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LONDON – After a pre-trade deadline telephone call when Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant hung up believing they could never co-exist as teammates, months and months passed and, still, the two superstars never spoke again. Howard wanted Bryant to tell him what the Lakers could do to elevate his offensive stature, and Bryant wanted Howard to tell him he was determined to come with a defensive and rebounding mindset to make the Lakers champions again.
The call ended poorly, and it wouldn't be long until Howard had turned toward a path of far less resistance with the Brooklyn Nets.
As much as anything, Howard was determined to stop marching down the path of Shaquille O'Neal: From No. 1 overall pick to ring-less Orlando Magic center to self-proclaimed Superman, comedian and goofball musician, there was a part of Howard that resisted the inevitable power play to also make him a Laker.
Nevertheless, Howard made a mess of an easy exit out of Orlando, obliterating his march into a max-contract salary slot with Deron Williams and the Nets with an impulsive choice to reject his contract opt-out. Freedom of choice was gone, and the Magic wouldn't do a deal with Brooklyn.
In the end, Howard needed the Lakers and Bryant. And yes – for now and the future – Bryant and the Lakers needed Howard. The trade was completed on Friday and Howard gets the bright lights, big city and a championship chase with the Lakers. Howard gets his Showtime, but make no mistake: Howard comes without leverage in the locker room and doesn't have the latitude to revert back to his old class-clown self.
"I think that changes just by the pressure that he's under now," Bryant told Yahoo! Sports late Friday night "That pressure is on us all. We have to win championships. The focus will be higher, the intensity will be higher."
Yes, the Lakers need a serious-minded star for a serious-minded basketball franchise. Stan Van Gundy tried so, so hard to instill that within Howard, but the culture of Orlando always made the Magic beholden to Howard. No more. Howard is bigger than life, but he isn't bigger than the Lakers.
So, yes, Bryant searched out Howard's cell phone on Friday morning and made the call to Howard that the two superstars had resisted for months now. When the time comes rest assured Bryant will make something clear: The carnival act ends now. The clowning and goofing are done. During games, players used to hear Kevin Garnett screaming at Howard: "Paint your face, clown!" up and down the floor.
"That will be an interesting dynamic," one ex-teammate of Howard told Yahoo! Sports on Friday. "Not even just with Kobe. I don't think [Steve] Nash and Pau [Gasol] will enjoy that at this point in their career."
Bryant won't make a big deal out of the arrival of Howard. He won't give him the satisfaction of treating him like a savior. Howard has to earn his way with the Lakers. Howard has a chance to erase the stain of his diva act these past two seasons and brand himself a champion.
The Lakers needed Howard as the next in the magnificent lineage of franchise centers: From Mikan and Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and O'Neal, to Howard now. Someday everything will belong to Howard, but his mindset of a year ago needs to be different. He wanted to be the centerpiece offensive player, but that doesn't happen with Bryant, Gasol and Nash on the floor.
That will be the case when those three have faded into sunset, but the 26-year-old Howard comes to the Lakers needing to remain true to what's always been his greatest attribute: His standing as the greatest defensive force in the sport.
After Team USA’s 109-83 victory over Argentina to advance to Sunday’s gold-medal game, Bryant was more than complimentary toward Howard. The Lakers will play through Howard on offense, Bryant said, and he'll get even easier shots and scoring opportunities with so much superior talent surrounding him. "L.A.'s the perfect place for him if you look at history and all the great centers that have come to L.A.," Bryant said. "Now he's next in line."
Howard is still recovering from back surgery, and no one is sure he'll be ready for opening night – never mind the opening month of the season. He's living in Southern California now, and it would be wise for him to get together with Bryant once these Olympics are over and start to understand the culture change awaiting him.
"I'll play two or three more years, and then the team is his," Bryant said.
Someday, those Lakers will belong to Howard, but he doesn't walk into the door with that clout. Championships are everything there, and no one will want to hear about Howard's big ideas about how the offense will feature him. With him at his best, the Lakers are championship contenders but still no sure thing. Howard wanted Hollywood and the Staples Center and all that does for a star in Los Angeles, but he needs to get beyond the idea that he's going there to transform the Lakers. They'll transform him. That's what Bryant was trying to tell him on the phone last season, and that's what he'll assuredly tell him again: Get your mind right and understand that chasing championships in Los Angeles needs to be the most serious pursuit of your basketball life. Try it another way – Dwight Howard's old way – and there will be hell to pay.
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