HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Dwight Howard is coming to Dallas.
That is, he’s coming with his Los Angeles Lakers teammates Sunday for a high noon (CT, ABC) showdown against the Mavericks, an important matchup for two franchises uncomfortable with being out of the playoff mix and determined to get in.
In Big D, sports radio has buzzed about Howard signing with the Mavs since the day his three-team wish list surfaced last year, with Dallas next to Brooklyn and the Lakers. With each dose of drama from L.A., hope floats that the game’s most dominant center will soon come to stay.
Local air-wave chatter with the Lakers coming has been off the charts. Brooklyn is virtually out of the picture and Howard’s L.A. story soured long ago, so, “Why not Dallas?” is the dialogue now. The morning talk guys are pleading for a Dwight love-in Sunday at the American Airlines Center. Because, really, that’s all that the playful Howard really wants, to be loved, right? To be part of a tight-knit family, to be cheered by loyal fans through thick and thin?
In a most unexpected way, the passing of the Lakers’ visionary patriarch, Dr. Jerry Buss, and the emotional proceedings this week might somehow pierce Howard’s hardening exterior and help clarify what lies ahead. During this sad week of mourning and remembering in L.A., perhaps a glint of inner-peace — or at least a clearer understanding of his time and place — will nestle into Howard’s too-often conflicted noggin.
Howard has likely never experienced the varying emotions that he has witnessed since the organization announced Monday that Buss lost his fight with cancer at age 80. That emotion erupted in every nook and cranny of the proud Lakers franchise that Howard has known for all of eight months. It touched the core of the Lakers’ vast fandom. It swelled throughout the city of Los Angeles.
During Thursday’s memorial service at Nokia Theater, Howard, 27, watched as Lakers greats Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and the original Superman, Shaquille O’Neal (often critical of Howard), paid tribute to the man who created Showtime, the most glamorous and glorious enterprise the league has ever seen.
Magic asked all past and present Lakers players and coaches, about 50, to stand and be recognized. Earlier, Kobe appealed directly to his teammates.
“For our current Lakers,” Kobe said, “I encourage all of you to look around the room, look at the greatness of one man’s vision, look at the players that are here, coaches that are here; we have one thing in common, we all believe in Dr. Jerry Buss. We are playing for something bigger than ourselves, bigger than a single season, playing for the memory of a great man, Dr. Jerry Buss.”
It should have served as a humbling moment for Howard, a player boasting all the physical gifts to thrive but whose immaturity and indecision have damaged his reputation. It should have made his differences with Kobe — Howard’s polar-opposite, a hard-driving, unrelenting, five-time champion — seem infantile and insignificant.
The night before, Howard played his most inspired game of the season with 24 points and 12 rebounds to beat Boston in something rare this year, a Lakers’ rout. He said he had been thinking all day about getting the win for Dr. Buss. On Friday he played through pain and posted 19 points and 16 rebounds in a hard-fought home win over Portland. Before he tweaked his right shoulder, Howard had 15 and eight in the first half.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak this week heeded the advice of the local Dallas talk show hosts and showered the chiseled, 265-pound Howard with loving praise on national radio. Kupchak even said that Howard, who will become a free agent on July 1, should one day have a statue in front of Staples Center. He told Howard to trust him. Told him the future of the great Los Angeles Lakers belongs to him.
The Lakers have opened their arms to Howard. And all he’s had to do is watch and listen to understand what that means. The franchise is Howard’s — if he wants it.
As he repeated during All-Star weekend, he won’t be rushed: “This is my life, this is my career, it’s my legacy…”
All of that comes to Dallas on Sunday.