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At rush hour last Friday, Dwight Howard pulled up to the Lakers' training facility in a white Bentley and let his passengers out of the backseat. He stayed behind, brushing his hair, fixing his tie, gazing at gawkers through tinted windows. Lakers officials, who had spent the better part of the past year trying to acquire Howard, waited a few more minutes for him. He marinated in the suspense.
For four months Howard has been holed up in a Beverly Hills hotel, rehabbing from back surgery and allowing anonymous sources to speak for him. How did he feel about meetings with the Magic, overtures from the Rockets and trade talks with the Nets that fell apart for the hundredth time? Anonymous sources indicated disappointment. Howard's finest attribute, other than a physique cut from quartz, is his sense of humor. Silence made him seem sullen, almost sinister.
Finally, it was Showtime, and Howard unfolded his 6'11" frame from the driver's seat. He immediately reminded onlookers why he enchanted them in the first place, with his cartoonish grin and laugh, outrageous poses and intonations. Howard was pelted in his introductory press conference with what Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak called "hostile questions that had to be asked" about why he wanted out of Orlando and only into Brooklyn. Howard didn't really answer, offering instead a variety of disarming impersonations, including one of a gravelly Kobe Bryant and another of a high-pitched woman he greets on his daily strolls to Robertson Blvd. Howard may be replacing LeBron James as the NBA's most polarizing player, but it's impossible to cast a villain in a jester's cap and Superman costume. "The cape has been in the hotel, chillin'," Howard said. "I'm going to iron it."
What captivates about Howard is also what confounds. Playfulness has long been a staple of his game, but after all the backroom politicking in Orlando, you have to wonder if it's partly an act. The image of Howard's unforgettable press conference with Stan Van Gundy in April, when he draped an arm around Van Gundy's shoulders moments after the coach admitted Howard tried to get him fired, will linger as long as The Decision. When Howard was mercifully sent to the Lakers on Friday in a four-team trade that appeared to benefit everybody but Orlando—the 76ers came away with the NBA's No. 2 center, Andrew Bynum; the Nuggets with the league's premier perimeter defender, swingman Andre Iguodala; and the Magic with the fourth-best player in the deal, shooting guard Arron Afflalo—one fan predictably burned his jersey.
During Howard's first few minutes at the Lakers' facility, he massaged their championship trophies, stared at their retired numbers and let out an exaggerated sigh when handed his new number 12 jersey. "I'm so happy, I can hardly talk," he said. "It's finally over." More likely, the circus is just moving to a bigger top. Howard will still be a free agent next summer and gave no signal that L.A. will receive preferential treatment in negotiations, though he did claim to enjoy Dodger Stadium, particularly the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." It's hard to tell when Howard is joking, but he said he plans to live in the hotel where he has established a colorful network of friends, highlighted by the mailman and the girl who rides her bike past the lobby every day. He impersonated her, too.
Come next summer, the Lakers will probably re-sign him. They can pay him about $30 million more than any other suitor can. They also offer the clearest path to championships and endorsements, which Howard cares about, presumably in that order. He ticked off his to-do list for the upcoming season: smile, have fun, fist-bump fans, block shots, dunk and rebound. It's safe to assume Bryant's agenda looks a bit different.
Howard is joining three of the NBA's most high-minded players—Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Bryant—to form the league's latest superteam, precisely what the lockout was supposed to prevent. The other starter is Metta World Peace, who absurdly predicted 73 wins. What Howard learns from the Lakers will determine whether they vanquish the Thunder and the Heat. That they're even in the conversation, after falling out of the playoffs in the second round in each of the past two years, is the result of a stunning 35-day transformation that started with the Nash trade in July and culminated in a call last Wednesday from Orlando general manager Rob Hennigan. Kupchak, who gave up on a deal weeks ago, told Lakers head coach Mike Brown they were extracting Howard for Bynum. "And who else?" Brown asked.
NBA history is littered with lopsided trades featuring unfulfilled superstars, and the Lakers have benefited from many of them: Wilt Chamberlain for Jerry Chambers, Archie Clark and Darrall Imhoff; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, Elmore Smith and Brian Winters; Shaquille O'Neal for Caron Butler, Brian Grant, Lamar Odom and draft picks. But from Orlando's perspective, this might have been the most cockeyed ever, because three All-Stars were moved, and it reaped none of them. The Lakers didn't buy Howard. They couldn't even lure him with their banners, beaches and celebrities. Yet they walked off with the big prize again, a booming pick-and-roll partner for Nash, and an imposing flyswatter behind a leaky defense.
The Lakers, not the Heat, will be the main attraction this season, and Howard will deliver more drama in addition to comedy. He will leave the Lakers in suspense, at least until July 1, extending his interminable run-up to free agency. But he can't ditch L.A. Where else would such a showman go?