Lakers’ reach extends all the way to London

LONDON -- In searching for winners and losers in the Lakers trade for the baddest man to ever wear horn-rimmed glasses, I’m visiting the USA basketball practice at East London University.

Just before reaching the gym on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I walk past a building called “The Kwame House.”

I’m not making that up.

Eventually I venture on to a hardwood floor, where I stumble into a balding dude with a surly frown who happens to play for the defending NBA champion Miami Heat.

So, LeBron James, any feelings about the Lakers’ acquisition of Dwight Howard?

“No,” he says.

But surely you have some thought about one of the biggest trades in NBA history — a deal that will directly threaten your Heat’s chances of repeating?

“No, I don’t,” he says.

Regarding this trade, James and the Heat are losers. Less than two months after they clinched their title, their buzz has already been muted and their favorite status for next season has already been threatened. Not to mention, the road to their coveted repeat just became much rockier.

A few steps from James, on a trainer’s table with his left knee being twisted into unimaginable positions, sits another guy whose team was potentially dented by this deal.

“Hey, we still have to play the games,” says the Clippers’ Chris Paul. “I felt this was going to happen a long time ago; it was just a matter of time.… It’s nothing new for me.”

Being swallowed whole by the Lakers’ presence is also nothing new for the Clippers, but last season was a nice respite for them as they often outplayed and always out-entertained their hallway rivals. Who would have thought the hype could be overshadowed so quickly? Who would have guessed that Lob City could be so ferociously dunked by the promise of Superman?

“It’s great for L.A. Getting Steve Nash was great; Dwight just makes it a bigger scene, more exciting,” Paul says. “But like I said, it sounds good and well, but you’ve got to play the game … and I cannot wait to play the game with my improved team. I. Can. Not. Wait.”

Paul, who you already know as perhaps the most gracious and genuine basketball player in town, exclaims that he is already planning for the second game of the season, when the Clippers play the Lakers. His excitement steals the moment, but the Lakers have again stolen the headlines.

Sitting in a folding chair next to Paul is a man in those headlines, a winner, probably the biggest winner in the deal, a man whose legacy can be cemented by it. Just when you thought Kobe Bryant had run out of adjectives in his Friday interview, a day later he finds new ones.

“All the pieces will complement each other magnificently,” he says. “From Steve [Nash] to myself toPau [Gasol] to Dwight, it’s amazing how it all happened, how it all shook out, but here we are.”

I ask Bryant about the one nagging issue in the deal, the alleged phone call between him and Howard last winter that supposedly did not go well, leading Howard to reject early Lakers overtures and making folks wonder about his attitude now. Turns out, there really was a phone call and, yeah, according to Bryant, he really was tough.

“What I explained to [Howard] is, we have a lot of talent here, not like Orlando where he’s a one-man show, pretty much,” Bryant says. “You have myself here, Pau here, there’s going to have to be a little give and take.”

Asked if he thought the phone call disillusioned Howard, Bryant laughs.

“I don’t think so,” he says. “He’s here, isn’t he?”

Well, Howard really didn’t have a choice. The ultimate outcome of this deal depends on just how “here” Howard chooses to be, seeing as he will indeed have to sacrifice and dial up his Orlando focus into a Kobe focus.

Charged with promoting that focus is the one man for whom the deal remains an uncertainty. Will Coach Mike Brown rise to the championship level required to guide this group of Hall of Famers? Or will their collective wills eventually crush one of basketball’s nicest guys?

Bryant jokingly guesses that Brown might freak out a few times, but he promises to have his back.

“I’ll be there to help him.... He’s still a young coach and I’ve been through a lot,” Bryant says. “He’s a willing learner, not one of those guys who says, ‘It’s my way or highway.’ He has the hunger to figure things out, that’s the key.”

It is a lack of such hunger that led to the final, biggest loser of the Dwight Howard trade. That would, of course, be Andrew Bynum.

As recently as five months ago, folks around the Lakers were jeering me for having the nerve to criticize their favorite man-child. Bynum had this city in his giant palm. But then he carelessly let it drop.

He loved being Hollywood, but he stopped working at entertaining, and now Hollywood has banished him to Philadelphia, writing a cautionary tale for any future Lakers big man who doesn’t embrace and enhance his legendary position.

“It’s so funny, everybody suddenly talking like Andrew Bynum was some slouch, but he is no slouch,” Paul says.

He’s not? Dwight Howard is here, and I don’t even remember.