity.
"It was a tough process, I kept fighting. I kept coming in and working my butt off," he said.
He understands now that every loss is a big Lakers deal, as he still smiles and jokes in the locker room, but no longer grins at a missed free throw or turnover.
"It has been maturing me, making me a better leader for this team,'' he said of his season.
He was the only Laker to speak to the team before its first practice after Bryant's injury. He has since been the loudest Laker speaking in the huddles and after the games. Everyone knew he had a laugh, who knew he also had a voice?
"They are all looking at me," he said.
Everyone was still looking at him long after Wednesday's victory when he met Gasol in the Staples Center hallway outside the Lakers' locker room. They unabashedly hugged and walked to their cars together as if leaving a high school gym. Howard led. Gasol followed. It was a nice ending. It was a sweet beginning.