Once the text message arrived in Dwight Howard’s cell phone, a moment of disbelief emerged.
The recipient was none other than Phil Jackson. The coach who won 11 NBA championships. The man who helped the Lakers win five titles in two separate stints spanning over a decade. And to Howard’s disappointment, the person the Lakers surprisingly passed up in November to replace the fired Mike Brown in favor of Mike D’Antoni.
“He just wanted to know if it’s really me,” Jackson said with a smirk Wednesday night at Time Warner Cable Media sponsored event at the Vibiana in downtown Los Angeles that honored the late Lakers owner Jerry Buss. “And I said, ‘Yes it is.’”
From there, Jackson then offered some support very few gave Howard last season as he fought through offseason back surgery and a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
“I just basically said let your play do your talking for you. You’ve come through a difficult operation. I went through that,” said Jackson, who also had hip replacement and knee surgeries in recent years. “It took me a full year to recover and more, and you’ve done it in short order. Just allow your play to do the action and remember defense and rebounding is the key to this game and the other stuff falls behind that.”
Howard first revealed in March that he had exchanged texts with Jackson, and expressed appreciation for such sentiments. After all, Kobe Bryant and D’Antoni had both indirectly and directly questioned Howard’s toughness when he first fought through his injuries, a large reason why he averaged 17.1 points and a league-leading 12.4 rebounds per game, his lowest marks since the 2006-07 season.
Jackson downplayed his exchanges with Howard, saying “I can’t really claim to have a relationship with Dwight.” After all, Jackson said they only texted each other twice, once to verify Jackson’s identity and later when he offered support. Jackson’s words also sound similar to what Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak reminding reporters this season that plenty expected Howard’s return to happen in either January or February instead of a week before the season opener.
But with the Lakers revealing Wednesday that Jackson has an unpaid and unofficial consulting role in recent weeks, it’ll be interesting to see whether that could influence Howard’s pending free agency. Jackson declined to go into specifics on what he addressed to Kupchak, but his following revelation sure suggestion one of the items included Howard’s future.
“I’m just supporting Jeanie and the decisions for the ballclub to make, whatever that is,” Jackson said. “I’m backing her and trying to find a way to bring the team back to prominence through getting a contract resolution going and signing the people they have to sign and find ways where they’re mobile enough to have the talent that they have to have soon. That’s a tall order for anybody. She has a basketball management group with Mitch and her brother working on one end. She balances that out by bouncing it on my head once in a while.”
Still, Kupchak said they “don’t talk on a daily basis” and added “things move too quickly” for him to consult with Jackson regularly.Howard’s pending free agency represents a huge portion of what’s carving into Kupchak’s schedule.
“My preference would have been for six months ago for him to say I want to be a Laker and as soon as I can sign I intend to be one,” Kupchak said. “But the the rules don’t really make sense for him to do that until the summer. There’s an extra year in there as far as the contract. It’s not something we’re used to, but there’s a feeling of uneasiness and anticipation.”
Yet, Kupchak maintained, “I’m optimistic because of our franchise and the resources this franchise has and the city we live in.” Howard could resign with the Lakers to a five-year deal worth $118 million, as opposed to a four-year deal worth $87.6 million with another team.
Kupchak also sounded optimistic because of the uncertainty the team felt when Kobe Bryant tested free agency in 2004 and came close to signing with the Clippers. But the late Lakers owner Jerry Buss convinced him otherwise.
At Buss’ memorial, Howard and Jackson ran into each other and continued their conversation. The dialogue all traces back to when Howard led the Orlando Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals against the Lakers, a series the purple and gold won in five games.
“I really have always had a positive relationship with him ever since that 2009 playoffs,” Jackson said. “You get very close to players when you get into a Finals series. You not only got to go against them but have great respect for them. Dwight wants to get back to that place and I admire that about him and the work he has to do to get there is going to be continual. Some of it is at the free throw line and some of it is the other aspects of the game. But most of it is getting that core strength back after the operation.”
Howard knows. Jackson has already texted him about it.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org