ORLANDO, Fla. – For the relentless punishment Dwight Howard meted out on this franchise and these fans, for such an inglorious exit and ultimately a spectacular return on Tuesday night, there was still such an immense part of him desperate to win back everyone.
All around the Los Angeles Lakers' bench, the fans harassed and heckled Howard. His eye contact with these people was unwavering, his cute responses determined to diffuse the anger and remind them of the good times here, of the way they once cheered him, of the way they did love him.
"You [bleeping] suck Dwight!" the man beneath the basket with the baseball cap screamed.
"You [bleeping] suck!"
Howard laughed and mouthed back to him, "I'm having fun … I'm having fun."
And then, Howard climbed back off the end of the Lakers' bench, marched onto the floor and obliterated these Orlando Magic. Once again, he broke everyone's heart here.
The Magic tried to prey on all his insecurities, all his fears, and yet, finally, there was no stopping the self-proclaimed Superman. Over and over, the Magic grabbed Howard, slapped him, wrapped arms around those massive shoulders and dared him to immerse himself in the moment, concentrate and make free throws. The Magic played a Hack-a-Dwight, dared him to stand alone in downtown Orlando and make free throw upon free throw.
Thirty-nine times Howard shot them, 25 times they dropped into the net and ultimately 39 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks punctuated the Lakers' 106-97 victory over the Magic.
"I needed that to learn how to block a lot of things out, despite the boos and all that stuff," Howard said.
That's always the issue with Howard: Where's his mind? Where's his focus? What's his mood? Since the All-Star break, those within the Lakers have declared him transformed. After such a reluctance to embrace the burden that comes with this franchise, Howard has "come with an intensity, a ferocity," Bryant told Yahoo! Sports. "He understands that with the Lakers, it's a championship or nothing."
From the coaching staff to the players, they think Howard has become a better teammate, more willing to do things big and small necessary to propel the Lakers into contention. Within the Lakers, they believe that Howard is progressing physically because he's pushing himself harder.
Slowly, surely, his back has provided him with more mobility, explosion. Most mornings, Howard goes for acupuncture on his back, diligently trying to bring it all the way back. Howard has streamlined his personal life, too. He's leaned on a nutritionist, reshuffled his inner circle with the elimination of a long-time business manager. His circle is tighter, and some think that's productively narrowed his world.
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Before the game, Bryant's message to Howard was unmistakable: "Kill them," Kobe told him. What Bryant didn't want was a conciliatory Howard, the nice guy trying to undo the ill will manufactured upon forcing his departure after eight seasons.
"When you win, likability comes at the end of your career – an appreciation comes," Bryant told Yahoo! Sports.
And make no mistake: Bryant tells Howard this, too. That innate desire Howard has to win the popularity contest never works, because ultimately victory will give him all the adulation and affirmation that he wants. These Lakers are a half-game out of the seventh seed in the Western Conference – two games out of sixth – and they're coming hard now. The Lakers are still imperfect, but they're coming together because Howard has pulled himself together.
"He wasn't distracted or down about coming back," Bryant said. "I think the [free-throw successes] will do wonders for him. For him to be able to make those here, he can make those anywhere."
Nevertheless, Howard made life harder on himself than it needed to be, but that's what he does sometimes. After the game, Howard tried to broker peace with his longtime point guard, Jameer Nelson. He called him "his brother," but it no longer appears that Nelson feels that strongly about Howard anymore.
Many of Howard's old teammates – Nelson, Glen Davis and J.J. Redick – were angry when Howard declared them a team of misfits whom no one had wanted, and that's something else Howard has to live with in the aftermath of these Magic years.
Before the game, Orlando Magic owner Rich DeVos passed his young general manager, Rob Hennigan, in a corridor, and told him, "Let's get a win tonight."
"We're going to try," Hennigan said.
Hennigan wisely passed on those failing knees of Andrew Bynum in the Howard trade and wisely rebooted the franchise with a promising core of young players. The Magic didn't bestow Howard with one of those nostalgic video tributes – not yet, anyway. Orlando wanted an edge to the evening, wanted to see how Howard and these young Magic would respond, and it made for compelling theatre.
They booed and heckled Howard, but the vitriol couldn't come close to that of LeBron James' return to Cleveland. Nevertheless, Howard needs to be loved, embraced, and it'll always be difficult that he's lost that in Orlando.
"He was a hero in Orlando," Redick told Yahoo! Sports. "L.A. already had a hero."
In the final moments of the victory, Howard still engaged the fans near the Lakers' bench. From 15 rows back, Howard responded to those barking at him. He seemed to want to connect – maybe reconnect – with them all. Howard couldn't resist – nor could he sell them on old times anymore.
Finally, the man in the baseball cap leaned closer to the bench and told Howard he'd never, ever win a championship.
This time, Howard smiled brightly, held out his arms and assured that Magic fan: "I'm going to get mine." Howard nodded again, "I'm going to get mine."
In one way or another, championship or bust in Los Angeles, these were perhaps the truest words Dwight Howard had ever spoken.
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