HOUSTON – Looking back, Dwight Howard should've resisted the natural inclination to rush himself into that Los Angeles Lakers' season. He wanted to be on the floor so badly that opening night, restore his reputation and validate Hollywood's vision of a Showtime return. Back surgery had come and gone within four months, and there turned out to be a steep price for embracing such a rapid rehabilitation. There were consequences for sacrificing his body, for trying to honor his commitment.
Never did Howard reclaim his agility, explosion and conditioning two years ago, nor did it ever feel fully restored with the Houston Rockets. Howard is an athletic marvel of nature, size and strength and speed that separated him as one of the greatest defensive presences the sport had ever seen out of a center.
Twenty four months later, Howard sits inside a lounge outside the Rockets' locker room in the Toyota Center, and confirms what everyone else in this training camp tells you: This season, redemption could be his.
Howard returned a different physical specimen, his old Orlando Magic self – only maybe better with the benefit of trial and error, the benefit of learning hard lessons. If the Los Angeles bridge between Orlando and Houston had been unpleasant for Howard, he'll never consider it unproductive.
"I probably should've waited longer," Howard told Yahoo Sports, "but I don't regret playing right away. I wish the information could've come across to the world about how hurt I really was, how serious the back injury was, but I never thought it really did.
"The good thing about it, I didn't develop any other major injuries. The torn labrum eventually healed itself. But coming back early from the back, I believed it helped me out in the long run. It made me really develop a thicker skin, going through all the things that I went through because of the injury.
"I was always taught never to show pain, never to show weakness, never to show fear. Always put a smile on your face. But I'm glad it did happen. It made me a better person. The world coming down on you, saying you weren't playing as hard as you could … "
On a couch, his knees wrapped in ice, Howard clenched a fist and smiled: "It made me stronger."
The Rockets need Howard to be himself again, dominate on defense and restore himself to a devastating pick-and-roll force on offense. There were moments a season ago, including a spectacular performance in the Western Conference playoff series loss to Portland, where Howard was Howard again. He could be more, though. The organization knew it, and so did he.
This summer, Howard passed on USA Basketball and returned to his roots of training: From the gym to the weight room to the table, Howard found himself fighting to recapture a body and a mind, that had made him an All-NBA star, a Defensive Player of the Year, an MVP candidate.
Trevor Ariza, who played three seasons with Howard on the Magic, walked into Rockets training camp and found himself mesmerized with Howard's re-transformation. "To be honest, he looks more athletic to me now," Ariza told Yahoo Sports. "He's always been big and strong, but he seems stronger to me, looks like he's jumping higher than he did."
After watching Howard in training camp, Rockets icon Hakeem Olajuwon told Yahoo: "He's a different animal this year. His physique, his spirit coming together with his talent and skills and health; he has an aura about him here. It's like he's gotten his youth back."
Howard has been embraced in Houston, and that's everything to him. He needs it. He's never stopped celebrating Houston as his free-agent choice. He loves the city, the franchise, the connection to the community. "I want to be here a long time," Howard says.
And through it all, as a leader, a teammate, Howard has needed to evolve. Yes, the Rockets loved that he had been so generous with them. He spent well over $100,000 on gifts for his teammates and support staff a season ago. He bought James Harden and Chandler Parsons luxury watches in the $35,000-$50,000 range, Jeremy Lin a $10,000 gift certificate for men's clothing, all the way down to iPads for support staff.
He tried to organize dinners, tried to get guys together, but ultimately Howard understands his greatest gift, his most important, comes on the floor. If people don't like that Howard still tells too many jokes for a serious-minded franchise player, he knows that he has to give them a season on the floor that is beyond reproach, beyond debate.
"It's something that I've been thinking about all summer: Playing at that level every single night," Howard told Yahoo Sports. "Not just waiting for the playoffs. This is my 11th year. There's a thought, 'The regular season is great, but when it's time for playoffs, this is when it gets real serious.' I want it to be where it's serious from Game 1 to end of season, and then take it to another level in the playoffs. That's something that me and Hakeem have talked about.
"I have to do it for 82 games, and physically, I'm in a better place to do it. There were spurts last season, spurts in Los Angeles, where I felt like I was doing a lot. The back injury took a lot out of me, but I'm in a better place now mentally and physically to carry a team."
When Howard thinks of himself trying to lead in Orlando, he remembers a young kid surrounded with young players. Truth be told, he never really knew how. Now, it's different. Now, he's 28 years old. He is never going to lead Kobe Bryant's way, nor LeBron James' way. For Howard in Houston, thought, he thinks this is the best plan of action: "With these guys, they're going to follow who gives the best effort, gives the best intensity on the floor every night. No matter what else you do for them, they want to see that at all times."
In the end, this is the way that Howard will win back his standing, his stature, in the sport. He won't do it with goofiness and gags, but with winning and dominance. Winning changes everything, and it always has in sports. In preseason a year ago, Howard had told me that he felt like the league's biggest villain. He never liked it, and never will.
Ask Howard if he still feels that way now, and he says: "There are a lot of times I do, yes. I was actually talking to a guy close to Wilt [Chamberlain] and he told me that no matter what Wilt did, he was always looked at as the villain. People always want to see David win, they don't want to see Goliath do it.
"We're all humans. We want to be liked. We want people to enjoy who we are. I want peace. We're built to feel love, not hate. It's a tough situation for somebody like me, because I try to be so giving of myself. So, I'll try the best I can. For me now, the biggest thing is leading these guys on the team, being the best person I can be for this city."
Around the Rockets, they'll tell you: Howard was deferential to Harden a year ago. Howard eased his way into the franchise, never trying to cramp Harden on offense, never chastising him much for his absentee defense. Harden has promised to make a greater commitment on that end, and only time will tell. Together, they'll make the Rockets a contender – or they won't.
"You have two guys who've been in the position where they're that guy for a team," Howard says. "There's going to be some friction. But it's not about outshining each other, it's about doing whatever we can to lead this team. After a year together, I think we really understand that.
"We're in a better place now. I don't think there were any times when I got so upset that I couldn't come in and say, 'Hey, brother, I need this from you …'
"We all have one goal and that's to win a championship and in order to that, [we] have to take ego out and come correct with each other."
Before Howard could get up off a couch in the Rockets' lounge, he had to unwrap those ice bags off his knees.
"A lot of miles on these things," he says, but still Dwight Howard nodded and smiled as though to tell you this: I haven't felt this good in a long, long time.