HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Dwight Howard didn’t re-sign with the Lakers, never embraced the challenge of that franchise’s great legacy as I envisioned he would.
Now I wait with the rest of the basketball world, and especially the victorious Houston Rockets, not without reservation, to see if the big man with the biggest, most scrutinized smile in NBA history comes through on the second part of my prediction — that he wipes that smile off his face and shuts down the clown act.
The circus has pulled up stakes and left town forever. If Howard thinks by signing with the Houston Rockets he outran the heat of the spotlight, that it’s safe to resume his jokester ways, then he’ll simply add another sequel to the overdone Dwightmare series. Now, 27, the boyish Howard, playful and goofy (and, yes, even endearing to many not named Kobe) must grow into a man befitting his chiseled 6-foot-11 frame, seize the responsibility he too often shunned in Orlando and in L.A., and lead this young, promising Rockets team.
He will be expected to deliver nothing short of a championship in the seasons ahead, just like LeBron James when he left Cleveland for South Beach, just like Carmelo Anthony after he forced his way out of Denver to get to his hometown New York Knicks.
Howard got what he wanted. He completed his L.A. fadeaway and chose his own path on Friday afternoon. He couldn’t control the personnel with which the Orlando Magic front office surrounded him. He couldn’t control where the Magic would trade him — even though the Lakers were one of his three listed favored franchises. And once in L.A. he couldn’t control the strange and unpredictable circumstances or the hammers of criticism continually swung by ex-Laker greats Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal.
In free agency, Howard controlled all, allowing the Rockets, Hawks, Mavericks, Warriors and Lakers to practically beg him to play for them. The proud Lakers were left to grovel. Howard made his pick, choosing Houston and the young, emerging star in James Harden, who won’t swallow him whole the way a biting, often overbearing Kobe Bryant did. He has a low-post master as his coach in Kevin McHale, who will tailor last season’s 3-ball offense to maximize its new back-to-the-basket star. No longer will Howard scratch his head at Mike D’Antoni‘s insistence to play away from his greatest strength as an offensive force.
And Howard also now has the gentle Hakeem Olajuwon in his corner rather than the the oversized shadow of Shaq, who giddily ribs the sensitive Howard as he pleases.
So, yes, there’s plenty to smile about for the seven-time All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year. And, look, there’s nothing wrong with smiling. We fell in love with Magic’s smile and his overflowing joy playing the game. We appreciate athletes who have fun, who revel in their sport. But the greats understand time and place and professionalism. The goofballs rarely catch on, almost never succeed.
From here on out Howard must be all business for him to ever be taken seriously, for his team to contend, for his legacy to get up off the ground and dust itself off.
The second part of my prediction was that Howard would get all this. I allowed for his early return from back surgery, the torn labrum in his shoulder, Steve Nash‘s broken leg in the second game of the season, Mike Brown‘s dismissal after five games and D’Antoni’s stubbornness to be excuses for the awful season that Dwight, almost comically, described after the San Antonio sweep as a “nightmare.”
I believed that once his back returns to full strength, once this ongoing free-agency circus finally folds that Howard will be free of unwanted distractions. No more difficult decisions to make, no more guilt for whichever decision he would make. With only basketball again as his focus, I believed Howard will again become the dominant two-way force we remember, circa 2009 in Orlando, before this mess started spinning like an F-5 tornado.
I’ll have to see it to believe it.
It’s all on Mr. Howard. He has the talent to be great. He must prove he has the fortitude. He can join LeBron and Kevin Durant as the game’s biggest stars and lead his team to championship contention on a yearly basis.
Or he can smile his way through $88 million of the Rockets’ money, and provide his buddy Shaq with a lifetime of ammunition.