Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant could be a combustible mix, but it could work… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
The Lakers' media-day buzz was a chaotic roar Monday, a sweaty mosh pit filled with clacking cameras and bumping reporters shouting at superstars who were lucky to avoid injury or asphyxiation.
But, somehow, every player heard my question.
Pau Gasol smiled at it. Steve Nash pursed his lips at it. Kobe Bryant completely turned his head to answer it. Dwight Howard even repeated it.
"So, how are me and Kobe going to play together?" he said.
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Yes, exactly, on a team guaranteed to be filled with wonder, this is someone everyone still wonders about. How will two of the game's biggest stars learn to share one ball, one locker room, one spotlight? Even before the Lakers' first practice Tuesday, the dividing lines have already been drawn, with folks curious as to how two giants delicately navigate them.
The court belongs to Kobe, but the city is crazy about Dwight. The present belongs in the heart of Kobe, but the future is in the hands of Dwight. The last time Bryant played with another superstar, they feuded. The last time Howard played with another superstar was never. And, oh yeah, Howard publicly does a deep-voiced Bryant impression that I've never heard before and, well, hmmm.
Don't get me wrong, I think this can work. I wouldn't have spent two years pushing for the Howard trade if I didn't think this can work. This can work, this eventually will work, but this is going to take some work.
The players perked up at this question because they are likely asking themselves the same thing. For every memory of Bryant calling the final play for Andrew Bynum — remember him? — there are countless more memories of Bryant snarling at those who would steal his ball or his thunder. For every photo of Howard's telegenic smile, there are flashbacks to last spring when his coach, Orlando's Stan Van Gundy, publicly claimed that Howard had attempted to have him fired.
Shaquille O'Neal was traded. Van Gundy was canned. Both Bryant and Howard are used to getting their way. How soon can these two strong wills become one?
"From the outside it appears this is going to be a cinch . . . but it's going to be a big challenge for us," Nash said. "So many personalities, dominant players, trying to find that cohesion, accepting roles, sacrificing."
This challenge has been validated by most Lakers, but not all of them. Metta World Peace showed up on media day without his goatee, without last winter's extra pounds, and without any hesitation in comparing his teammates to stuffed animals.
"There will be no problems because we're like the Care Bears," World Peace said. "We love each other, we care for each other, we're here on this Earth as one, to love each other and . . ."
So where was I again? Oh yeah, Grumpy Bear and Cheer Bear.
Their bonding process will be delayed because of Howard's recovery from back surgery. Nor will it help that the Lakers are installing a new Princeton-style offense that must be learned before the players learn each other. But by April, they can make it work if three things happen.
First, Nash has to happen.
Nash has to stay healthy and be assertive and control the floor as the middleman between Bryant and Howard. With Nash in charge of distributing the ball, Bryant won't carry the extra playmaking burden that helped lead to his fussing with O'Neal.
"Having Steve helps tremendously," Bryant acknowledged. "It's a different dynamic than when I was here with Shaq, when I had to do something I naturally don't do, be a quarterback and make plays for other people as well as score."
Bryant said Nash would ease the pressure that could lead to tension, noting, "The responsibility for getting Shaq the ball fell on me and I'm like, 'That's not what I do, guys.' . . . Here, that's Steve, he's the quarterback, he has that great sense of the offense to play around with and manipulate."
Second, Howard getting serious has to happen.
Make no mistake, Howard works harder than O'Neal ever worked, but he also has this Shaq-like tendency to be more playful than persistent. At media day Monday, Howard was laughing and joking and singing a Christmas song. Bryant wasn't doing any of those things. Bryant was already tightening his jaw. Bryant hates playful and embodies persistence and if Howard isn't living up to Bryant's work ethic, he will hear about it.
Third, Bryant relaxing some control has to happen.
During the Olympics in London, Bryant said he was willing to eventually turn over the team to Howard. Once Howard is healthy, Bryant needs to slowly start doing that. He needs to truly let Nash run the offense and make the decisions. If this means Howard gets some of Bryant's touches or his glory, it could also eventually mean Bryant earning his sixth ring, which is the ultimate power play.
But don't listen to me. Listen to Nash, who acted like he was having a locker-room chat with both players Monday when he described how this could work.
"I think they both feel very blessed to play with each other," Nash said. "Kobe, especially at this stage of his career, has unlimited appreciation for a center of Dwight's ability. And for Dwight, it will be a pleasure to play for someone who can take the pressure off him."
Here's hoping they're listening — and if they aren't, Nash acknowledged he is ready to drop the hammer.
"If we have to have heart-to-hearts from time to time and voices are raised, that's part of being a team and building a team," he said.
As to whether those hearts will meld and those voices will be absent of the phrase, "At this point, I'll go play on Pluto," only one thing is certain.
"We find out soon enough," Gasol said, smiling.
I can't wait. Or maybe I can.