LOS ANGELES – The noise had grown louder and louder now, tumbling out of the rafters of the Staples Center, tumbling out of the championship banners and retired jerseys, tumbling out of the cheap seats and down to the beautiful people. Out of the darkness of the pregame introductions, out of the darkness of back surgery and rehabilitation and a long, twisting and sometimes self-sabotaging journey to these Los Angeles Lakers for Dwight Howard, these cheers were the sweetest sound he had heard in a long, long time.
As the bright lights of the Hollywood stage enveloped Howard in the embrace of a deafening din, the strangest thing happened to the planet's most dominant, most indomitable force: The moment moved him to tears.
"Emotional," Howard would say outside his locker Sunday night. "A very humbling experience."
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On the occasion of his preseason Lakers debut, perhaps his truest and most important introduction to this most scrutinized job in sports – center for the Los Angeles Lakers – had come after the tears and ovation and his teammates pranking him by pushing Howard to lead them out of the tunnel – only to stop and let him run out there alone. For one, Kobe Bryant doesn't do basketball laugh tracks, nor condone them.
"I don't play those games," he grumbled later.
Between the big noise and a big performance of 19 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks from Howard, Bryant met his new center on the way to the opening jump, clenched the hands of the man brought to Los Angeles to help him win more championships and belted out a most unmistakable mandate: "Let's play some [expletive] ball."
Let's play some mother-bleeping ball, the perfect mantra for this staggering starting five that marched together to the floor for the first time. Howard. Bryant. Steve Nash. Pau Gasol. Metta World Peace. If the public was impressed with Howard's performance in his first game since back surgery ended his Orlando Magic career in March, the Lakers were far less so, because they had been witnessing the old Howard for some time now in training-camp practices.
No one stressed a 99-92 preseason loss to the Sacramento Kings – even with coach Mike Brown thrusting all the starters back onto the floor in the final minutes – because 22 turnovers told them they're still missing reads on the Princeton offense, still trying too hard to defer to the magnificent talent surrounding them.
At different times, to different degrees, Nash would say, all five of the Lakers starters have been the dominant offensive player on NBA teams. The challenge is "trying to fit in with each other, while at the same time exploit your talent. …At times we press, and at times we misread each other."
From the moment the Lakers made the trade for Howard in August, Bryant had insisted this offense would go through him, and he tried so hard to deliver that message on Sunday night. All of them did. Over and over, the Lakers played pick-and-roll with Howard, tossed him lob dunks – some thunderously finished, some sloppily missed – and everyone could live with the loss, because they understood that Howard needed to get Sunday out of the way.
Howard had to play those 33 minutes, and get up again after everyone gasped at the thud of DeMarcus Cousins slamming him onto his back. "I'm going to have some tough falls, because I play hard, and I like to block all the shots," Howard said.
These Lakers don't wonder defensively about Howard, because they already see the way he's going to change everything for them there. Yet Bryant has gone out of his way to push Howard to become a far more complete offensive player, to, in his words, "challenge him to do more than just screen-and-roll and dunk. We want opposing teams to see him as a dominant force."
For so many reasons, Bryant hated the hijinks some of his teammates unleashed on Howard before the game. Bryant has gone out of his way to make sure Howard understands the glare of playing for the Lakers is unrelenting and unyielding. For all the talent surrounding Howard – all the offensive talent that he never had in Orlando – he doesn't want Howard falling into any false security that somehow he doesn't have to grow his game, that somehow he can rely on what's always worked in the past.
There won't be too many Lakers nights like this for Howard, where no one much minded the final score. It matters here, the way it matters in few other sporting places. This was a night of ovations and cheers and welcoming warmth for Howard, but it won't last long for him. At times, Howard had been prickly over his treatment in Orlando – over the media, over the smallest of slights real and perceived – and some around him still believe he has no idea how easy he had it there. These are the Lakers, and everything's different now. From Chamberlain to Abdul-Jabbar, O'Neal to Bynum, this is where centers are demanded to deliver multiple championships.
The beautiful basketball minds of Bryant and Nash and Gasol have been taking inventory on the way Howard opens everything for them, the way he makes the game so easy. When Howard's preseason debut was over, the emotion and nerves and natural uncertainty made for a blurring evening.
"I even forgot some of my pregame rituals," Howard said. "I'll get it back."
Yes, he'll get it all back again, but the Lakers want more out of him, more than he had been with the Magic. And perhaps that's the blessing and curse of coming to a franchise where the standards are so staggering, where such gifted teammates come with conditions.
As Howard passed Bryant's locker on the way to the showers on Sunday night, the Lakers captain bumped his fist and asked Howard: "How did it feel bro?"
"Good," Howard nodded. "Good."
The tears were long gone now, and Dwight Howard's eyes could see clearly: Orlando was gone, and the bright lights of the big city finally belonged to him. On Howard's way to the floor for the first time in a Lakers uniform, Bryant had told him to let's play some mother-bleeping ball, and that wasn't so much of a request, as it was a demand.
For all the magnificent noise tumbling down out of the rafters on Sunday night, that one voice – and those five words – was the truest, most honest welcome Dwight Howard will ever get with these Los Angeles Lakers.
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