As he made his way toward the entrance tunnel, an unsettling reality greeted Dwight Howard.
He would feel something far more painful than the soreness in playing in his first game since missing the previous three because of a torn labrum in his right shoulder and a nagging surgically repaired back. With the Lakers losing 116-95 to the Boston Celtics in a mid-February game at TD Garden, one Laker fan clearly showed his dissatisfaction for Howard finishing with nine points on eight field-goal attempts, seven rebounds and four turnovers.
The Laker fan took off his jersey and threw it in Howard’s face.
“I’ll never forget this for the rest of my life,” Howard said in a recent interview with Bleacher Report. “It really hurt me at the time.”
Howard has since joined the Houston Rockets. He has insisted his decision hinged on the Rockets’ young roster, coach Kevin McHale’s experience as a post player with the Celtics and a supportive organization. He downplayed his displeasure in Mike D’Antoni’s system, Kobe Bryant’s demanding leadership and mounting expectations contributed to his departure. But Howard’s recollection on the jersey incident epitomized how he never truly felt happy or appreciated with the Lakers.
“I felt so bad. I really tried to go out there and give everything I had,” Howard said. “I just didn’t have it. After that, I said I’m going to get myself better and get in better shape. I was on a mission all season to really really get in shape.”
That eventually happened.
Howard showed gradual improvement in his points production from January (13.9), February (15.1) and March (17.9). Through seven games in April, the Lakers’ output from Howard (21.6 points) and Pau Gasol (17.6 points) represents their highest all season when they played together in the starting lineup. But in the first round flameout to the San Antonio Spurs, Howard consistently struggled against San Antonio’s defenses and even drew an ejection in the Lakers’ Game 4 elimination loss.
Plenty of Lakers fans expressed their displeasure with Howard in what marked his last game with the Lakers. But it’s clear that sentiment existed long beforehand.
It shouldn’t be surprising Howard pinpointed the Celtics loss as his “saddest moment.” Earlier that day, Bryant was quoted in an ESPN.com story in which he said, “We don’t have time for [Howard’s shoulder] to heal. We need some urgency.”
Bryant said he didn’t insinuate Howard needs to return even if he’s not fully healthy.
“There’s an urgency to be out there,” Bryant said, “but not at the cost of making his shoulder worse.”
Howard took offense to the remark, repeatedly reminding everyone “Kobe’s not a doctor.”
“These people haven’t had injuries,” he said. “I spent a whole summer last year trying to recover (from an injured back) because I wanted to play through pain and show people I’m tough. I spent eight years in Orlando and never really had an injury. The injuries I did have were ones I could play through it. It’s tough like this with a shoulder and back.”
It turns out it was also tough for Howard afterwards, with a worn Laker jersey rudefully awakening him as he made his way out of the tunnel.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org