ORLANDO, Fla. -- As Dwight Howard's return to Orlando deteriorated into a pathetic hack-fest, the man of the hour couldn't help himself. As derision came at him from all directions in the stands, Howard embraced it -- booed right along with his hecklers, nodded in mock approval and kept smiling.
At one point in the fourth quarter, he was the middle man in a three-way heckling event -- turning over his shoulder to absorb abuse from behind the bench and spinning back to receive it from the baseline seats. It was about the way you'd expect Howard to respond, with the same clownish behavior that often marked his eight-year career here.
Somewhere in there, the real Dwight Howard ached. He had to. The Dwight Howard who longs for what LeBron James used to pursue relentlessly -- everyone's approval -- continues to chase that elusive, pointless goal with a vengeance.
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"It doesn't matter what you say, my love is not going to go anywhere," Howard said after his 39-point, 16-rebound performance -- including making 25 of an NBA record-tying 39 free-throw attempts -- in the Lakers' 106-97 victory over his former team. "I genuinely care for these people and this city. Everything I did was because I cared about my team. It didn't end right. It didn't end the way everybody wanted it to. But that still doesn't change the fact that this city embraced me for eight years."
In a perfect world, one in which Howard will find the maturity and single-minded focus that finally have come to define LeBron's post-Cleveland career, Tuesday night will be the line of demarcation. The closure of returning to Orlando, beating his former team, overcoming what could have been a demoralizing Hack-a Dwight strategy and hearing the boos could have been -- should have been -- a turning point.
For the Lakers, it must be. They've left the circus behind and won nine of 11 games to push their record three games above .500 with a half-game lead for the eighth playoff spot in the West. Their serious practitioners of basketball -- Kobe Bryant, chasing that sixth championship, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol (when he returns from injury, possibly as soon as next week) and, say what you want about him, Metta World Peace -- are chasing anything but approval. They're chasing wins, improvement, playoff readiness and the respect befitting a championship franchise.
For Howard? It's just not who he is. Not yet.
Maybe, though, this was a start.
Even Bryant, who has no patience for these basketball sideshows in his 17th year, bought into what this meant for Howard. Before the game, he told Howard, "Just come out here and kill them. Just be focused and relaxed and go out there and do what you do best."
Afterward, Bryant said, "His energy propelled us."
Despite the venom Howard overcame, the scene was nothing like James' return to Cleveland in December 2010. Not even close. The hatred wasn't palpable; the feelings of desperation and abandonment were seriously lacking, too. Maybe it was Howard's charm that disarmed them and took the eagerness and stamina out of the boos. And maybe it was the fact that the post-Howard Magic's best strategy was to wrap up their former star and put him at the free-throw line to the tune of 10 Hack-a Dwights -- regrettably making the game last almost 2½ hours and perhaps helping Howard focus on making his free throws.
"I didn't have to be aggressive," said Howard, who also set Lakers franchise records for free throws made and attempted. "All I had to do was run up the court. I tried to juke one time so they couldn't foul me, but I thought the experience for me was great. I needed that to learn how to block things out when I'm at the line and I was able to do that tonight despite the boos."
Howard never had as strong a connection to Orlando as LeBron had to northeast Ohio, and as it turned out, losing LeBron is in a whole other stratosphere of loss. LeBron is a planetary talent, a giant forever in the game. Howard is still trying to figure out what he is. A fierce competitor worthy of having his name uttered in the same breath as the greatest big men who've ever played? Or a happy-go-lucky kid who just wants everyone to like him?
That was LeBron's mistake, long ago -- seeking approval, catering to expectations. Once he left Cleveland -- so brazenly, so callously -- he overcompensated and tried to play a villain role that didn't suit his greatness. Finally, after he abandoned that mission and attacked the game itself with the same determination, the results have been shouted from the mountaintops of the sport.
What will become of Howard? As you watched the Lakers plod through this one last circus, one more pointless sideshow in their season of weirdness, you wondered if their personalities will ever mesh. You wondered if Howard will ever put his own soap opera aside and sacrifice some of himself for greatness.
"It's great for him to get closure," Nash said. "Just the situation here, the way it ended, is something that's going to weigh on him, I'm sure. But to come here and have a good performance, take some abuse and wash it away, I think is important for him.
"I think he grew some tonight in coming back and facing this the way he did," Nash said. "His belief in himself and his determination can only grow from this."
Nash is the optimist, the 39-year-old point guard who must lie flat on his back when he isn't in the game to rest his aching back, so he can give the Lakers whatever he has left. Bless his heart if he believes Howard can overcome his need to be liked.
"I thought he embraced it," Nash said. "He didn't shy away from it at all, and you could see that there was maybe a little venom in there, too, which was nice."
The best thing Howard did Tuesday night had nothing to do with making free throws, nothing to do with egging on beer-muscling fans who wanted to get their money's worth and let him feel the wrath of a loyal fan base scorned. The best thing Howard did was personal, and it involved trying to win back the approval and friendship of someone who matters the most in his profession: a former teammate, now a rival and a peer in the sport.
After Howard checked out of the game and couldn't be fouled anymore, the clock finally elapsed and the horn sounded. The home fans went home unhappy, as is so often the case when these NBA superstar hostage crises are revisited.
Howard finally stopped going back and forth with the paying customers and sought out Jameer Nelson, with whom he went to the NBA Finals against the Lakers. Their formerly strong friendship was left in tatters by Howard's departure and the war of words and misunderstandings of the past week.
They embraced and spoke for several minutes on the floor, Nelson pulling his jersey up to cover his mouth so the conversation would remain private. That's where the only growth will matter for Howard, between the lines on the basketball court. That's where his focus needs to be.