HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — When Dwight Howard arrived in L.A. all smiles, nice Kobe Bryant talked of one day handing the keys of the legendary Lakers franchise to the big man, from superstar to superstar, to drive the purple-and-gold into yet another era of dominance.
If video evidence exists of recent Dwight smiles, please tweet or email me.
One must wonder if stone-cold, ruthless Kobe, the one with no working definition for injured, the one now urging Superman to suck it up and play with that torn labrum of his (although Kobe has now softened that stance), the one that tweeted a staged photo of the two to convince us that they like each other, will ultimately steer Howard straight out of Dodge, or actually somehow harden the heart and mind of this playful, stone-chiseled child of a man.
Howard’s choices are plain and in front of him. We will find out his first decision tonight at Boston if he chooses to play through shoulder pain as the Lakers, 23-26 and without injured Pau Gasol for the next four to six weeks, are in desperation mode from here on out.
Howard participated in the Lakers’ morning shootaround, according to reports, but he will be a game-time decision.
“I want to play,” Howard told reporters afterwards. “Why wouldn’t I want to play? At the same time, this is my career, my future and this is my life. I can’t leave that up to anybody else. There’s nobody else that will take care of me. If people are pissed off that I don’t play or if I do play, so what? This is my career. If I go down, then what? Everybody’s life is going to go on. I don’t want to have another summer where I’m rehabbing and trying to get healthy again. I want to come back and have another great year.”
The greater decision, of course, will come in July when Howard finally becomes an unrestricted free agent after what has seemed like an eternity of Dwightmarish indecision and immaturity, a confluence that delayed his free agency and destroyed a golden path to his desired Brooklyn, and finally landed him in L.A. via trade from forsaken Orlando last summer.
Again, Howard’s choice is plain: He can re-sign with L.A. and play for a legendary franchise and alongside one of the great competitors — and taskmasters — the game has ever known. Or, he can seek refuge somewhere a bit more comfortable.
Like Dallas, one of his original top three choices where first-rate owner Mark Cuban can coddle the big man in terrycloth robes, where Howard can take the torch as the shining superstar from a less domineering Dirk Nowitzki as he obligingly accepts a passenger seat during his remaining post-championship seasons.
Or, as we know, Atlanta general manager Danny Ferry has cleverly carved out cap space to make Howard a conquering hometown hero if he so desires.
It must also at least be noted that Dwight is right to scrutinize all aspects of the Lakers’ organization. Ownership has never been as unstable as it seems to be now with the aging Dr. Jerry Buss and his children-in-charge. The decision to hire Mike D’Antoni over Phil Jackson further complicated this season’s dysfunction, delivering an offensive system that doesn’t maximize a big man the way Jackson’s Triangle would. It isn’t even clear at the moment if D’Antoni or Kobe is in charge of the on-court direction of the club.
Still, just listen to Kobe talk about what it means to play for the Lakers in an exclusive interview with ESPNBoston.com’s Jackie MacMullan:
“[Dwight] has never been in a position where someone is driving him as hard as I am, as hard as this organization is.
“It’s win a championship or everything is a complete failure. That’s just how we [the Lakers] do it. And that’s foreign to him.
“When you think about it, there aren’t many organizations that look at it that way. There are only two that can really honestly say that’s what they live by: Los Angeles and Boston.”
Can Howard handle that truth? Better, yet, does he want to?