By Jeff Miller, The Orange County Register –
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Before Dwight Howard played for the Lakers, before he donned the jersey of the Lakers, before he even was formally presented as a member of the Lakers, there was mention of the franchise retiring his number.
That’s how bright and sunny and fat with feel-good the news conference was Friday at the team’s practice facility.
General Manager Mitch Kupchak prefaced the official introduction by saying he hoped Howard’s jersey would join the others prominently displayed on a nearby wall “10 years from now.”
On the Laker wall 10 years from now?
There is no guarantee Howard will even be on the Laker team 10 months from now.
Yes, there is reason for grinning optimism around here today, with the Lakers having added the NBA’s best center to a starting five that already featured Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash.
But there is reason for frowning concern, too, concern Howard did nothing to soothe as he refused to commit to anything beyond a single season here.
Beware of what you wish for, Lakers fans. You’ve got Howard starring in a welcome-home reception. Before long, you might have him starring in a five-alarm circus.
No player in any sport ever has been more emphatic or determined about testing free agency than Howard is right now. Yeah, his addition to this Lakers team is loaded with potential, all flavors of potential.
Rather than offer even a glimmer of hope Friday, Howard instead kept talking about how “this is about today” and how he — no matter how many different times or ways the questions came — would provide no insight about his immediate past.
That past, of course, was spent in Orlando, where they used to celebrate Howard on billboards but now compare him to LeBron James, who had his jerseys burned in Cleveland but only because the folks there couldn’t set fire to his eyebrows.
If you know any basketball fans in central Florida, ask them what they think of Howard today. His reputation is in tatters because he became someone whose words couldn’t be believed, whose actions couldn’t be trusted.
He flip-flopped repeatedly about his desire to play for the Magic. He helped his coach get fired. He emerged as the NBA’s leading prima donna — no small achievement — by demanding a trade and then severely limiting the places he’d play.
You do know people in Orlando refer to the past year as being a “Dwightmare,” right? Did the Lakers just invite a “Dwightmare” into their midst? Until Howard signs long-term, the possibility of a chaotic spectacle remains, bubbling just below the surface.
Most of this matters little to the majority of Laker fans, however. They’re just delighted to have Howard and blinded by the brilliant potential assembled by Kupchak.
Even the GM is willing to close his eyes and hope for the best. Kupchak said he has had no discussions with Howard or his agent about a new contract. “We’ll worry about that later,” Kupchak said.
Rest assured, though, later is coming, and perhaps sooner than you think. How about this winter, when the questions about Howard re-upping with the Lakers and the rumors about him departing hound this team daily?
How will Bryant react in, let’s say the stretch run of late March, when he’s asked for the 12th time on one trip about Howard becoming a free agent?
Uncertainty about the future ruined Lamar Odom’s 2011-12 season and nearly did the same to Gasol’s.
Howard said he was so thrilled to be a Laker that he didn’t sleep Thursday night. When someone asked if, while sleeping, he ever dreamed of being a Laker, Howard confirmed that he had. At one point, he offered, “I’m so excited it’s hard to talk.”
Yet, asked directly about playing for the Lakers beyond 2012-13, about extending this dream and choosing to live out his fantasy — how many of us have that choice in life? — Howard suddenly was as business-like as a board meeting.
He can be delightful and charming, a giant clown with a smile that explodes. He did an admirable impression of Bryant on Friday, joked about Kupchak’s age and couldn’t stop his big personality from oozing out.
But when the topic turned to the past or the future, Howard became a square, his responses as nerdy as the glasses he wears.
So, amid all the hunky questions and dory answers, there was nothing for Lakers fans to cling to beyond the coming season.
And, believe it, there was a ton of hunky-dory Friday. One reporter asked for Howard’s reaction to how “the city of L.A. is giddy.” Another called Howard “a perfect physical specimen.” A third began his query by saying of Howard and the Lakers “You guys are great.”
Somewhere along the way, Howard gazed upon the assembled media and, noting his recent seclusion while rehabbing his back, beamed and proclaimed, “I miss you guys.”
A short time later, Howard emerged from the practice facility and moved toward his cream-colored Bentley, the one backed straight in as to take up two diagonal parking spots.
Pressed against a nearby fence, Lakers fans, waving jerseys and taking photos, screamed Howard’s name.
Page one of the new love story had been written. But be warned, folks. These days in Orlando, they’re screaming Howard’s name, too.