LOS ANGELES — When the curtain and then the house lights came up Sunday night at Staples Center on Dwight Howard’s latest career chapter, the Lakers who were huddled together broke from their routine. Instead of the starters heading out together, they pulled back — letting Howard go it alone.
Except nobody had told him.
“They got me,” Howard said.
The stunt, typically reserved for unsuspecting rookies, brought some levity and giggles to the occasion, with nobody laughing harder than Howard. That seemed to be the biggest takeaway from the debut of the Lakers’ latest in the line of franchise centers.
If the Lakers’ grand experiment, pairing Howard and newly acquired Steve Nash with a rejuvenated Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace, results in a championship, Howard’s force of personality may give them a title LeBron James will probably never be able to deliver in Miami — that of the peoples’ champ.
On a team defined by the hard edges set by Bryant (and the hard elbows of World Peace), Howard has the game and the personality to soften the imperialist air about the Lakers. If they’ve been an easy team to either love or hate, Howard can make them more likeable.
Less haughty than nice.
That much was apparent Sunday when Howard, who played his first game since undergoing back surgery last April, had 19 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks and five turnovers in the Lakers’ 99-92 loss to Sacramento.
He looked on occasion stiff and unsteady and on others as dynamic and devastating as advertised, particularly diving to the basket on pick and rolls. But if Howard spent the night searching for his timing at both ends of the court, his comedic timing showed no sign of rust — or scars from that rather, um, awkward meeting with reporters as Stan Van Gundy was leaving.
When Lakers coach Mike Brown stopped Howard on Sunday to fist-bump him before the game, whatever Howard said caused his coach to nearly double over with laughter. Howard amused himself — and others — during breaks in play, and seemed to play much of the night with a smile on his face.
He found time afterward to poke fun at himself over Sacramento rookie Thomas Robinson — the center who thought he should have been drafted ahead of Anthony Davis — using him as a prop to dunk home a rebound.
“Thomas Robinson did a little Nate Robinson impression — he pushed off my shoulder,” Howard said. “It’s going to be on ‘SportsCenter’ tonight.”
Howard was taken aback when he emerged from the trainers’ room wearing a towel and headphones and saw about 25 media members camped at his locker. He said he had to get dressed before interviews started, otherwise “this is going to be on TMZ if I’m naked.”
Bantering with some reporters while he was dressing, he quipped that it was OK to wait because ESPN was on all the time. And when a cameraman identified himself as being with Time Warner, which has not yet reached distribution deals with all cable providers to broadcast Lakers games, he joked about booing the network like fans do.
He was cleared to play by long-time trainer Gary Vitti, whom Howard has taken to calling The Father. Howard said Vitti, er, Father told him: “Well son, you’ll be great. Father said go out there and play.”
As for his back, it felt fine when he was knocked to the floor by Sacramento center DeMarcus Cousins because, he said, he was wearing not just his Iron Man suit but his Superman cape as well.
Such bonhomie stands in contrast to the player Howard replaced, Andrew Bynum, the intelligent but increasingly incorrigible center. And if the Heat and the Lakers drive the narrative in the NBA this season, Howard would serve as a foil for James.
Though both left small markets after years of trying in vain to carry them to a title, Howard’s personality will allow him to more easily cast aside the villain’s hat (at least outside Orlando) than James ever has a chance of doing.
Winning a championship may have earned James a degree of redemption, and validated his standing as the best player in the NBA, but winning over the hearts of the sporting public will be a much taller task.
Of course, winning a title is something Howard has not done, though he took Orlando to the Finals in 2009. And with a team that Bryant has already called the most talented he has ever had, Howard walks into circumstances in which he has more help than ever, but fewer excuses for falling short.
This is a team that Brown believes can be great defensively, and one in which an offense driven by Nash will be plenty potent. While there were few quibbles with Howard on Sunday — he was late on several blocks — more will be expected of him than being a pick-and-roll force.
“We’re going to challenge him to be more than just a screener, a roller, a dunker,” said Bryant, who believes that Howard — unlike another gregarious big man, Shaquille O’Neal — will be serious when it comes to work. “We want him to get the ball in the post, be a great, great passer off the post, to finish in the post — high and low. He has the talent to do that, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t do that. We’re going to challenge him to do that. He has the talent to make those plays. When teams play against us, we want them to say Dwight’s a dominant force offensively and defensively, but he’s one of the best passing big men in the league. That’s what we want him to be.”
Those expectations, along with the events of the last year — the surgery and rehabilitation, the acrimonious goodbye from Orlando, and the uncertainty about coming to Los Angeles — all seemed to catch up with Howard as he waited to be introduced as a starter for the first time.
“I actually shed a couple of tears tonight,” Howard said. “During the starting lineups, one of my teammates caught me, so I tried to hide it, but you know I was just excited. It is really emotional because I hadn’t been on a court in a while, and I just thank God that I came back as fast as I did.
“It was a rough year, but you know what? There’s always a blessing in the storm. You always have moments in your life when you go through trials and tribulations, but what makes you better is how you come out.”
Howard continued, speaking about the importance of optimism, of having a positive outlook. He did so with a smile on his face.