Clashes with Kobe Bryant behind him, Dwight Howard rockets ahead; 'If you don't like it, so what'

Marc J. Spears

HOUSTON – Dwight Howard won't stand for any bitterness from the Los Angeles Lakers or fans who were displeased that he joined the Houston Rockets as a free agent this past summer.

"I made my decision," Howard said. "I'm happy where I'm at. Everybody should move forward. This is my life. If you don't like it, so what."

Howard has said he sought happiness and a better chance for a championship by going to Houston. Others say the perennial All-Star center also needed to be anywhere Kobe Bryant and Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni weren't. Howard will face his old team Thursday night, a contest he is publicly downplaying as, "It's another game."

Bryant won't have a role in Thursday's outcome since he's recovering from an Achilles injury, but his presence dominates the discussion of Howard's decision to leave Los Angeles.

Ex-Laker Antawn Jamison says Howard didn't return to the Lakers in large part because of his issues with Bryant that began with the team's early struggles last season. Bryant taking exception to a shoulder injury Howard had might have caused the biggest rift. Howard said he hasn't talked to Bryant in a while. The injured Bryant wasn't available for comment.

"Dwight and Kobe just didn't get along," Jamison said. "There was no definite reason as to why they didn't get along. They were just two different personalities that couldn't co-exist. You know how aggressive and straight-forward Kobe is. He doesn't stroke any egos. What you see with Kobe is what you get.

"They tried once it got started. Once we couldn't get it going and started struggling, Dwight got hurt and Kobe said some things. I understood what Kobe was trying to do because that's Kobe. 'Toughen it up.' It just did the opposite with Dwight. The more and more we couldn't put things together and try to get to that point of being the team we thought we could become, it got worse and worse."

The Lakers' Pau Gasol said Bryant and Howard's drama made a "rough" season more difficult.

"There was definitely a lack of understanding and connection," Gasol said.

Howard admitted that he returned too early from back surgery by debuting at the beginning of last season. He also did not fit well in the offense run by D'Antoni, who replaced Mike Brown early in the season. D'Antoni said, with a smile, that the Rockets use Howard similarly.

"It's tough when you got three Hall of Famers on the floor at the same time," D'Antoni said. "Too bad you're not the No. 1 guy to go to."

The Lakers' hopes of re-signing Howard were doomed. Sources said that the Lakers' brass told its employees entering last season to make Howard feel special and important. He was offered marketing opportunities, special game access for friends and given his own private jet for February's All-Star Game in Houston, sources said. The Lakers even went against their grain by putting up billboards that said, "Stay," in Los Angeles when free agency began.

"Even with everything they did, Dwight still felt undervalued by the Lakers, fans and the city of Los Angeles," a source said.

Bryant, D'Antoni and guard Steve Nash were among the representatives in the meeting with Howard trying to convince him to stay. The Rockets, however, got the first meeting. The week Howard was to make a decision, one of his representatives had already begun shopping for housing in Houston, a source said. On July 5, Howard chose less money but self-proclaimed happiness with the Rockets.

Howard was uninterested in discussing scenarios that would've kept him a Laker.

"It's over with. I'm already out of there," Howard said. "There's no reason to talk about what the Lakers could've done. I'm living with it. I'm happy where I'm at. I'm in a great place."

Howard's meeting against the Lakers on Thursday won't be as intense as when he faces them on Feb. 19 in Los Angeles, with Bryant likely back in the lineup. While Howard says he's over it, it could be a while before the Lakers and their fans move on.

"There is something there with the whole way it happened and the way the fans reacted and the way they still react every time he tweets something or posts something," said Rockets forward Chandler Parsons. "The Lakers fans crush him. But it's just a game to him."