FRESNO –The smile formed seemingly every time Dwight Howard spoke.
As Laker fans at Save Mart Center loudly shouted, "We want Kobe," in hopes Bryant would appear in the second half of an otherwise meaningless 110-83 preseason loss Sunday to the Golden State Warriors, Howard joined in on the cheer. Howard even started his own chant, proclaiming, "We want Somogyi," in reference to 7-foot-3 center Greg Somogyi, who made the training camp roster.
Howard sat on the bench wearing a bow tie and tortoiseshell glasses, engaged in small talk with Devin Ebanks and Darius Morris. They would laugh, and then a few seconds later, they'd laugh again.
Long after the game ended, Howard spoke with a handful of media members about a number of topics. He guessed various reporters' ages and even compared one to the 38-year-old Steve Nash. Howard guessed which reporters were single or married judging by the size of their waistlines. Howard peppered them with questions about movies, including basketball flicks, Team America and the James Bond films. Howard also detailed his love for dodgeball.
In Howard's mind, such topics beat the monotony of addressing the latest on his back surgery as he sat ouf of the preseason opener. Lakers Coach Mike Brown said he hasn't had specific conversations with Howard on whether he will play in the seven remaining preseason games, including a contest Wednesday against the Portland Trail Blazers in Ontario.
"I'm on track to return, but my goal wasn't to play a preseason game," Howard said. "My goal is to win a championship. That's what we're shooting for."
But until that moment comes, Howard remains intent on livening up the locker room.
"We were just having fun and keeping the mood light," Howard said about his teammate interactions on the bench. "Especially for our younger guys, it's good to let them know to have fun but also play hard. You don't have to be serious where you forget what your goal is."
When out-of-town reporters hoped for a pregame interview, Howard asked that the questions also involve Morris and Andrew Goudelock as they sat next to the Lakers' center. Informed that Bryant touted Goudelock last season as "mini-Mamba," Howard sparked laughs by proclaiming that Goudelock seems more of a garter snake. When a reporter thought Morris went to University of Kansas, Howard corrected him and touted Michigan State as his alma mater. Morris immediately informed Howard he went to the University of Michigan.
During the game, Howard provided commentary for the Time Warner Cable SportsNet telecast during the second quarter. During timeouts, he repeatedly handed his glasses to Lakers development coach Phil Handy, who said afterward, "I wanted to see if they were real." When Bryant returned from the locker room to sit on the bench in the second half, Howard made the Lakers' star laugh by informing him how the bench allowed 35 unanswered points to Golden State.
"We were just having fun and talking," Howard said. "We saw some people in the stands and one guy looked like Kobe Bryant. So when everyone was wondering where Kobe is at, I said 'Kobe is up there in the stands.'
Howard seemed just as engaged with reporters afterward.
He imitated Bryant's hiss when he wants the ball. Howard revealed a bird chirp he makes when he's calling for a pass. He likened Metta World Peace to the Thing from the Fantastic Four. Howard suggested he would name himself Iron Man. But then a reporter alerted Howard that former Laker A.C. Green has that nickname for holding the NBA's all-time record for consecutive games played (1,192)
"So now you're going to say I'm stealing it?" Howard said in mock disappointment as he hunched over against his locker stall. "Aw, man. There's nothing new under the sun. What kind of name can I have that no one else has ever had?"
He then announced he will let his Twitter followers decide what his new nickname will be before making one thing clear.
"Superman is never dead. I'm still Superman," he said. "The cape is still at home charging, just making sure I get my body right. One day I will put the cape on."
That hasn't happened yet. Howard spent the past week playing in limited-contact drills and even engaging in full-court scrimmages.
"I'm a hard worker," Howard said. "My back just has to get stronger and I have to get everything that surrounds it stronger too so I can play at a high level. That's my goal. That's my focus. Like I said, I want to give these guys everything and give the game of basketball everything, because at the end of the year, I want to hold up the trophy, so I want to make sure I'm 100%."
As he imagined Howard's return, Bryant broke out in a huge smile. “Dwight is going be eating man, all day,' he said.
For now, though, Howard left Bryant and his other teammates smiling with his light-hearted personality. That seemed good enough for the time being.