Eight years ago, Dwight Howard left the court in what appeared to be his final game as a Laker after being ejected in the third quarter of Game 4 of the first round of the 2013 playoffs against the Spurs. His unceremonious exit saw the Lakers swept in similar style as Howard was shown on the national TV broadcast yelling at then-general manager Mitch Kupchak on his way down the tunnel.
A handful of months later, Howard left the franchise entirely, opting to sign with the Rockets in free agency. It tore up a wound that took some time to heal as his departure was the first domino sending the Lakers into a multi-year rebuild.
Compare that scene on Friday as Dwight Howard streamed to thousands of fans on his Instagram as he made his way through the UCLA Health Training Center prior to being officially introduced as a Laker for the third time.
“Love for the game,” Howard said on what brought him back to Lakers once more. “Love for this city. Love for the team. And just the opportunity to win. I think we have some unbelievable talent on this roster and I think we have the opportunity to do something really great here again and I’m looking forward to just coming in and being myself.
“Bringing the energy and bringing the effort every night, and just having fun. This will be my 18th year in the league so at this point it’s all about enjoying every single moment, having my family around, being around great teammates and great people in the greatest organization in the NBA.”
Between the scene in 2013 and Friday’s, Howard helped the Lakers to a title in 2020 as a reserve big man. While banners help forgive all past on-court transgressions, Howard was a better version of the person and player he was in 2013. He embraced his role, sacrificed when the moments required and, in the process, reclaimed the support and love of Lakers fans.
It capped off a redemption story that few saw coming. When he joined the team on a non-guaranteed deal before the 2019-20 season, apprehension engulfed the fan base. When he returned on Friday, it was a far warmer feeling.
“I just think that we’re supposed to be together,” Howard said of himself and the Lakers. “There is just something about the Lakers and myself, it’s like we’re supposed to be together. It’s like I’ve had some of my greatest moments here in a Lakers jersey, playing in L.A. and I’ve played with arguably the greatest player in the NBA in Kobe, now I’m playing with LeBron (James), (Anthony Davis), (Russell Westbrook) and Carmelo (Anthony). It’s like a dream.”
There will always be a sense of “what-if” surrounding Howard and the Lakers dating back to his first stint with the team. The title never came in 2012-13 as the Lakers flamed out in dramatic fashion that year. Not having a chance to run it back and defend the title last season as the Lakers were bounced in the first round stung as well.
“I feel like we left some rings on the table,” Howard told Spectrum. “I feel like we left opportunities on the table. And I feel like we have an opportunity in front of us now to really bring this city together and win a championship.”
Howard’s “vacation” with the Sixers last season, as he referred to it in the interview with Spectrum, did not take away from his accomplishments with the Lakers, nor did it dampen his desire to celebrate what the franchise accomplished.
Due to COVID-19, the Lakers have still yet to hold a championship parade for their 2019-20 campaign. With each passing day, the logistics of celebrating that team become harder and harder. While that hasn’t stopped Howard from campaigning on social media for that parade, he’s also committed to making sure another one is in store for the future.
“I want another one,” Howard told Spectrum. “I want my parade. There’s nothing better than having that feeling of bringing everyone together and winning. That’s what basketball does. Everybody loves the Lakers, I love my Lakers, and we just want to come back and really just spread positivity, spread love and win some games.
“I was very hurt. I just had dreams of having a parade and standing in front of the crowd and just saying thank you L.A. I just had dreams and visions of that, and it didn’t happen, so I was extremely hurt. But this year, I see it. And I know it’s gonna happen.”
It would serve as a full-circle moment for Howard, who came to L.A. with all the fanfare in the world in 2012, became the villain of the city and yet still managed to redeem himself by hanging a banner in the rafters.
Howard’s sometimes tumultuous, always entertaining time in the NBA has seen him bounce from city to city, especially in the second half of his career. But as Friday showed, Howard is back with a franchise that accepted him, a fanbase that embraces him and a city that has adopted him.
He’s back home.