EL SEGUNDO – With the purple and gold streamers descending below the rafters, Dwight Howard’s emotions poured out.
His eyes widened. His smile beamed. His arms lifted up into the air.
Howard had just nailed a three-pointer in the waning seconds of the Lakers’ win Friday over Denver, tying the team’s franchise record for most three-pointers made in a game (17). His state of elation also epitomized his constant giddiness since the Lakers acquired him from the Orlando Magic in August in a four-team, 12-player trade.
“I’ve been having a lot of fun since I’ve been here,” Howard said. “I’m happy I’m here.”
That marks a drastic change of emotions Howard faced since going through the infamously dubbed “Dwightmare,” a season-long soap opera that featured plenty of twists surrounding his Magic future. It entailed a trade demand, accusations from former coach Stan Van Gundy that he wanted him fired, a surprise decision to waive his early termination clause before the trade deadline and a back injury that threatened his career.
Everything comes full circle for Howard on Sunday when the Lakers (8-8) host the Orlando Magic (5-10) at Staples Center for the first time since he switched jerseys.
“There are some things I could’ve done better,” Howard said. “There are some things that could’ve been done better on both sides. But at the end of the day, we all learn some lessons and we’ve got to move forward.”
Yet, Howard also sounded appreciative of his eight year-tenure with the Orlando Magic. He paid particular thanks to Magic owner Rich DeVos for the organization selecting him with the first pick of the 2004 NBA Draft. After DeVos suffered a stroke Aug. 19, Howard also reached out to DeVos’ son, Magic chairman Dan DeVos.
Orlando will always be my home. That’s where I grew up, really. The fans were great to me for eight years. I have some unbelievable memories,” said Howard who went to the NBA Finals, made five playoff appearances and earned three league defensive player of the year awards. “This is a new chapter in my life. This is my home now. And I’m looking forward to making a lot of great memories here.”
Howard concedes some of those memories have become “frustrating.”
The Lakers went through a swift coaching change, firing Mike Brown following a 1-4 start. Howard said he remains around “75-80 percent” recovered from seven-month old back surgery, limiting his timing, explosiveness and energy level. Howard hasn’t complained about sharing the offensive workload with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace. Nor has he griped about Mike D’Antoni’s faster-paced system minimizing his inside presence. Yet, all these elements have contributed to Howard averaging 18.6 points (his lowest marks since the 2009-10 season) and 11.1 rebounds (his lowest numbers since his rookie year).
These issues pale to what Orlando faces. Its massive rebuilding stemmed from the Howard trade features only five players from last year’s roster, including Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick, Glen Davis, Hedo Turkoglu and Ish Smith.
Howard also gave his loudest endorsement about the Lakers since joining them.
“From one to 10, I’d give it a good 12. I love it. It’s been a lot of fun,” Howard said. “The motivation of everybody here is championship, that’s what we need. I like the direction we’re headed. We’ve had some tough losses but we’ll learn and we’ll grow from it.”
Yet, Howard has refused to say publicly whether that sentiment will last once he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1. He could re-sign for five years and $117.9 million instead of a four-year, $87.6-million deal with another team.
“Our objective is to win a championship and make it where the atmosphere is so good that he’d want to be here,” D’Antoni said. “That’s my job. But again, that will be his decision and he’ll make it for Dwight Howard.”
Those close to Howard don’t believe such a decision will play out in the same soap-opera like fashion as it did in Orlando. Lakers point guard Chris Duhon, who played with Howard in Orlando, noticed last season he was “trying to please everybody. And by trying to please everybody, he pleased nobody.”
With the Lakers, though, Howard seems to fit in well.
He’s maintained his vibrant personality even on a veteran-laden team. Howard imitates everybody, ranging from Kobe Bryant’s serious tone to D’Antoni’s West Virgina accent. Howard hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for several teammates. He frequently makes small talk with reporters about music, movies and television shows. The L.A. City Council even declared Nov. 14 to be “Dwight Howard Day.”
“A weight has been lifted off his shoulder with everything,” Duhon said. “He’s more relaxed. He’s having a lot more fun. He’s not worried about decisions or whether he will be traded. I think you can tell a lot is off his mind. He’s enjoying basketball.”
Hence, why Howard hardly has any regrets on switching teams.,
“When you get traded or ask for a trade from a team, it has nothing to do with a city or the fanbase,” he said. “It’s a business decision. Yeah it may affect people because that’s their team that they love and they want to see their team do good, but at the end of the day we only get one shot at this and I have to do what I believe is going to be best for me.”