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.