There once marked a time when Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard overcame their differences and showed subtle gestures expressing their appreciation for each other.
Howard was among the first to visit Bryant in the hospital and at his Newport Beach residence when he tore his left Achilles tendon. Bryant remained vocal about the importance that the Lakers re-sign Howard. Howard joyfully imitated Bryant’s voice.
And, well, that’s probably it.
Once Howard bolted for the Lakers, Bryant unfollowed him on Instagram. When pressed on Howard leaving, Bryant claimed, “I really don’t give a [bleep].” And it appears Howard feels the same way.
“Have I talked to Kobe?” Howard repeated following the Clippers’ 137-118 victory Monday over the Rockets at Staples Center. “No I haven’t.”
It appears Howard’s only connection to the team involves various reserves, including Jodie Meeks, Jordan Hill and Robert Sacre.
“I talk to a lot of guys on the team,” Howard said. “Me and Jodie. Jordan and Sacre, we have a great relationship. We talk a lot. I’m looking forward to seeing those guys.”
It didn’t sound like Howard looked too excited about playing the Lakers Thursday in Houston in what will mark his first meeting against them since shedding purple and gold. He chalked it up as “just another game” before wondering aloud about the ongoing questioning why he’d leave a franchise steeped with championship history (16 NBA titles) and a lineage of centers that include George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal.
“It’s over with man. I’m already out of there,” Howard said. “There’s no need to talk about what the Lakers could’ve done. I made my decision and I’m living with it. I’m happy with where I’m at and I’m in a great place. We lost a game tonight. We’ll move forward. I think everybody should move forward. It’s over with and it’s my life. If you don’t like, it so what?”
Much to the chagrin of Howard’s eardrums, he heard plenty from fans on Monday that didn’t like what he did. Even if the Clippers should perhaps celebrate Howard for leaving their inner-city rival without a franchise player following the post-Bryant era, the Clippers fans (or Laker fans disguised as them) greeted him with boos any chance they had. That included anytime he scored one of his 15 points, went 5 of 10 from the free-throw line, committed one of his four fouls or even touched the ball.
“I don’t care,” Howard said. “They can boo me a million times. I’ll still play.”
An apparent mindset Howard adopted during his lone season with the Lakers.
“Not to allow whatever is being said to affect who I am as a person,” Howard said. “I’ll continue to lead this team despite whatever is going on in the inside. I’m going to be that guy for the team. We have a lot of young players who look up to me and it’s my job not to let whatever happens on the floor outside the locker room affect who I am.”
The Howard-Bryant relationship affected him plenty.
Bryant recalled recently there being “constant tension” with Howard. That mostly reflects Bryant’s more demanding leadership style conflicting with Howard’s preference to have a positive atmosphere. The two also remained at odds over who should become the primary focal point on offense.
In the Lakers’ air-it-out meeting in mid-January in Memphis, Bryant directly questioned Howard if he had any issues with him. Howard also took resentment when he perceived Bryant saying he needs to show more urgency while rehabbing a torn labrum in his right shoulder as a suggestion that he hasn’t done enough to play through injuries.
Howard’s surgically repaired back and torn labrum in his right shoulder contributed to him averaging 17 points on 57.8 percent shooting and a league-leading 12.4 rebounds per game, his lowest marks since the 2006-07 season. He felt throughout the season that he didn’t receive enough support and sympathy for playing through injuries that limited his timing, explosiveness, conditioning and athleticism.
“Coming back from back surgery is tough for anybody,” Howard said. “I came back earlier than I was supposed to. But I wanted to win and I wanted to play. Looking back on it, I should’ve waited. But I think it was good to play and I had to learn how to play through all that stuff.”
With Howard entering Houston’s loss Monday to the Clippers averaging 15 points and 17 rebounds in the Rockets’ 3-0 start, Rockets coach Kevin McHale described his health as “100 percent different.” He also shared that Houston’s training staff immediately felt concern about Howard’s physical after acquiring him as a free agent in July.
Though team accounts describe Howard as healthier, he put some damper into the notion that he’s fully healed.
“Right now I’m not 100 percent,” Howard said. “But I’m doing whatever I can to get better every day. The training staff is doing an excellent job to make sure I stay on top of my rehab. I feel a lot better.”
The same can be said in his state of mind.
After all, Howard’s issues with the Lakers extended elsewhere too. Steve Nash and Howard had arguments over the effort he provided on pick-and-roll coverages. Howard disliked Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense that featured him less in the post than he would have liked. It didn’t help his last game as a Laker featured him getting ejected in the team’s Game 4 first-round loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Or that uncertainty lingers on how the Lakers will thrive with a veteran-laden roster without the steady guidance of the late owner Jerry Buss.
“I’m happy. I’m in a better place,” Howard said. “It’s over with and I can just play basketball and no one has to ask questions where I’m going. I’m happy.”
Howard reiterated the phrase “I’m happy” several times after leaving the Lakers this offseason for Houston even if it meant signing a four-year deal worth $88 million instead of a five-year deal worth $118 million. The tone in Howard’s voice continued to rise on why he went to Houston in hopes of lifting the Rockets to an NBA championship.
“I picked a great team. This is a great team and a great organization, a great coaching staff and they have great players,” Howard said. “It’s not what anybody thinks. I can’t control what anybody else does with their life. I can control my life.”
And that includes not talking with Bryant.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org