In dark times, Lakers’ Howard continues to keep the light on

Dwight Howard is averaging 17.3 points and 12.4 rebounds this season.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Showtime for the Lakers is now 90 minutes before tipoff.

It takes place inside the locker room, Dwight Howard leading a fast break toward frivolity.

The All-Star center notices a television cameraman fixed on his every move at his locker early in the season and bends over to reveal a backside covered only by gray underwear.

“I’ve got a wide shot for you,” he says.

Howard mimics Kobe Bryant’s strut and then his own long-range shooting form in late November, flicking his wrist to show how he makes a three-pointer.

“If the game is on the line and you need a three,” says a player who has made only two in his NBA career, “you’ve got to give it to me.”

Howard eagerly complies with a Chinese TV reporter’s request to repeat phrases in her native language earlier this week, exaggerating his accent and drawing hearty laughter from the woman’s colleagues.

Ni hao,” he says, one of the few expressions he pronounces correctly.

In a season of so much Lakers gibberish, Howard is making sense by revealing more than just a glimpse of his glittering personality. Home or road, win or lose, the message is always the same: Howard remains happy to be here despite his team’s epic struggles, which should thrill those who hope he signs a maximum contract extension this summer.

The fun starts with extended pregame access to one of the game’s biggest stars, a rarity in this league.

Gather around his locker and open your ears. You never know what you may hear.

Topics include Howard’s preferred Chinese delicacies (sticky tofu), memorable exotic trips (safari in Tanzania) and rookie Robert Sacre’s vertical leap (6 inches, according to Howard). Nothing is off-limits, though the Lakers’ continuing misfortunes rarely come up. Non sequiturs are encouraged.

“Quentin Tarantino’s mother dated Wilt Chamberlain?” Howard asks no one in particular Wednesday in San Antonio while staring at his iPad.

Ten or so reporters regularly surround Howard before Lakers’ home games, learning more about him during the 45 minutes of media availability than they do while watching him play for 21/2 hours on the court.

Howard can be as probing as he is revealing, quizzing reporters on songs from his iPod and asking one Jewish reporter why she doesn’t read the Torah.

“There are some stories that I’ve had that maybe a reporter has never been out of the country or experienced certain things and I can tell them about it and vice versa,” Howard says when asked about the pregame exchanges. “You guys have been writing for a long time, so you’ve seen a lot come through here. Sometimes it’s a history lesson for me. It’s fun.”

Not everyone participates in the festivities.

Bryant walks past Howard’s locker before most games at Staples Center without breaking stride on his way to or from the trainer’s room, headphones invariably covering his ears.

Howard doesn’t seem to mind. He wants Bryant to hear it before the Lakers’ Christmas game against the New York Knicks, suggesting his teammates pat their thighs and hiss like a snake in unison when the self-proclaimed Black Mamba’s name is announced.

The contrast in demeanors between the superstars is a topic Howard doesn’t slither around.

“Having me and Kobe is kind of like …" Howard says, pausing to consider his words, " … we need to always make sure that we’re focused but at the same time remember that we’re playing basketball for a living, so let’s have fun while we do it.”

Howard’s season could be described as a joy story.

When a reporter asks him Tuesday in Houston if he will assume Sacre’s role as head cheerleader on the bench while sidelined with a shoulder injury, Howard laments that he can’t because he forgot to pack his suit.

No worries. A pudgy middle-aged reporter offers his checkered sports coat and the 6-foot-11 Howard quickly puts it on, the sleeves descending only a few inches past his elbows.

Howard says his playfulness earned him a reputation as a goofball in Orlando, even though the 27-year-old never regaled reporters before games in his final seasons there to the extent he does now.

“I can’t focus on that anymore,” Howard says of the criticism. “I’ll be who I am. I enjoy talking to people. I think the media people who write about us need to see the other side of who we are. We’re not just who we are on the floor or how people want to depict us, but I think it’s good to have some type of relationship with the people that write about you because they’re the ones that really tell our stories.”

Howard makes that easy by being the most accessible Laker, consistently available at shoot-arounds in a league where few All-Stars talk before games. He also lingers after practices to talk, once sitting on a stack of purple mats so long that a trainer emerged from a back room to wrap bags of ice around his knees while Howard was still conducting interviews.

Reporters may not always like what Howard has to say. He imitates sideline TV reporter Mike Trudell’s baritone voice and tells veteran sportscaster Jim Hill that he needs to put more swag into his delivery because he’s putting his peeps to sleep.

Howard tends to laugh no matter whom the joke is on.

“Dwight’s always enjoying himself,” says Stan Van Gundy, who coached Howard for five seasons in Orlando. “One thing about him that I’ve always admired, and we were very different in that regard and it may have caused some friction at times, but I’ve always admired that no matter how things were going, Dwight could see the positive side of things and enjoy himself and enjoy life.

“So even though the Lakers have struggled, that’s not going to take away his enjoyment and that’s a great credit to him.”

There may not be a pregame banner being raised at Staples Center any time soon, but there will always be pregame banter as long as Howard is around.