EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — It’s a little over a week before training camp begins and the Lakers’ newest in a long line of superstar centers can’t get the smile off his face.
“It’s just a great feeling to be here,” Dwight Howard said Thursday afternoon at the Lakers practice facility. “It’s the happiest I’ve been in a long time. This is an amazing opportunity for me and I’m very blessed to be here and be with this organization.
“I’m so thankful for this and I’m going to do the best I can to show the fans, the city and the organization my gratitude.”
George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal are all Laker centers and Hall of Famers. It’s certainly not a long stretch to imagine Howard — acquired in a four-team trade that cost the Lakers’ center Andrew Bynum — joining them in Springfield, Mass., one day. There is, however, one thing that separates Dwight from the others — he hasn’t yet earned an NBA title.
He took his Orlando Magic team to the 2009 Finals, where they were drubbed by his current Laker team in a five-game series. That’s as close as he’s come to pro basketball’s Holy Grail, one of the main reasons he wanted to move to Los Angeles and join a few other potential HOFers in a chase for that legacy-ensuring diamond ring.
“Coming here to play with Kobe, Steve, Pau, and Metta (World Peace) is the ideal situation for me,” Howard said, the trademark smile disappearing for a moment, replaced by a look of tenaciousness. “All those guy are great players, and there’s something I can learn from each one of them, and hopefully I can blend right in with everyone.
“I’m not going to come right out and guarantee that we’re going to win a championship. But I can assure every Laker fan out there that we will bring our “A” game with us every time we step onto the court.”
Howard appeared relaxed during the twenty-minute interview inside the Lakers’ Media Room. Even when asked about his troubles in Orlando, his demeanor never changed and he offered up direct answers to the questions.
“It was very tough going through what I went through with the trade request and the injury, and people not knowing the severity of it,” said the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. “There were comments made about me, people saying this and that, and yeah, it did hurt for a while.
“It hurt that people were thinking negative things about me, but you can’t control how people think or feel. The only thing you can control is you. I tried to keep my actions positive even through all the negativity.”
The 26-year old native of Atlanta said he was truly shocked at the vitriol spewed toward him after he made his demand to be traded.
“When we would play in other arenas — or even at home sometimes — for one time in my career I felt I was hated,” he said sadly. “It was like people couldn’t stand to look at me.
“I’d see little kids with signs that said “We hate you” and stuff like that, and I said to myself ‘Man, that really hurt.’ But I just tried to stay focused, block all that stuff out and remain the same person. I didn’t want to let that negativity all around me turn me into a negative person.
“It’s easy when everything is going good to stay positive. But when everything is going against you, you have to fight not to let it change what kind of person you are or what kind of teammate you are.”
Which had to be a very difficult endeavor when his former coach in Orlando, Stan Van Gundy, publicly accused Howard of trying to get him fired. After one such charge, Howard publicly voiced his complaints about Van Gundy, saying the coach was taking private statements and making them public. The situation quickly became toxic, Howard had back surgery and Van Gundy was fired. Howard insists, though, that it wasn’t the Magic, the city of Orlando or the coach that convinced him that it was time to move on.
“I just need a change for my life,” he said matter-of-factly.
“I was going back and forth with the whole ‘should I leave?’ or ‘what if I do leave and it doesn’t happen the way I want it to?’ It put Howard in a very difficult position, because he wanted to do the impossible—make everyone happy.
“I wanted to make the fans happy, this person happy, that person happy. Finally I realized that I needed a change for me,” he said.
“In Orlando, it was very comfortable, but I understand that there’s more out there. I just had to go out and get it. Go earn it. I could have stayed and been happy, been comfortable with what I had, but as a basketball player I want my goals, meaning I want more.
“I want to be a champion and I want to be great, so I had to go out and get those things. Sometimes you have to leave things behind. You don’t want to, but if you really want to get somewhere, you have to get out of your comfort zone to get there. It was very tough to do, especially at a young age, but I’m glad I got over that hump.
“It was a risk, but everything is a risk. If you’re going to take a risk, take a big risk, because at the end there might be a very big reward. I always look at Walt Disney. He put everything he had into making (Steamboat Willie with Mickey Mouse), and it turned into Disneyland and Disneyworld. That’s how I look at things.”
The risk-reward in this new chapter of Dwight Howard’s life could be huge for him, the Lakers and their amazingly fervent fans. But there’s no guarantee that Howard will be able to show his immense skills anytime soon. His recovery from April back surgery is in it’s final stages, but he refuses to put an exact date on his return to the court.
“When the doctors tell me I’m 100 percent, that’s when I’ll be back,” has been his mantra ever since he met with the media the day of the trade. Nothing has changed since the afternoon of August 10, with the exception of Howard being one day closer to giving the Lakers their best big man since Shaq was traded after the 2004 season. “I feel good; better every day. But I’m going to be patient and let my body heal so when the season starts, I’m able to go all out.” And Dwight wanted to set the record straight for those who doubt his ability to make a full, healthy return to the court because he’s never had a serious injury prior to his back problem.
“That’s not true at all,” he said. “I broke my leg in high school, and everybody counted me out at that time. But I went from a broken leg, to the No.1 high school player in the nation to the No.1 pick (in the 2004 NBA draft). So for the people who are concerned for my health, I’m healed and I’m blessed to be here.
“I think this all happened for a reason; having my surgery in L.A., going through the changes in my life, everything that happened in Orlando with the negativity. Now, I’m healthy and so happy to be in L.A. and with such a great organization.”
So, while DH12 has had a lot of time to rehab, get used to his new home city and think about the risk he took in forcing a trade, there’s one thing hasn’t changed in Howard’s life — he’s nowhere close to signing a contract extension with the Lakers.
“I think the best thing to do is talk about it at the end of the year,” Howard said confidentially despite seeing his basketball mortality up close a few months ago with the spinal surgery. “We just went through that last season, basically, and I don’t want to go through it again or see anyone have to go through it.
“This is going to be my decision, and I’m going to wait till the end of the year. But I’m happy to be in L.A. This is a great place. I love the coaching staff and I love the organization for everything they’ve done for me since I got traded here.