Kobe Bryant is ready to hand Lakers’ reins over to Dwight Howard


LONDON — On the day the Lakers officially acquired the man who could one day lift the franchise torch from the aging hands of Kobe Bryant, another equally compelling thing happened.

Bryant said he would be ready, willing and thrilled to hand it to him.

On the day Dwight Howard became the newest Laker, their legendary star anointed him as the next Kobe Bryant.

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“Look, I’m going to play two, maybe three more years … then the team is his,” Bryant said Friday night. “I’m excited for the Laker franchise. Now they have a player that can carry the franchise well after I’m gone. It should be his. He should be willing to accept that challenge.”

Bryant was speaking almost giddily after an Olympic semifinal game against Argentina in which Howard, although back in Los Angeles, chalked up his first Lakers statistic. Who would have guessed that it would be an assist? That’s how it appeared during the game’s first five throwback minutes, Bryant seemingly renewed by Howard’s arrival and energized that his Lakers were true title contenders again.

After trudging through most of this tournament, Bryant suddenly flew. After acting old and distracted, he was suddenly young again.

He hit one three-pointer, then a dunk, then another three, and another three. There was a steal. There was a defensive rebound. By the time the game was five minutes old, Bryant had already scored 11 points in an eventual 109-83 victory.

Soon after the game was finished, he was standing in front of me acting as openly happy as I’ve seen Kobe Bryant act in two years. The protocol was that I initially ask questions about the Olympics, but I asked only about Howard, who was officially acquired Friday in a long-awaited, four-team deal in which Andrew Bynum was sent to the Philadelphia 76ers.

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Turns out, the heck with the Olympics. Bryant couldn’t stop talking about the NBA’s gold-medal big man.

“It’s going to be sensational,” he said.

“One of the greatest players of all time,” he said.

“We’re excited about the physical presence he brings, the athleticism he brings,” he said.

Then he talked about passing that torch, and considering Bryant has spent the last few years acting as though he would rather swallow it, those words burned with meaning.

This trade for the NBA’s biggest and baddest player will work only if the combination of Howard and Bryant can work, and that’s never been a sure thing. There were reports last winter that Howard was reluctant to come to Los Angeles because, in a supposed recruiting phone call, Bryant told him he would only be the team’s third option. Howard apparently didn’t think he could live with Bryant’s attitude, and because of that, he told officials he would not consider signing a contract extension beyond this season if traded to the Lakers.

Judging from Friday, either Bryant never said those things or he’s totally changed his feelings, because he was truly excited and embracing.

This time, the phone call came from Howard to Bryant. And this time, Bryant said he was a regular Welcome Wagon.

“I talked to Dwight this morning, he gave me a call, he was happy to find a home,” said Bryant. “I told him, Los Angeles is the perfect place for him, look at history, all the great centers that have come to L.A., now he’s the next in line, he couldn’t have been in a better position than to be with this type of an organization.”

Now that Bryant has talked about sacrificing, did he think Howard would also be willing to sacrifice?

“He’s not going to have to sacrifice that much,” Bryant said. “If he does what he does, he’ll get more touches here than he did in Orlando. ... The simple fact is, we’ll play through him a lot. He’ll be a lot more at ease because he’s surrounded by better talent.”

As for the Lakers’ defense, Bryant confirmed the obvious, that everything will revolve around the NBA’s ultimate stopper.

“You can really funnel a lot of things into him; it gives you the ability to play passing lanes a lot more,” he said.

Does Howard make the Lakers a championship team? “Absolutely,” Bryant said.

Does that mean the Lakers can now match up with the defending champion Miami Heat? “We’re bigger,” Bryant said.

Are his Olympic teammates upset at the potential change of order in the NBA, with the Lakers once again somehow finding their way back to the top?

“They’re not saying much to me; I’ve heard they are, but we haven’t had those conversations yet,” Bryant said with a chuckle.

He got serious when he confirmed that this trade is really not about Dwight Howard, but about the Lakers, and their consistent commitment to a championship. Even amid leadership transition, with Jim Buss taking sometimes awkward control from Jerry Buss, the Lakers refuse to be anything but the Lakers. This trade was a huge win for the younger Buss, another huge endorsement of General Manager Mitch Kupchak, and yet another reason the Lakers are the best franchise in professional sports.

“History speaks for itself,” said Bryant. “There are certain franchises that seem to make all the right decisions. The credit goes to management. The CP [Chris Paul] trade falls through, they regroup, and they come up with something that’s even better. It’s impressive.”

Their star is on his last legs. They take a chance and trade their beloved young Bynum for a guy they believe can be the next star. From Kobe Bryant to Dwight Howard, the line of succession has been found.

The Lakers figured it out. They always do.