|Dwight Howard says he will play with a smile in L.A. (US Presswire)|
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- This is where we found Dwight Howard, running gracefully up and down the court, getting to his bread-and-butter spot on the low block, passing out of imaginary double teams -- and finding time to smile. It's been a few months since Howard made himself the most loathed man in the NBA since LeBron James broke up with Cleveland on national television, and it's striking that the early signs point to a much swifter recovery.
For the limited time the media have been allowed to watch the Lakers conduct five-on-oh drills in training camp this week, Howard has been involved and engaged. There have been no ill effects evident from his April back surgery or the far more invasive rehab needed on his public image. The concentration is there, a desire to get it right and please his coaches and new teammates as the Lakers learn a new Princeton-style offense that, in theory, will get Howard a potent diet of one-on-one scoring opportunities in the post.
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But the biggest opportunity in Howard's first official work days as a Laker has nothing to do with his game, his jump hook, or his footwork on the block. It has to do with a new beginning, and by all accounts, Howard is handling this much better than he handled the bitter end in Orlando.
"I take the game very serious, but I'm going to have fun," Howard said this week as the Lakers took the first steps of what will be a fascinating journey. "I don't think just because I play for the Lakers means I have to walk around and not smile and have fun. I think Magic played with a smile on his face, but at the same time he got the job done. I've been playing this game for a long time. I've been very successful at the way I play. But I do understand, at times, that I'm going to need to smile. Why not have fun?"
Well, because that has been the knock on Howard -- even during the good old days in Orlando, when everyone was content and he wasn't awkwardly trying, failing, and then trying again to escape. He was a kid trapped in a giant's body; an almost mythical, Zeus-like figure who lacked the seriousness of purpose to fully apply his outlandish physical gifts. To the extent this was possible, he made a mockery of his impending free agency in a clumsy way that eclipsed even LeBron's awkward and polarizing exit from Cleveland. It took James nearly two full years to recover from his mistakes, and his free-agent dance lasted barely an hour on national TV. Howard's lasted months -- so many long, loathsome months.
To all of this -- complaints about Howard's fun-loving, seemingly careless approach to the game he has somehow not dominated enough, and to the unsavory nature of his long, awkward good-bye to Orlando -- Howard's highly decorated new teammate is mounting a vigorous defense. In an interview with CBSSports.com Wednesday, Kobe Bryant lampooned those who think Howard's clownish past will clash with the dignified cocoon of the Lakers and called out Howard's critics for what he described as "double standards."
"I've heard that," Bryant said of Howard's reputation for immaturity, "but I think that people confuse that with his effectiveness. He's had an incredible career. Lack of focus is what, because he hasn't won a championship? He went against teams that were just better. He's won, what, three defensive player of the year awards? That's kind of tough to say a person lacks focus when he has three defensive player of the year awards. That sounds a little silly."
Indeed, Howard is the most dominant defender in the game, having led the league in defensive rebounds for five straight years and total rebounds in six of his eight seasons. He's 26 years old; who among us was clear-eyed and mature at that age? As for the Dwightmare that gripped the NBA for the entirety of last year's lockout-shortened season -- on the heels of LeBron's "Decision" and Carmelo Anthony's drama-filled departure from Denver to New York? It was the NBA's superstar, superteam culture at its absolute worst. But Howard didn't create that culture, and his was only one name on a long list of those who deserved blame.
"There's a lot of double standards going on in professional sports, and basketball in particular," Bryant said. "Because when it's a player's opportunity to make a business decision, they pull out the loyalty card. When it's ownership's or management's turn to make a business decision, it's a business decision. You can't have it both ways. And as a player, I've always just stuck to my guns. And when it's on me to make a business decision, I will make that business decision. And if you have to be criticized for it, you have to be criticized for it. But you must set a precedent for those coming after you that it's OK to make business decisions. Because management, at the end of the day, will do that themselves.
"I think it's kind of turned into more than it should've been because I think both Dwight and Melo wanted to try to do the right thing publicly," Bryant said. "'We are loyal to our teams, but nothing's getting done here and we want to win.' So it's kind of a line that they had to toe, and it kind of turned out to be a little more drama than necessary, I think."
So while it isn't surprising for Bryant to have Howard's back in these early days of their improbable pairing, it's nonetheless an important piece of the fabric that was quilted so stunningly in July. Just when the Lakers seemed poised to go oh-for-free agency and leave Bryant unflanked in perhaps his last, best chance to chase his sixth championship, GM Mitch Kupchak pulled Steve Nash and then Howard out of some mystical, purple-and-gold wizard's cap. Poof, just like that, Bryant was back in business -- and the Lakers had what appeared to be, on paper, an unbeatable combination of talent and star power.
"We'll be ready when it counts," coach Mike Brown said. "We'll be in the playoffs, and we'll be ready for that."
Of course, the Lakers' biggest and boldest acquisition also happens to be their biggest unknown. Yet so far, in the infancy of this experiment in talent, ego and maturity, reports of the Lakers' demise appear to have been greatly exaggerated.
"The things that you have to understand are that the expectations are high, all eyes are on you, and there's going to be pressure to deliver," said Pau Gasol, who even more so than Bryant will have to develop a comfort level with Howard in the Lakers' new offensive scheme. "It's obviously a big responsibility. You're wearing a shirt that you have to carry yourself with class, elegance and responsibility and respect."
There they are, four words one right after another that Howard did not exhibit at all during his escape from Orlando. But thus far, Gasol has not seen the Howard he's heard about or competed against in the past. He's seen a new teammate with a thousand-watt smile who finally seems willing to match it with 100 percent commitment. "As far as I know so far, the work that we've done together, he works very hard and there's not many jokes on the floor," Gasol said. "So I think that's a positive thing. He understands. He wants to win as much as anybody, and he wants to win championships. So that's the right mindset to have from Day One."
And there, Gasol used the word that cures all: winning. Ultimately, that is what ended LeBron's long public relations nightmare -- winning, contributing mightily to winning and conducting himself in a dignified manner while doing it. Perhaps no one in the sport understands that better than the man who coached and lost LeBron, who also happens to be the man who now coaches Howard.
"He just needs to be himself," Brown said. "And when he wins, all the criticism is going to go away to a certain degree -- kind of like with LeBron."
After emulating LeBron's mistakes, the only cure for Howard is to replicate his triumph.