Three days before training camp Dwight Howard checked out of L'Ermitage, a boutique hotel in Beverly Hills, and the staff threw him a goodbye party. Housekeepers hugged him. Bellmen thanked him. Everybody posed for pictures and ate cake. Among the gifts Howard received was a blanket from the hotel to remind him of his visit. He had come to L'Ermitage in late April, after undergoing back surgery, and planned to stay at the hotel no more than a week while beginning rehab. But the housekeepers helped him walk down the halls, making sure he didn't stumble. The bellmen brought him warm cookies at night. The managers cleared banquet rooms so he could watch his Magic teammates in the playoffs. When he called the front desk to place food orders, receptionists asked, "Mr. Howard, how is your back feeling today?" and he told them whether he was encouraged or frustrated. The staff discovered his affection for Skittles and Starburst, so they stocked his suite with the candies, and they learned he liked candles, so they scattered them around the rooms. Howard memorized employees' names and shifts. He even knew the mailman. The hotel became his home. He stuck around for five months.
Howard spent hours in his suite building Legos, playing video games and watching cartoon movies—a sampling of his favorite pastimes—but he finds it hard to be alone, so he also lounged around the lobby, greeting guests and convincing them he was a part owner of the property. "I told them it was my hotel," Howard says, "and they should contact me if they had any problems." One day L'Ermitage was evacuated because of a power outage, and guests were handed flashlights when they returned. Howard passed out his surplus candles.
He rarely left the hotel, except for rehab and his daily strolls to Sprinkles, an ice cream and cupcake shop on nearby Santa Monica Boulevard. He bought scoops for everybody who happened to be in the store. Then he returned to L'Ermitage in time to see the little girl who rode her bike by the front door each afternoon and serenaded Howard with pleas to join the Lakers. He parroted her cheerful soprano.
It is hard to reconcile the cuddly side of the NBA's best center, on display since he joined Orlando out of high school in Atlanta as the No. 1 pick of the 2004 draft, with the blunt edge that he revealed for the first time last season. Trade demands and backroom ultimatums may be common practice for the sport's petulant stars but not for pied pipers like Howard, who uses the term holy moly doughnut shop in casual conversation, owns a hat that reads I [heart] HATS and thinks he's being mischievous when he tweets, What's brown and rhymes with snoop. Lol. One former teammate calls Howard "a big kid," yet it takes a ruthless 26-year-old to force his way out of the only franchise he has ever known, presenting management with a list of suitable destinations and, on the way out of town, pressuring the team to fire its coach.
So who is Dwight Howard, a merrymaker or a shark? And is it possible to be both?
Howard lives in Los Angeles full time now, the centerpiece of what could be the most decorated starting lineup ever, one that includes the best player of his era, the best point guard, the best big man and the most skilled 7-footer. The Lakers evoke obvious comparisons with the Heat, but L.A.'s superstars should adjust to each other more easily than Miami's because their defining individual talents do not overlap: Steve Nash is the passer, Kobe Bryant the scorer, Pau Gasol the playmaker, Howard the finisher and rim protector. Metta World Peace is sort of like the bouncer. "The pieces just fit," Bryant says.
The Lakers will run a variation of the Princeton offense, with all its reads and cuts, taught by assistant Eddie Jordan, a former head coach of the Kings, Wizards and 76ers. Eight months ago Jordan was running the ninth-grade boys' basketball team at Archbishop Carroll High in Washington, D.C., where he had to buy the balls, uniforms and socks. Working for the Lakers, Jordan deadpans, is "not too different."
Less than two minutes into the Lakers' first preseason game, against the Warriors, Nash flung a no-look crosscourt pass to Bryant, who turned down a wide-open three-pointer and tossed an alley-oop to Gasol. Howard, still sidelined to protect his back, broke out his "Gangnam Style" dance. This group is capable of some aesthetically amazing basketball. "But we lose three in a row," cracks general manager Mitch Kupchak, "and all hell is going to break loose."
Four Lakers starters are 32 or older—including Nash, who is 38—so unlike the Heat they harbor no delusions of becoming a dynasty. They are trying to pick off another championship while grooming Howard to lead the organization forward. He is both attraction and apprentice.
The NBA was supposed to be entering the Heat-Thunder era, but every off-season Kupchak asks owner Jerry Buss, "What's our budget?"