Once upon a time they were on the opposite sides of things. Dwight was walking out and Kobe was walking in. Dwight was walking towards something. Kobe was returning to something. Dwight was the sensitive rebounder who was rarely serious. Kobe was the heroic scorer who was nothing but serious. So it was an irrevocable moment that walk in the hallway at the beginning of the third quarter of a playoff game when they passed each other by. It reconfirmed a human irony that in all men equality is a myth. Things are absent. For some it is sympathy. For others it is mercy.
April 28th, 2013 was a misty night in Los Angeles. It was game four of a first round playoff series where the outcome was never in doubt. The Spurs outclassed and outworked the Lakers who could barely keep up. In game 3, the Lakers lost by 31 points on their home floor. Coached by Mike D’antoni who had been drowning all season, the Lakers were ill-prepared and most had checked out. Perhaps Dwight Howard knew as he was suiting up in the locker room that night it would be his last game in a Lakers jersey on a Lakers home court. But no one could have predicted, not even Dwight, that the game would end for him in embarrassing fashion, punctuated by his lack of discipline. He received his second technical foul three minutes into the third quarter. His year, his season with the Lakers was officially done.
It’s hard to differentiate between an exile and an exit, both have the same results. In a year in which Dwight Howard struggled to embrace the Lakers all encompassing lens, the ejection supported what many thought of him privately: he wasn’t tough enough to play in this town. So when he left the game that Sunday night it reinforced the obvious. Dwight Howard was not good enough to carry a team on his own, to be its leader and its alpha male, to carry a group of men by the sheer nature of his will.
It wasn’t what Howard was known for anyway. A defensive player, he couldn’t be the teams’ best player. His game was incomplete. His maturity wavered and frankly he didn’t want the responsibility. So when he received his second technical foul that night, when he was ejected, when it was his last moment in this city, a few cheered for him but most didn’t.
Imagine a hurricane and then triple its echo. That is what it sounded like a few minutes after Dwight left the court. It was a giant cacophony of bleeding throats as a hobbled Kobe Bryant, days removed from Achilles surgery, took his seat behind the bench, ever so gingerly. He maneuvered his crutches aside, his face still wan with the look of post-surgery fatigue.
To see Kobe sitting there was like looking at the sun after days of darkness. Regardless of his physical state, of his weakened figure on the sideline, in tact was an I-got-your-back soldier energy that drew the crowd into a reckless frenzy. They chanted for him with such depth and fervor Kobe felt the chills seep into his bones, enough that he almost cried. In chronological order his career began to playback, a near hallucination. One replay after another like a film loop. His first year and his third year and his sixth year and his title years and his MVP; all of it condensed into single frames narrated by the loving hysteria.
It would die, the game would. Both teams would leave the floor, the Spurs thankful to have everyone healthy and on to the semi-final round. Eventually Kobe would leave Staples Center, take the long trip home and begin his intensive rehab. Dwight was forced to answer questions, to explain his behavior. In the biggest game of the year how could he get ejected? Of course he said all the right things, he took responsibility. He talked about needing to become stronger (mentally). He seemed sincere when he spoke about paying the fans back for letting them down.
Dwight paid the fans back by demanding the Lakers amnesty Kobe. He denies this but in a recounting of events by Phil Jackson he more or less confirms Dwight’s eagerness to push Kobe out the door head first. Phil remembers the pitch meeting to Dwight. Kobe made an impassioned argument for Dwight to stay, for them to climb the championship mountain together. Once the meeting was over, according to Phil, Dwight asked Kobe how many more years would he play for the Lakers. Kobe answered, “three”, and Dwight’s face broke apart. He knew then his Lakers era, brief as it was, would now be in the history books.
A year and a half has passed since that singular moment in the hall, since Kobe and Dwight went their separate ways. Dwight ran into the arms of Kevin McHale and the possessiveness of James Harden. The Rockets were slated to be a top-4 team, a contender. The continuing evidence of the Rockets abysmal perimeter defense made that claim seem ridiculous. Bad defense was something that frustrated Dwight throughout last season. The thing is, Dwight has always wanted the easy way and then he has always wanted the limelight way and then he wanted the young team way and now here he is on a Rockets team expected to compete for a lower playoff seed.
The 2014 playoffs was a crushing blow for Dwight Howard. A Rockets game 6 victory was in the bag, thanks to Howard’s brilliant game- 26 points, 11 rebounds. Then it was stolen because of neglect. No one on the perimeter bothered to inhibit the Blazers best clutch shooter. Damien Lillard’s uncontested sprint to an open look won the game and the series. In the aftermath of another playoff elimination Dwight Howard had a look on his face that was the same look on his face he wore in 2009. Then the Lakers won the NBA title on his home floor and all he could do was stare at the celebration. This time in Portland he stared into the ground as if he was hoping he could fall through.
This is the problem. Dwight Howard hasn’t quite figured out how to do this. How to get to where he needs to be to be validated. He was never in anyone’s shadow and then he was in Kobe’s shadow and that left a stain upon him he won’t ever erase until he wins a title. Still limited offensively, Dwight is dependent upon others which enables his disinterest when someone like James Harden always has the ball. Houston has not been easy for Dwight Howard just as the Lakers was not easy just as Orlando was not easy at the end because winning in the NBA can be cyclical and is very hard if you don’t have the right pieces at the right time.
His first trip back to Staples Center against the Lakers, Dwight was dominant. He took Chris Kaman to school as he should. He played through the boos and he smiled a lot and he did what he was supposed to do: beat an inferior team.
Kobe spent all of last year rehabbing and defending his two year $48 million dollar contract. He wasn’t a part of the Mike D’antoni disaster which was the way he wanted it. If he had been associated with the team in any way D’antoni might have quit before he was fired. Kobe would have made his life miserable.
But on opening night, on October 28, 2014, the stakes will be a little different for both men. For the first time they will face each other with the past buried above the ground. Except Kobe Bryant remembers everything. It will be Kobe’s first game in ten months. His restlessness is tangible. He wants to get back on the court badly. This is not the same Kobe in December 2013 who was not ready to play but played anyway and had to work himself into a confident rhythm. This Kobe knows what he knows after a summer of hard training.
Some men speak and their words are salt. Their words disperse into the air never to be heard again. In 2013 Dwight wanted to be the leader, he expected it to be handed to him. And yet when he was given the chance to be the #1 option on the Lakers he couldn’t lead, he couldn’t keep his composure intact. He folded into a mess like wet paper.
Still he pushed and exerted his power. He never understood the Lakers at their core. They will always be beholden to Kobe, the champion, over Dwight the defender. The Lakers held onto the keys to the kingdom because their 18 year king was not dead, not yet.
Dwight could never slay the beast. He could mock Kobe and get a good laugh out of it but he could not make it count. He could not stab Kobe in the heart. He could not walk over Kobe’s grave. And now it is Kobe’s turn. On opening night it is he who will have the last word.