Rockets center Dwight Howard listens to the national anthem before playing… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
It was a good night for Lakers fans. Lots of venting.
Dwight Howard was in town. He hadn't been back here for a game against the Lakers since he sinned against the 11th Commandment. Thou Shalt Not Leave the Lakers.
He not only left, but says now that it was the right thing for him to do, that it just didn't work here. Maybe he meant that he and Kobe didn't work here. Who knows?
He is a member of the Houston Rockets, who came to town with a 36-17 record. The Dwight-less Lakers entered the game an almost mirror-opposite 18-35.
Howard has flourished. The Lakers have not. He'd been averaging 18.8 points a game and 12.5 rebounds. In his ninth season, he remains one of the best rebounders in the history of the game. At halftime, he had 14 points and 10 rebounds. With the score 64-43, that meant that the Lakers were en route to their fourth defeat in a row and their 11th in the last 13.
None of this is a surprise. This is the winter of discontent for the Lakers, with snowplows nowhere in sight for now and maybe several seasons.
Then before the game, they announced they had traded one of their few reliable hands they had left, guard Steve Blake. He went to Golden State for two guys you've never heard of, which wasn't the real purpose of the trade. The purpose was to save $4 million in salary and luxury tax.
That's why, in so many ways, Howard's return to Lakerland was a good thing. It took minds off the pain. It made for something to do other than sit and watch and suffer.
When Howard was introduced, the boos retained good volume for about 10 seconds. Then, at the start, every time he touched the ball, he was booed. Of course, that was less fun when he made his first shot, then blocked a shot on the Lakers' first possession and grabbed a rebound.
He is clearly happier and healthier than he was last season here.
"He worked hard," said Rockets Coach Kevin McHale. "When we first got him, the doctors were amazed at how unhealthy he was. He's happier now because he is healthier."
For the record, McHale did not add that he was also Kobe-free.
Two proud Lakers fans came dressed for the occasion. Alex Tanielian and Aret Guzelses wore Lakers jerseys with Howard's No.12. Tanielian's was white, Guzelses' gold. Each had taken heavy black ink and written a huge "C" over the "H" in Howard.
"We couldn't wait to get here," said Tanielian.
In the first row right behind the floor seats — the ones that cost about the same as a yacht — a grown man had come prepared with his own sign, as if he feared his fellow Lakers fans would forget what to do when Howard got the ball. The sign was in two parts: "BOO" for the right hand and "OOO" for the left.
These Lakers fans are nothing if not creative.
For the moment, the Lakers, as proud and storied a franchise as there is in sports, must cling to tradition. To that end, they honored former star Gail Goodrich, who was in the crowd and got a nice reception when they introduced him, put him on the big screen scoreboard and showed his retired jersey.
However, with Blake gone and Steve Nash hoping the NBA will be like pro golf and start a Champions Tour, it was tough not wondering if the best Lakers guard in the building Wednesday night was not still Goodrich. He is 70.
Howard handled the circus about as well as could be expected. He arrived at his locker before the game to find reporters three deep. Sporting his usual wide smile, he joked with teammates, but kept his back to the ready-to-pounce media until a Rockets public relations woman announced that "Dwight will not be talking before the game."
The bulldogs in the group, including your faithful typist, stayed long enough to watch him get into his uniform and to observe that he was wearing colorful Marvel brand underwear.
No quotes. Just a fashion show.
Certainly, he would talk after the game, but who cares? Smug "I told-you-so's" are easy. Like NBC on the Winter Olympics, we want pre-event tension, emotion, angst. Maybe even some tears.
Wasn't going to happen. Nor was anything else unpredictable on this night of the obvious in the NBA. In summary:
•Howard returned and got booed.
•Howard showed that he remains one of the NBA's elite stars.
•Howard also showed, much to the chagrin of the fans in purple and gold, that there is life after the Lakers.
•Lakers fans got to focus a little bit on something other than their dreadful team.
•With Howard gone, fans will now have to find their fun on the Kiss Cam.
Oh yes. Final tallies: Howard 20 points and 13 rebounds; Houston 134, Lakers 108.