Three days before training camp Dwight Howard checked out of L'Ermitage, a boutique hotel in Beverly Hills, and the staff threw him a goodbye party. Housekeepers hugged him. Bellmen thanked him. Everybody posed for pictures and ate cake. Among the gifts Howard received was a blanket from the hotel to remind him of his visit. He had come to L'Ermitage in late April, after undergoing back surgery, and planned to stay at the hotel no more than a week while beginning rehab. But the housekeepers helped him walk down the halls, making sure he didn't stumble. The bellmen brought him warm cookies at night. The managers cleared banquet rooms so he could watch his Magic teammates in the playoffs. When he called the front desk to place food orders, receptionists asked, "Mr. Howard, how is your back feeling today?" and he told them whether he was encouraged or frustrated. The staff discovered his affection for Skittles and Starburst, so they stocked his suite with the candies, and they learned he liked candles, so they scattered them around the rooms. Howard memorized employees' names and shifts. He even knew the mailman. The hotel became his home. He stuck around for five months.
Howard spent hours in his suite building Legos, playing video games and watching cartoon movies—a sampling of his favorite pastimes—but he finds it hard to be alone, so he also lounged around the lobby, greeting guests and convincing them he was a part owner of the property. "I told them it was my hotel," Howard says, "and they should contact me if they had any problems." One day L'Ermitage was evacuated because of a power outage, and guests were handed flashlights when they returned. Howard passed out his surplus candles.
He rarely left the hotel, except for rehab and his daily strolls to Sprinkles, an ice cream and cupcake shop on nearby Santa Monica Boulevard. He bought scoops for everybody who happened to be in the store. Then he returned to L'Ermitage in time to see the little girl who rode her bike by the front door each afternoon and serenaded Howard with pleas to join the Lakers. He parroted her cheerful soprano.
It is hard to reconcile the cuddly side of the NBA's best center, on display since he joined Orlando out of high school in Atlanta as the No. 1 pick of the 2004 draft, with the blunt edge that he revealed for the first time last season. Trade demands and backroom ultimatums may be common practice for the sport's petulant stars but not for pied pipers like Howard, who uses the term holy moly doughnut shop in casual conversation, owns a hat that reads I [heart] HATS and thinks he's being mischievous when he tweets, What's brown and rhymes with snoop. Lol. One former teammate calls Howard "a big kid," yet it takes a ruthless 26-year-old to force his way out of the only franchise he has ever known, presenting management with a list of suitable destinations and, on the way out of town, pressuring the team to fire its coach.
So who is Dwight Howard, a merrymaker or a shark? And is it possible to be both?
Howard lives in Los Angeles full time now, the centerpiece of what could be the most decorated starting lineup ever, one that includes the best player of his era, the best point guard, the best big man and the most skilled 7-footer. The Lakers evoke obvious comparisons with the Heat, but L.A.'s superstars should adjust to each other more easily than Miami's because their defining individual talents do not overlap: Steve Nash is the passer, Kobe Bryant the scorer, Pau Gasol the playmaker, Howard the finisher and rim protector. Metta World Peace is sort of like the bouncer. "The pieces just fit," Bryant says.
The Lakers will run a variation of the Princeton offense, with all its reads and cuts, taught by assistant Eddie Jordan, a former head coach of the Kings, Wizards and 76ers. Eight months ago Jordan was running the ninth-grade boys' basketball team at Archbishop Carroll High in Washington, D.C., where he had to buy the balls, uniforms and socks. Working for the Lakers, Jordan deadpans, is "not too different."
Less than two minutes into the Lakers' first preseason game, against the Warriors, Nash flung a no-look crosscourt pass to Bryant, who turned down a wide-open three-pointer and tossed an alley-oop to Gasol. Howard, still sidelined to protect his back, broke out his "Gangnam Style" dance. This group is capable of some aesthetically amazing basketball. "But we lose three in a row," cracks general manager Mitch Kupchak, "and all hell is going to break loose."
Four Lakers starters are 32 or older—including Nash, who is 38—so unlike the Heat they harbor no delusions of becoming a dynasty. They are trying to pick off another championship while grooming Howard to lead the organization forward. He is both attraction and apprentice.
The NBA was supposed to be entering the Heat-Thunder era, but every off-season Kupchak asks owner Jerry Buss, "What's our budget?"
Buss invariably replies, "You tell me the player, and I'll tell you the budget."
Starting in early July, L.A. acquired Nash and Howard in a span of 35 days, surrendering nothing but draft picks, spare parts and center Andrew Bynum. The summer of 2012 will take its place in franchise history alongside the summer of 1996, when the Lakers landed Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal—unless Howard declines to re-sign with the club after he becomes a free agent on July 1, 2013, forfeiting approximately $25 million, according to the new collective bargaining agreement. "We don't know what he's going to do," Kupchak says. "We have no idea. Our feeling all along was, Let's just get him here, with Kobe and Steve and Pau, and we'll take our chances."
A week into camp, between an interview and a photo shoot at a hotel across the street from the Lakers' practice facility, the 6'11" Howard strode across the lobby and noticed a female dwarf waiting for him with a camera. "Come over here!" he said, beaming. He dropped to his knees and sweetly tilted his head against hers. He asked if she was interested in a five-year engagement. She laughed harder than he did. You'd think they had grown up together.
Howard's public effervescence is no act—"It's every day, all the time," says Lakers point guard Chris Duhon, who played with Howard for two years in Orlando—but in private he comes across as shrewd and serious, reflecting quietly on his desire to please against his need to win, a conflict that played out last winter for the world to see.
Howard decided to leave Orlando, then to stay and finally to leave. He included the Lakers on his list, then crossed them off and eventually put them back on. Howard could not bear to be assailed by the press and the fans the way LeBron James was for ditching Cleveland, but he also couldn't stand to be home in June. And if he did flee, he could not follow Shaq's path from Orlando to L.A., given all the times O'Neal has tweaked him for one frivolous reason or another. (Swiping O'Neal's nickname, Superman, was one of the most serious offenses.) But five quiet months at L'Ermitage gave Howard a chance to sort through his misgivings and see that the Lakers gave him the clearest shot at everything he wanted.
"It took a while to get over the fact that I can't please everybody, no matter how hard I try," Howard says. "I didn't want to see people mad or upset at me, but I knew somebody was going to be disappointed with whatever I did. I was finally like, I don't need to be accepted. I have to be who I am. If you can't accept that, it's fine."
On the night of Aug. 10, when Howard was dealt to the Lakers, he went to dinner at Mastro's in Beverly Hills, and a large group of strangers invited him to their private room. "They said, 'Dwight, we want to welcome you to L.A. and make a toast to you and your new journey here,'" Howard recalls. "I told them, 'Thank you, but I don't drink, I've never had a drink before.' And then I thought about it, and I was like, You know what, I think this deserves a drink." He clinked glasses and lifted one to his lips.
Three weeks later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stopped by the suite at L'Ermitage and formally welcomed Howard into the pantheon of Lakers centers. Abdul-Jabbar showed Howard a championship ring and gave him a jersey. "He told me I had athleticism like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell," Howard says. "He said, 'You've put in a lot of work for the last eight years, you've sowed your seeds, and now it's time to reap the benefits.'"
When Abdul-Jabbar left, Howard wept, and not simply because he'd gained the acceptance he always sought. "With everything I was going through, all the pain," Howard says, "I was just so happy someone understood how hard I had worked."
In the NBA, jesters are often slackers or guys sitting at the end of the bench, but Howard contradicts the stereotypes. He's a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who rises at 6 a.m. to read his daily devotionals, keeps his body fat below 8% even when injured, and demoralizes opponents with his relentless pursuit of the rim. During one of the Lakers' first scrimmages, Howard chased a ball out-of-bounds, saved it to the opposing team, then sprinted back and blocked a dunk. Sure, he may have been grinning the whole time as if he were in the front row at the Improv, but the block was no less ferocious.
"A goofball doesn't make plays like that," Bryant says. "You need to have a little of that dog in you. It's there. It's just a matter of digging deep and pulling it out."
Howard grew up in the Atlanta suburbs, with a father who was a state trooper and a mother who was a teacher, and as a senior at Southwest Christian Academy he still observed a curfew and wasn't allowed to have cable TV in his bedroom. His graduating class was 16 students. "I felt sheltered," Howard says. "When I got to the NBA, I wanted to be my own man."
He spent three seasons in Orlando with forward Grant Hill, who is 13 years older and was a team leader. But in the summer of 2007 the Magic let Hill sign with Phoenix, clearing the path for Howard to take over the locker room. "They didn't want me back," Hill says. "Looking at it now, maybe you can second-guess giving Dwight the mantle when he was 23. It might have been a little soon."
From 2007--08 through '10--11 the Magic averaged more than 55 wins with a roster practically devoid of positive veteran influences. Ask Howard about his NBA mentors, and he singles out journeyman center Tony Battie, who once cornered him in a Philadelphia hotel and told him, "Get as much as you can now. Don't wait until the end of your career. Take advantage of every opportunity."
With all due respect to Battie, by moving to the Lakers, Howard has gone from a frat house where he was rush chair to a think tank where he can sit back and take notes. He is flanked by three of the most cerebral people in pro sports—Bryant, Nash and Gasol—all of whom grew up in foreign countries and discuss basketball as if it's high art. "These are serious f------ people," says Lakers assistant Darvin Ham. "This environment is totally different from anything Dwight has ever known. He wants to be a student, and he has been given the ultimate teachers."
Howard first walked into the Lakers' practice facility in 2009, when the Magic was playing L.A. in the NBA Finals. "This is the Lakers?" he asked incredulously. The team's headquarters are a long way from Hollywood, nestled behind a skating rink south of LAX, below an elevated train. The offices have modest accoutrements, with the exception of Kupchak's two flat-screen televisions, which are hooked up to his computer and list the name and stats of every NBA player. Kupchak just purchased the TVs last summer. "Ten or 15 years ago they probably would have been $8,000," he says. "It was ridiculous. You wouldn't consider that. Now you can go into a Best Buy and get one for $700."
The Lakers, it seems, spend exorbitantly only on talent. "We don't have all the neon lights here," says longtime trainer Gary Vitti, "but we have great people."
Bryant is predictably consumed by the thought of a sixth title, but with two years left on his contract and retirement finally on his mind, it's no longer his only priority. "I owe it to this organization to make sure they're in great hands when I step away," he says.
Before practice he asked Howard, "Hey, are you going to take jump shots today?"
"I think I need to," said Howard.
"Well then, take them. You can shoot. If you think about it, you'll miss. If you worry about other people, you'll miss. You need to keep shooting."
During practice when Howard caught the ball deep in the post, Bryant hollered, "Finish!" He pumped a fist when Howard fired. Bryant urged Howard to observe him as well. "I make guys uncomfortable in practice," Bryant says. "If you want to get to the next level, you have to punish the guy guarding you, make him think about if he wants to play in the NBA anymore."
Guard Chris Douglas-Roberts was the unfortunate soul matched up with Bryant early in camp as he put on his demonstration for Howard. "Kobe is a lunatic," says Douglas-Roberts, who was waived on Monday. "He's fouling you, talking trash, intimidating referees, intimidating assistant coaches. If you don't respond, he dominates you. Dwight is naturally a nice guy with a big heart. But you have to be a little bit of a lunatic to do this. He is learning from Kobe how to win. Everyone here is telling him, 'You've got the physique and you've got the tools to be a killer. Don't care what anybody thinks. Go do it.'"
Coaches are encouraging Howard to draw more fouls, even though he shot only 49.1% from the line last season. "When you're around other confident people, more of your shots will go in," says assistant Chuck Person.
Teammates are also exhorting Howard to speak up in the locker room, even though he's not as experienced as the others. "Come in the huddle, tell us what's in your head, what you're feeling," says 36-year-old forward Antawn Jamison. "That's how you learn."
Howard will absorb Bryant's leadership style, as well as Nash's, in the search for his own. "Steve isn't a dictator," says Grant Hill, now also in L.A., with the Clippers. "He's a conductor. He's all positive. Because of what Dwight's been through, I think he'll really listen to those guys."
Howard is more outgoing than Nash, more benevolent than Bryant and more dedicated to the dirty work than O'Neal. The similarities between the two amiable big men are mostly superficial. "Shaq was a goofball, but Shaq was a big a--hole," Bryant says. "And I was a little a--hole."
If Howard must be matched with a Lakers legend, it's not the one you'd expect.
In November 1981, armed with a new 25-year, $25 million contract, Magic Johnson clashed with coach Paul Westhead after a game in Utah and told reporters he wanted to be traded. The Lakers, who had won a championship under Westhead 18 months earlier, fired him the next morning and promoted assistant Pat Riley. Johnson was booed upon his return to the Forum, a hideous episode that would be buried over time by Johnson's many championships, public works and winning smiles. Today, one of the Lakers' rookie guards is Darius Earvin Johnson-Odom, so named because his mom adored Magic.
Howard will follow the Johnson blueprint as he attempts to rehab his image. At a mortifying press conference in April he threw an arm around Stan Van Gundy moments after the Orlando coach acknowledged that Howard was lobbying the front office to fire him. Less than two months later Van Gundy was dismissed (along with general manager Otis Smith), but Howard bailed anyway. He knows he may be jeered on the road all season—an awkward situation for a self-described pleaser—but do not expect him to grit his teeth the way LeBron initially did. During a photo shoot with Nash for this story, Howard belted out the lyrics to "I Love L.A.," and the normally understated Nash crooned with him. "When he wins, all the criticism will go away to a certain extent," says Lakers coach Mike Brown. "Kind of like [with] LeBron."
Nash will be the Lakers' best point guard since Magic—"He's high-octane gas in a Ferrari," says his former coach in Phoenix, Mike D'Antoni—but Howard will be the catalyst for an otherwise shaky defense. "That's going to be the key for us," says Gasol. "We're going to make some great plays and feel really good about ourselves, but sometimes, when you know you're better than your opponent, you don't work as hard."
With four starters on the downside of their careers and no credible bench, Vitti may feel as if he is holding this lineup together with Ace bandages. The trainer tested the moving patterns and alignment of every player before camp, and customized a list of exercises for them. Under his supervision Gasol has missed only one game in the past two years, World Peace two and Bryant eight. The newcomers haven't always been as healthy, but Howard never played fewer than 78 games before last season, and Nash hasn't been out for an extended period in more than a decade. "Yes, they're older," Vitti says, "but their histories are good."
Six days into camp Bryant was the last starter on the court after practice, standing just above the free throw line and going through basic ballhandling drills: one hard dribble between his legs, left hand to right, and a jumper. Then two dribbles between his legs, left to right and right to left, and another jumper. Over and over again, misses punctuated by profanities.
Two days later Howard was the last starter on the court after practice, wrestling in the post with Robert Sacre, the final pick in the draft. Sacre caught the ball on the left block, dribbled to the middle of the key, faked back to the left and shot a baby hook over his right shoulder. Howard, as if swatting an irksome gnat, sent the ball into a side court. Then he strolled over to Sacre on the baseline and patted his belly.
"It's O.K.," Howard said. He was not trying to bludgeon the rookie out of the NBA, but he was not allowing him to get comfortable, either. Howard is finding his place in the Laker constellation, neither merrymaker nor shark, but somewhere in between.
"A goofball doesn't make plays like [Howard]," Bryant says. "You need to have a little of that dog in you. It's there. It's just a matter of pulling it out."
"Shaq was a goofball," Bryant says, "but Shaq was a big a--hole. And I was a little a--hole."
Photograph by PETER READ MILLER
NEW AND IMPROVED As summers go, L.A.'s wasn't bad: The Lakers brought in Nash and Howard (who have 14 All-Star appearances combined), giving them a Big Four who will challenge the Heat for the title.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (BENCH)
SITDOWN COMEDIAN The Lakers held Howard out of their first five preseason games, but he made other contributions, such as cracking up Earl Clark (left) and Bryant.
Photograph by PETER READ MILLER
[See caption above]
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (NASH)
SHOW RUNNER Former teammate Hill calls Nash (10) a "conductor," not a "dictator," which should bode well for his relationship with Howard as the big man develops a leadership style of his own.
Photograph by PETER READ MILLER
[See caption above]