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"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.