LOS ANGELES — The forecast called for rain, yet Los Angeles surprised us, as it usually does. It was a picturesque Wednesday afternoon in the City of Angels, a place that is totally focused on Lakers basketball because the Dodgers and Angels are six weeks from their first games.
A basketball-crazed city is mourning the loss of its leader, Jerry Buss, the Lakers owner who died on Monday at age 80, ending a magnificent 34-year run with one of the preeminent sports franchises.
The rather pathetic fact is that the Lakers are now a franchise in decay, trying to revive themselves with desperate trades for over-the-hill players, and potential franchise centers who are so fickle and indecisive they would spend hours at The Cheesecake Factory trying to decide what to order.
The Lakers are hardly a model organization, as Jerry’s son Jim has damaged the franchise with egotistical moves, such as firing coach Mike Brown after five games; and then hiring ill-fitting Mike D’Antoni, who has never reached an NBA Finals, to coach a team with the express purpose of winning a championship. Meanwhile, Phil Jackson, seemingly 24 hours from accepting an offer from the Lakers, was left hanging. And so was a fan base that would vote Jackson for mayor.
So, before the Lakers began the second half of their season Wednesday night with a convincing win over the Celtics, more drama had developed. General manager Mitch Kupchak not only said Dwight Howard (who had 24 points and 12 rebounds against the Celtics) was not going to be traded, but added that he believes Howard’s number will eventually be retired and his statue will stand among those of Lakers greats Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
And before Lakers fans could order their third latte in order to digest Kupchak’s comments, Howard was asked about them. He responded with a series of confusing statements that displayed his emotional instability.
If he isn’t flipping half-court hook shots at the All-Star Game with the same arm that has a labrum tear, he’s talking about being one of the game’s greats and his desire to win a championship. But does anyone believe him?
“Yeah, I [see myself as the future of the Lakers],” Howard said after the team’s shootaround in El Segundo. “We talked about it plenty of times. That’s what we always talked about since the first day I got there, and it hasn’t stopped. The goal hasn’t changed and it won’t change.”
The goal for Howard is to win a championship, and that has always been the Lakers’ passion. That would appear to be a harmonious combination, a big man in his prime, seeking career respectability, and a team craving a return to glory with an aging superstar (Kobe Bryant) and in need of another cornerstone.
But it has been a disaster. Howard has never fully recovered from back surgery and is playing with the torn labrum, while Bryant has done little to welcome him into the Lakers’ culture because he senses Howard is nothing more than a talented fraud, a wanna-be winner. And Kobe despises those bandwagoners.
Still, Howard continues to sound sincere. He sounds convincing. But then he displays his clown side and leaves his critics more material.
“I can do more for this team, but it starts with me,” he said. “The biggest thing for me is what I have been working on, on a daily basis, is trying to get in better shape, so I can do more. It is tough coming off two injuries, one major injury. But I don’t want anybody to feel sorry for me. It is tough. It is not as easy as I was expecting it to be.
“But I did come back early [from back surgery] and I’m doing the best that I can. I want to continue to give more. The more I get in shape, the more comfortable I get on the court, the better I will be for this team. I want to win and will do whatever I can to get my body and my mind and my spirit in the right place to help this team.”
When pressed about making a long-term commitment to the Lakers, Howard waffled.
“The only thing that matters is right now,” he said. “Nobody can control what happens this offseason. Like I said to you guys before, there’s no need to talk about it every day. There’s no need for me to make a decision right now to where I want to be in the future. But my goals haven’t changed. I want to win a championship and I want to win one here. And I’m here right now and this is our chance to get one this season. It’s been tough, but we have an opportunity to change all that.
“It’s being in LA, the spotlight is always on and I totally understand that. I knew what I was getting into when I got here. This is a great learning experience for me. It’s made me a better person, a better man, and I’m looking forward to continue to grow.”
The Lakers have little time for Howard to grow. The culture that Buss created was built on success, and then basking in the glory of achievement in those bright lights.
There are rewards for winning in Los Angeles, but Howard seems as if he doesn’t understand that adulation comes with a price.