ORLANDO, Fla. — Having already made amends with one former fan base, as Dwight Howard and the Los Angeles Lakers faithful are embracing each other again, Howard looked to patch up another old relationship here Wednesday.
Howard was traded from the Magic to the Lakers in the summer of 2012. At the time, he was 26 years old and viewed as a franchise player, having established himself as the premier defensive center in the game in Orlando.
Late in the 2011-12 season, Howard — who was drafted by the Magic No. 1 in 2004, helped lead Orlando to the NBA Finals in 2009 and won Defensive Player of the Year three consecutive seasons while wearing the black and blue — rescinded his trade request and said he wanted to stay with the only team he’d ever known.
However, the change of heart was temporary and he was dealt to the Lakers five months later, the first of five stops for Howard in the next seven years as he bounced from city to city before landing back in L.A.
“I got blessed to come back and play with the Lakers, and I’m in a really good situation,” Howard said. “I’m pretty sure there were a lot of people here who were super hurt and disappointed that I left. And I’m sorry for that. You know, I apologize if they felt that way. But I never would have been the person I am today if I would have stayed here. So I’m very thankful that everything that has transpired has transpired and it’s made me the best version of Dwight Howard. I never thought this would happen. So, I’m happy that it happened. I know that it broke a lot of people’s hearts. It broke my heart, too. But, man, at the end of the day, I’m free. I feel really good.”
Most of the vitriol from Magic fans had left the building come Wednesday. There was one sign held up in the stands that read, “The Dwightmare Before Christmas,” but other than that, the crowd reaction to Howard was pretty mild up until the fourth quarter, when Howard, Jared Dudley, Michael Carter-Williams and Wes Iwundu got into a shoving match after Magic big man Jonathan Isaac fouled Howard. After an official’s review, Howard and Carter-Williams both received technical fouls, while Dudley and Iwundu were ejected.
Howard, who turned 34 this week, revealed when he signed with the Lakers that he hit “rock bottom” in his personal life this past summer before putting the pieces back together. Two of his children sat courtside with Howard’s father and greeted the big man with hugs after the game.
“I was super bitter at a lot of the things that transpired behind closed doors that none of the Magic fans or people really know about,” he said without revealing specifics. “I never said anything about it. I never bashed or talked anything bad about this team. But I did have a lot of bitterness in my heart towards the organization and even the fans of how they treated me when I came back. But I let it go. I was super bitter, but I let it go. And by letting it go, it just dropped all the weight that I had and it just made me a better person.”
His play has been a revelation for the Lakers, as he had averaged 7.0 points on an incredible 74.2% from the field along with 7.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 20 minutes per contest off the bench entering the game. He had two points on 1-for-4 shooting, six rebounds and a block in the Lakers’ 96-87 victory on Wednesday, and he said the box score hardly mattered to him.
“I have nothing to prove to nobody,” he said. “I’ve done an amazing job in my career so far, so I’m not out here trying to prove how many points I can score or trying to prove I’m Dwight Howard. I know who I am, know who I represent and know what this team needs in me for us to win.”
The Lakers have benefited from Howard’s maturation.
“We were lucky to be able to snatch him up late in the summer like that,” LeBron James said. “We’re happy to have him.”
Added Lakers coach Frank Vogel: “I’m really enjoying my time with him. … He’s really bought into and bringing a seriousness about his business and his approach. He’s been all business. He’s really bought into that defensive-rebounding, lob-threat, roller type of role. It’s a big shift, but he’s really embraced it and excelled in that. He’s been a star in his role.”
Had Howard never left the Magic, perhaps he doesn’t have the down years he experienced in Atlanta, Charlotte and Washington. But perhaps he never ends up on a contender like this season’s Lakers.
“I don’t look at the years that were bad in people’s eyes as, ‘Oh, man, I should have stayed where I was at,’ ” he said. “I was very comfortable here in Orlando and I needed to get out of that comfort zone, find out who I am as a person and as a man and it just made me a lot better. So, I’m very thankful for that. And there is times where I thought what would have happened if I would have stayed here and stuff like that, but I’m at the right place at the right time and that’s really the only thing that matters.”
“I think it takes everybody a while to get over things, but time should heal wounds, and if not, got to let that s— go,” Howard said before the Lakers played the Magic. “That’s how — I’m sorry — that’s how I look at it. I’ve let a lot of things go in my heart, things that have kind of held me down. Things that I had towards the Magic and just how the situation ended. How I was treated by the fans and stuff like that. But I had to let that bitterness go. There’s no need to hold on to it. When I let it go, it just made my life a lot better. Just more free.”