Dwight Howard refuses to dwell on Magic past, Lakers future
With a gleam in his eye, Dwight Howard looked down on the Lakers jersey that General Manager Mitch Kupchak held in his hand. It had No. 12. The gold cloth looked freshly stitched. Emblazoned on the back of the jersey was Howard’s name.
It provided symbolic reference to what Howard repeatedly called a “fresh start” during a 30-minute news conference Friday at the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo. This came only a day after the Lakers struck an agreement to acquire Howard from the Orlando Magic in a four-team, 12-player deal that included shipping off Andrew Bynum, Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga and two future draft picks.
Howard spent the last year uncertain of his future, partly because Orlando made misguided attempts at constructing a championship roster while Howard remained unclear with what he truly wanted. Since then, Howard has spent the past four months in Los Angeles rehabilitating his back following surgery, while hearing endless pleas -- during appearances at Dodgers games and when he exited his Beverly Hills hotel -- that he should join the Lakers. He touched base with Kobe Bryant, the two saying they’ve ironed out issues regarding their roles. And the moment Howard walked into the Lakers’ practice facility, he marched into the office of Lakers Executive Vice President Jeanie Buss. The team’s 16 NBA championship trophies rest on a window overseeing the practice court, providing a visual reminder of why the Lakers’ players spend so much time sweating on the practice floor. He didn’t know they were exact replicas.
“It’s unreal,” Howard said. “It’s finally happened. It hasn’t hit me yet. But I’m just happy to be here. I want to make the best out of it.”
Yet, what that means remains unclear.
It was hard to tell what he was thinking on questions inevitably tracing back to Orlando. What made him change his mind about the Magic in the ensuing months after waiving his early termination option in March? To what degree did Stan Van Gundy‘s claim that Howard wanted him fired lead to further distrust? How did his interest in the Lakers suddenly blossom? Howard provided some variance of wanting a fresh start” after each question.
It also proved difficult to know what he’ll consider next off-season when he becomes a free agent. Kupchak planted the thought of a long-term relationship by saying this as part of his opening statement: “We’re hopeful 10 years from now that we can add a jersey to that wall over there that says Dwight Howard.” Yet, for all of Howard’s outward giddiness about wearing the purple and gold, he didn’t commit beyond this season.
“Right now it’s about today,” he said. “Today, I’m with the Lakers. That’s the only thing that matters.”
Yet, truly the only thing that matters involves how Howard treats his so-called “fresh start.”
The Lakers aren’t sweating. They know Howard wants to test the waters of free agency after his one-year, $19-million player option expires. Waiting until next season, Howard can agree to a five-year, $117.9-million contract with the Lakers, instead of a four-year, $87.7-million deal with another team. Kupchak confirmed he believed the winning culture and Hollywood atmosphere would take care of any off-season uncertainty. The Lakers are putting in all their chips in hopes of squeezing out more championships despite having 13 players under contract with a $99 million payroll.
But is Howard putting all of his chips in with the Lakers?
He only uttered the term, “championship” once in a 30-minute news conference. Howard also downplayed the pressure in following Lakers’ esteemed big men in George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal with a certain caveat.
“I want to be great in my own right and I want to write my own history,” Howard. “Today is the first day of that history. I get a clean slate and an opportunity to start over.”
The general public might not have gotten a sense of Howard’s plans, but he provided a good sense of who he is as a man.
He acted goofy. Howard imitated Bryant’s voice. He told how numerous fans asked him to join the Lakers. Howard rattled off some of the L.A. freeway names that he’s learned.
Howard stayed humble. He acknowledged he’ll have to restore his reputation by winning. Howard declined to say where the Lakers’ starting unit, with Bryant, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace, ranks among the league. He avoided boasting about winning multiple championships, unlike LeBron James when he joined Chris Bosh in joining Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat last summer.
Howard showed pride. He adamantly stated he never exaggerated the severity of his back injury so he’d miss games with the Magic. Howard admitted the many trade rumors irked him. He acted nonchalant about opposing teams viewing him as the NBA‘s new villain.
He showed eagerness. Howard glowed about wanting to follow Bryant’s lead. He emphasized how he wants to bring endless defensive intensity. Howard warmly greeted the L.A. media.
“I have a second chance,” Howard said. “I’ll make the best of it. I’m not going to change who I am because of what happened in the past. I learned a lot. I’m still young. I’m going to make mistakes. I’m going to bump my head. I’m sure you bumped your head a lot. But you’ve grown from it. I have the opportunity to do the same thing. This is a perfect time.”
And as Howard officially became a Laker, it seems that’s all that mattered.
But will it be enough to live up to Kupchak’s hope that his name remains etched in Lakers lore? Howard’s giddiness over his Lakers’ jersey and touching the Larry O’Brien trophies may have put Howard in happier moods than during the endless “Dwightmare.” Since Howard wouldn’t provide much clarity in his press conference, he’ll have to provide clarity on the court.
Only then can Howard truly consider it a “fresh start.”
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