Kobe Bryant smiled when Dwight Howard’s name came up during a recent conversation. Time has a way of smoothing over differences, and Bryant, who has transitioned into the world of storytelling since retiring in 2016, is fascinated by the narrative arc of his former Lakers teammate.
Howard first came to the Lakers in 2012 with the expectation of being the next great Lakers big man and helping Bryant win a sixth championship. But their lone season together quickly turned into a nightmare so horrible that Howard took less money to bolt to Houston. The Lakers have failed to make the playoffs since.
He came back this offseason on a one-year, non-guaranteed contract. Seven years after joining the Lakers as one of the best players in the league, he returned as a journeyman on his fifth team in five years. But Howard has proven to be a pleasant surprise early this season. On Sunday, he helped the Lakers to a 120-101 win over the Charlotte Hornets with 16 points on eight-for-eight shooting, 10 rebounds and four blocks. He was plus-23 in his 23 minutes on the floor and received loud ovations from the crowd at Staples Center, which was unthinkable just a few months ago.
“I’m happy for him because sometimes we don’t realize how much we love the game and miss the game until that window starts closing or its closed,” Bryant said. “Then you’re like, ‘Oh damn, I really miss playing the game. I want another opportunity to show what I can do.’ Sometimes you don’t know if that opportunity will ever come again. For him, I really believe he’s appreciative of the opportunity and I think he’s going to make a hell of an impact because of the new appreciation he has for playing the game.”
Howard is the only player on the current Lakers team that Bryant was teammates with during his 20-year NBA career. As much as that 2012-13 season is remembered for being a colossal failure, Bryant still believes they could have made noise in the postseason had he not suffered a torn Achilles tendon near the end of the season.
After going 17-25 through the first 42 games, the Lakers went 28-12 and finished the regular season with a record of 45-37, earning the seventh seed in the playoffs. However, without Bryant they were swept in the first round by the San Antonio Spurs.
“In all fairness, the second half of the season when I tore my Achilles, we had the best record in the league,” Bryant said. “We had to make things more contentious than I wanted to, but the object is to win. Unfortunately, I tore my Achilles and that sidetracked everything, but that second half of the season there wasn’t a team in the Western Conference that wanted to play us when we were healthy. Maybe things would’ve been different with Dwight if we were healthy and had made a run. Who knows?”
Injuries defined this NBA season before it even began. Kevin Durant (ruptured Achilles) and Klay Thompson (torn anterior cruciate ligament) were essentially shelved for this season in June, and their former Warriors teammate DeMarcus Cousins (torn ACL) joined them on the sideline soon after signing with the Lakers. Cousins’ injury opened the door for Howard’s unlikely return to the Lakers in August.
“The place where the league is at right now is awesome,” Bryant said. “K.D.’s injury literally changed the landscape of the game, and now you have a lot of duos that are in different places. There are a lot of great story lines to follow and there are a lot of questions you don’t know the answers to, which creates an interesting season. It’s like watching a good film. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s a hell of a time for L.A.”
Howard has often been described as a “big kid” by coaches and teammates, and Bryant realizes the tough love he often dished out on Howard fell flat. Howard acknowledges he hated Bryant for years — for calling him “soft,” among other things. It’s a lesson Bryant takes with him as he now coaches youth sports.
“If we as coaches are not conscious of [our impact] we can do a lot of damage to kids with the roll of the eyes or something we yell, but we can also help them in a really positive way,” Bryant said. “It’s something a lot of people don’t take seriously because it’s sports, but it takes a lot of care. I look at it from that standpoint. That’s why I love working with young kids because it’s an opportunity to not only prepare them for the game but put them on the path to prepare them for life and the struggles that will inevitably come their way.”