Far too often in society, we get caught up in tradition, money, big names, fame, and reputation. That holds true in sports as well, where the casual fan knows the prominent players and franchises that are successful historically.
The Los Angeles Lakers, one of the most well-known teams in the world, is a franchise filled with rich history, legacies, championships, and Hall-of-Fame players. Which is why so many people didn’t understand Dwight Howard’s decision of leaving the Lakers last summer.
The script was written perfectly in the summer of 2012; the Lakers stockpiled their team with 2 future Hall-of-Famers after signing Steve Nash to be in the same backcourt as Kobe Bryant, and traded for Howard to form a lethal twin tower frontcourt with multi-time All-Star Pau Gasol. It was nothing more than a vintage Lakers’ approach, adding big names, legends, and star power to play at world-renowned Staples Center.
But things didn’t work out the way it was supposed to: head coach Mike Brown was fired five games into the season, all four players struggled with injuries, legendary owner Jerry Buss passed away, Bryant tore his Achilles in late April, and the Lakers limped to a 45-37 record only to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. The script turned from a beautiful dream to a beautiful tragedy.
The spotlight turned to Howard, who was expected to lead the team in Bryant’s absence, to join the legacy of centers who wore purple and gold, to establish himself from an All-Star player in Orlando, to a Hall-of-Fame player in L.A. But after just one season, where he averaged just 17 points and 12.4 rebounds while battling back injuries, Howard ditched the Laker tradition, signing with the Houston Rockets.
The Houston Rockets?? The Rockets? A team seen by many to be in a “rebuilding” mode after losing their two superstars, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, to injuries. An organization that has been an afterthought in the NBA since the mid 1990s. A team that consisted of the youngest roster in the league, and a franchise that has won one playoff series in the past decade. Not to mention the fact that Howard was offered a bigger contract from the Lakers.
It became an aberration, an anomaly, a slap in the face to Kobe, Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and all the greats to have stepped on the floor of the Great Western Forum and Staples Center. A high-priced free-agent All-Star leaving the Lakers?
Howard saw something in the Rockets that few people saw. Despite barely squeaking into the 2013 playoffs as the 8th seed, the Rockets were loaded with young talent. James Harden established himself as a superstar after the Oklahoma City Thunder gave Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey a gift.
Chandler Parsons, a 6’9 small forward, averaged 15.5 points in his second season. Jeremy Lin began settling into a solid NBA player after his meteoric rise in New York, with Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones, and Omer Asik all developing fast in their own rights.
Howard saw happiness, youthful energy, resources that he believed would make him successful, something he didn’t have with the Lakers. His meeting with the Rockets included current head coach and Hall-of-Famer Kevin McHale, who was a dominant post player in his heyday, his good friend Parsons, the master of the Dream Shake in Hakeem Olajuwon, and Yao as he Skyped in from China.
Yet, in his meeting with the Lakers, Kobe reportedly told Howard, “You have to learn how it’s done, I know how to do it and I’ve learned from the best – players who have won multiple times over and over. Instead of trying to do things your way, just listen and learn and tweak it, so it fits you.”
That summed up Howard’s relationship with the 5-time champion in a nutshell.
Now, toward the end of his first season in Houston, Howard is the one laughing, smiling, rejoicing in peace and happiness, while the Lakers search for a new identity. Averaging 18.5 points and 12.3 rebounds, Howard has played second fiddle to Harden, who’s on schedule to become just the 8th player in NBA history to average over 25 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds for a season.
The Rockets are looking to lock up home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs while the Lakers are looking at their fate through a ping-pong ball.
Howard looked past the jersey, banner, and history to seek what everyone wants in this world: happiness, joy, and a chance at winning a championship.
In less than a year, it’s become pretty clear Howard has made the right decision.
Photo Credit: Troy Taormina / USA TODAY Sports
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