Lakers center Dwight Howard says he didn't want to handle his exit… (Kevork Djansezian / Getty…)
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The tears streamed down Dwight Howard's face.
LeBron James had just won his first NBA championship, and it deeply affected Howard in several ways. He cried because it provided another reminder that his own hopes of winning a ring had thus far fallen short. He also cried because it showed a clear path toward redemption.
It was only two years ago that James earned near universal scorn for hosting a one-hour show called "The Decision," in which he announced that he'd be leaving the Cavaliers to take his "talents to South Beach."
The pressure increased when he boasted at a Miami Heat pep rally about "winning multiple championships." But when the Heat fell to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, James couldn't escape scorn for his disappearing acts in the fourth quarters of games.
But that plot line soon faded away once James improved his late-game play and won his first NBA title this past season. As Howard enters his first Lakers season facing his own scrutiny, it's apparent he took notes.
"I could tell it hurt him," Howard said on ESPN's "Sunday Conversation" regarding James' ongoing scrutiny. "It hurt me watching him be hurt. I was actually happy when I saw him winning the championship. I'm happy for him because I have been through a lot of the same things he's been through."
At first, Howard looked at James' experience as a model on what not to do. Howard had grown frustrated with Orlando's early playoff exits and wanted a trade, but said he put heavy importance on avoiding the same fallout James had experienced.
Yet that's exactly what happened.
Howard says he waived his early-termination clause with the Magic last season before the trade deadline to keep Magic fans and the media happy. But reports circulated that Howard had asked the Magic front office to fire Stan Van Gundy. The former Magic coach confirmed that revelation to reporters before a morning shoot-around, mere moments before Howard entered the fray.
Howard handled scrutiny on whether he was faking a back injury that would keep him sidelined for the postseason and admitted that his initial preference on moving to the Brooklyn Nets instead of the Lakers hinged on the ongoing comparisons between him and Shaquille O'Neal.
"That was a team I wanted to go," Howard said of the Nets. "I felt like I could go there and write my own history. I was worried about what people would think. 'If you go to L.A. everybody's going to say you're like Shaq.' ... And now I'm at the point where, so what? Who cares what people say? This is my destiny, this is where I wanted to be, this is what I wanted to do with my life."
Howard professed love for Orlando and its fans, but those words may just ring hollow. He maintained that God will decide whether he stays with the Lakers past this coming season. Once he fully rehabs his back, Howard will have to prove that he'll properly handle the increased pressure in winning his first NBA title, fitting in with a star-studded roster and not becoming consumed with the Hollywood spotlight.
"I have a chance to start over," Howard said. "This is a clean slate. I'm gonna do whatever I can on the court, off the court, to just show people that this is who I am. I haven't changed. I'm the same person. I love to have fun. I love to smile. I love to joke. But when I step on the court, I'm gonna have fun, I'm gonna joke — and I'm gonna dominate. That's how it's always been."
The Heat's James initially embraced playing the villain role and tried feeding off the endless scrutiny as motivation. But the approach didn't work. Instead, James acknowledged in several interviews this past season that he found more joy in the game and less concern about the endless dialogue about lacking a ring.
Some have tired of Howard's goofy antics, impersonations and eagerness to please the media. Should the Lakers go through a rough spell this season, both fans and players may feel agitated over this. Especially when Kobe Bryant's relentless competitiveness stands large. But Howard has managed to win the NBA's defensive player of the year award in three consecutive seasons, has led the league in rebounding four times and led a team without much of a supporting cast to an NBA Finals appearance.
"I never wanted anybody to hate me," Howard said. "I wanted everybody to love me, like me, for sticking around and doing what they wanted me to do. And making everybody else happy. And that was a valuable lesson for me, you know. I can't make everybody happy."
But as he watched James hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy, Howard suddenly became joyful. For all the effort Howard made in trying to avoid the path James took, it suddenly became one he could follow to help redeem his reputation.
"He felt he had to prove so much," Howard said of James. "All he had to do was go out there and play basketball."
That's all Howard needs to do too.
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