FRESNO, Calif. -- Dwight Howard is feeling like a new man these days.
Shortly after the Lakers fell to the Warriors 110-83 Sunday night, Howard, who didn't play, held court with reporters in the corner of the Lakers' locker room. They talked about basketball at first, getting his opinion of Steve Nash's Lakers debut while discussing how dangerous the team will be when Howard is finally on the floor. But the conversation hardly stopped there.
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"Now I'm here, and now I can just relax and have fun and be who I am," Howard told SI.com shortly after the reporter roundtable ended. "I guess last year I really just sheltered, or kept myself away, because it was like, I say this, and then it's going to be turned into something else, or somebody is going to take it the wrong way and make it seem like I'm a certain type of person. So I really just tried to stay to myself. But now I'm basically free. It's a lot of fun. This is who I am."
Howard was responsible for much of the "Dwight-mare," not only the trade requests issued to Orlando but also the way in which he let his once-spotless image be tarnished by all the secrecy and silliness. In the face of nonstop scrutiny about his future, Howard put on a what-not-to-do media relations clinic that not only turned him into the NBA's next villain but also left him more guarded and defensive than ever before.
"Everybody had a perception based on what was put out there on TV, and it wasn't the right one," Howard said. "There's nothing I could really do about it. So when I see that, I do get upset and it hurts me because I'm like, 'This is not me.' I've never been a distraction to a team. I've never been a bad teammate, never been a guy who does all these things that people said I was doing. But I'm going to show these [Lakers] guys that this is who I am. I love to have fun. I love to bring people together, and I'm going to go out there every night and give you 110 percent."
Though Howard didn't play on Sunday night, it still felt like his Lakers debut. With the Save Mart Center awash in purple and gold and Howard wearing a tight-fitting gray shirt and vest with a black bowtie, the muscle-bound big man was a big hit with his new supporters.
He drew huge ovations every time he entered or exited the tunnel to the locker room, the camera phones of fans raised and clicking in at least the first 10 rows. He played the supporting role for his teammates, too, handing out high-fives and smiles as the Lakers jumped out to a 19-7 lead and serving as head cheerleader throughout.
His temporary replacement, rookie center Robert Sacre, even paid tribute to Howard during his strong start when he flashed a Hulk Hogan-esque flex move courtside. Meanwhile, the fact that Sacre was so effective early while playing with Nash, Bryant, Metta World Peace and Pau Gasol led to endless buzz about how good Howard will eventually be with that group.
When the Lakers reserves fell behind by 20 points in the third quarter, a grinning Howard -- who was sitting two seats to Bryant's left on the bench -- joined in on a chant of "We want Kobe" while pumping his fists to the beat. The tension and turmoil that defined his last season in Orlando were clearly gone, replaced by a love-fest that Howard is clearly enjoying.
"From the time that I found out I was coming to the Lakers until now has been nothing but a blessing," said Howard, who is still recovering from his April back surgery and may not play until the start of the regular season. "I'm so happy and so blessed. ... It's like having a second chance. During the day, I'm just like, 'Thank you, Jesus.' When I see the coaches, I'm saying, 'Thank you for spending time with me, for working with me.' "
Lakers coaches and players have taken notice of this professional approach, and Howard's humility (not to mention his one-of-a-kind athleticism and abilities) is a major factor in what has been a glowing first impression. And placed side by side with the recent pettiness of former Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal, Howard's quickly gaining the PR points that were nowhere to be found all last season.
"I don't care what Shaq says," Howard told reporters last week after O'Neal placed Howard below Brooklyn's Brook Lopez in the NBA pecking order. "It's time to move on."
When it comes to Bryant, Howard also sets himself apart from O'Neal. The current Lakers center -- who was known to have reservations about being overshadowed by Bryant before joining him -- said their foundation is far more solid than most people realize.
"What people don't know is that this is one of the guys who I've been talking to for about four years now," Howard said. "And he has been an amazing help to me, just pushing me in ways -- secretly because we played in the Eastern and Western Conference. But it's been him just talking to me, showing me how to do certain things with my team and things like that."
The goal, of course, is for Howard to be the best Howard he can be. Happy, healthy and -- perhaps one day -- a Hall of Famer.
"I told [Bryant] as soon as I got here, 'Hey, I want to be one of the greatest to ever play. I want you to push me every day,' " Howard said. "And he was like, 'I'm going to push you, because I see something in you, and I want to make sure that I do my part.' And I promised him that I'm going to do whatever I can do."