HOUSTON – For a fleeting moment, the truth washed over Dwight Howard and it felt downright transformational. Before the opening tip to the season, his eyes glanced to those Houston Rockets walking out with him: James Harden. Chandler Parsons. Loaded lineup, loaded bench. Championship contender.
"When I stood there and looked around, I thought to myself, 'I've got an amazing opportunity here, and I'm not going to let it go to waste," Howard told Yahoo Sports late Wednesday in a quiet corner of the locker room.
"It hit me there: This is what I chose. This is what I decided to do."
He smiled a knowing smile, nodded and repeated himself.
"I'm not going to let it go to waste," Howard said.
Howard wants everything this season, and everything began with the best rebounding night of his career: muscling, cajoling, clutching 26 rebounds and 17 points in the Rockets' 96-83 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats.
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"I wanted to get 30 rebounds," Howard said. "I was upset I didn't do it."
After back surgery two summers ago, Howard's body was battered and never found its fitness until those final weeks of the Los Angeles Lakers' lost season. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash never did see the real Dwight Howard, the force of nature who could dominate games without ever taking a shot. Between a torn labrum, a regenerating back and bad chemistry, Howard was too often fighting himself and his surroundings. He was physically unfit to fight for the ball.
"My mind was on the ball," Howard told Yahoo Sports, "but my body was still on the other side."
No one inside the Toyota Center on Wednesday night has watched Howard play more basketball games over the past six seasons than Bobcats coach Steve Clifford. For five seasons in Orlando and another in Los Angeles, he was on the coaching staffs with the game's best center. The Lakers never did see the center who Clifford watched dominate for weeks and months in Orlando, nor the center who they'll see in Houston.
"He never moved last season like he's moved in this preseason," Clifford said. "He looks like a different guy."
Three weeks before the start of free agency in June, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sat down with Harden and watched tape of Howard in the playoffs. They witnessed Howard's body beginning to transform, witnessed increasing flashes of who Howard had been and who he could be in Houston again.
"Everyone focused on him getting thrown out of the game at the end, and nobody was watching that he was playing well at the end," Morey told Yahoo Sports. "James and I were talking and we both agreed: He looked great and we were going to keep going after him."
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Between that June day and Howard's commitment to the Rockets, the biggest obstacle for the Rockets to complete this free-agent coup remained the relentless negative campaigning on the parts of rival organizations. Houston had become the faraway leader, afforded the best chance for Howard to win in the short and long term, and when no one could assail Harden's talent, teams turned to his character.
Morey doesn't forget it, and it became understandably difficult for him to separate the professional posturing with what became increasingly nasty, personal vitriol. From Golden State to Dallas to the Los Angeles Lakers, there were pockets of people taking turns calling Harden a selfish player, a bad teammate, a non-leader. Harden would never pass the ball to Howard, they told him. They'd never win together.
"After we had our meeting, we heard second-hand about what went in the others," Morey said. "In one of them, we know a team tried to portray the fact [to Howard] that James was the same as Kobe. It kind of blew my mind. I mean, you're saying the fact that he's like one of the greatest players ever is actually an insult?
"In the end, that was one of the main ways teams were trying to get Dwight to not come to Houston."
And, well, here's Howard in Houston anyway. First-hand sources corroborated to Yahoo Sports what those second-hand sources told Morey in the aftermath of the meetings. In one instance, Golden State Warriors adviser Jerry West had been disparaging of Harden in the organization's presentation to Howard, sources said. When asked about West's dissection of Harden recently, Howard simply laughed and told Yahoo, "Well, Jerry West said a lot of things."
When Morey left the Rockets' meeting with Howard, his hopes were fortified with the methodical, substantive nature of Howard's questions for Houston officials. From the construction of the roster, to salary-cap space to luxury-tax implications, Morey sensed that Howard wouldn't be susceptible to those kind of desperate bids.
"If it was about winning – and it was with Dwight – we were going to be the choice," Morey told Yahoo Sports. "If it was about winning, we were the choice.
"We were the overwhelming choice."
And with 18,000 people standing and cheering him near the opening tip to the season on Wednesday night, Dwight Howard found himself momentarily alone with his thoughts and validated in his vision. All around him, there was so much talent. All around him, so much opportunity. Yes, everything washed over him and it felt downright transformational: His choice, his decision. Maybe, just maybe, it is finally his time.