Howard set for Lakers debut — maybe

EL SEGUNDO, CA — Basketball’s longest-running mystery is about to get it’s final curtain.


And, of course, it turns out that the team’s other new superstar provided the end to the drama.

Following Saturday’s Los Angeles Lakers practice at the team training facility, Dwight Howard was asked — for robably the 3,445,698th time — when he was going to play in a game for his new team.

“Oh my God, again?” the playful Howard replied when posed the query. “(Remember) that show ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ Well, the final answer is . . . ask the guy who’s going to make the (determination).”

Whose decision is it?

“Mr. Buss.”

Well, which Mr. Buss?

“I don’t know. One of them.”

“Do you feel you’re ready to play?

“OMG! Practice was great today. Everybody looked good. The last game seemed almost like . . . I’m looking forward to the next couple games.”

Okay, ha-ha. Do you seriously not know whether you’re going to play against Sacramento Sunday night?

“I really don’t know,” Howard said in one of his few serious moments. “I don’t want to say that I’m going to play, then not play. I want to play. It’s all up to (trainer) Father (Gary Vitti) and the rest of the staff.

“Father Vitti will release me.”

So, with the big man possessed by the need to keep his secret, well, secret, the power of journalism compelled us to corner Coach Mike Brown and try to exorcise the answer out of his body.

“You just missed the guy who has more information that me. He walked right through that door,” said Brown, pointing toward the entrance to the locker room. “(Gary) has not said that (Dwight’s) playing tomorrow. If Gary Vitti tells me he’s playing (Sunday), then he’s playing.

“I’m not going to ask Gary if he’s playing because Gary will let me know. Even if he doesn’t play, I’ve got a game plan that whoever starts for us will probably end the game. That’s not affected one way or the other.”

Howard has made it clear — in a very pleasant way, yet still crystal clear — that he tired of being asked when he’s going to make his Lakers debut. Brown probably is asked the question almost as much as Howard, yet is happy to play along with the interrogators.

“I understand why you guys have to ask — it’s a big story,” Brown acknowledged, “but it’s not a big story for me. It’s the same for me as with Jordan Hill. I’m going to wait for Gary to tell me he’s ready to play. When we came downstairs today, (Vitti) told me that Jordan was ready for contact. I said ‘Really? Great. Let’s go.’ (Dwight) doesn’t have to show me anything . . . when Gary says he’s ready, he’ll play.

“I’m not concerned. He’s getting reps in practice, practicing basically the whole practice. So. I know he’s close.

“I know (his return) is going to be electric, because my kids are excited about it. My kids keep asking me. So I tell Elijah ‘Don’t tweet anything that’s family business.’

“I hope he listens.”

With Vitti unavailable for comment — hey, the world’s current most powerful trainer is a busy man — and Kobe Bryant not around, there was only one person left to question about Howard’s return: point guard Steve Nash.

Nash apparently likes being elusive only on the court, because when asked how he felt about playing with Howard at Staples Center Sunday night, he gave a direct answer: “Great. I’m just happy that we can get to another stage of our development as a team.

“We’ve been learning the offense (during games) without Dwight and now we’ll do it with him in a game situation. Just breaking down these barriers is important for us.”

Howard said earlier that when he does finally step on the court in a game, getting to play for his dream team might be a very emotional moment for him. Nash said Howard has no reason to be nervous, but he totally understands.

“It’s like the high diving board at the pool,” Nash said, “and all your friends have jumped in but you’ve thought about it too long. Now you’re nervous. Then, when you jump in, you wonder, ‘Why the hell was I nervous?’

“Guys are human — that’s the truth of it. He has nothing to be nervous about, but I think it’s a human quality. There’s a certain amount of nerves and anxiety that’s really helpful. I’ve felt that throughout my career. It’s because you care. Perhaps the fact that he’s nervous shows how much he cares.

“Dwight . . . just needs to get out there, make a few mistakes, make contact with someone, dunk the ball a couple times and it will all be forgotten.”

NOTES: Hill was available for a full practice after herniating a disc in his back on Oct. 6, and says he’s confident he’ll be available on Opening Night Oct. 30 against Dallas at Staples Center.