Dwight Howard drove 20 miles east of Aspen this week, to the Continental Divide, and gazed out over the Rocky Mountains. "I got away from the TV, the phone, the chatter," Howard said Friday night in a telephone interview. "I had no cell service. I just sat back and looked at the view and thought about everything -- what I wanted and where I wanted to be in my career and what I had to change from last season. That's where I got centered and had an opportunity to think. I prayed and prayed and listened to my heart."
After two tumultuous years, the NBA's premier center finally decided where he would spend his prime. On Thursday night, over dinner at a restaurant in Aspen, Howard told associates that he was going to sign with the Houston Rockets.
He was swayed by the presence of Houston shooting guard James Harden ("We have the opportunity to really, really grow together, which is very intriguing," Howard said), head coach Kevin McHale ("One of the greatest post players ever") and former center Hakeem Olajuwon ("I will get to work with him regularly"). Howard refuted reports that he was leaning toward Houston all along, characterizing his decision as "very close." He did not identify a runner-up among the Lakers, Warriors, Mavericks and Hawks. "They were all right there," Howard said. "After meeting with a couple of those teams, I said, 'I wish I could play for all of them.'"
Howard planned to announce his decision via Twitter on Friday after personally thanking representatives of every organization that met with him. He called Warriors general manager Bob Myers, Hawks GM Danny Ferry, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak. He actually flew to Los Angeles to see Kupchak in person -- "I wanted to give him the respect he deserved," Howard said, "and the Lakers the respect they deserved" -- but had to call when news of his choice started to leak, as well as rumblings that his choice may be reversed.
"It didn't come out the way I wanted," Howard admitted. "I didn't want people to think I was flip-flopping: 'Oh, Dwight has decided. Oh, never mind, he's 50-50 with somebody else.' I hated that. It was never the case. I never wanted to put L.A. fans and fans of basketball through that. I got blamed for all that stuff in Orlando and I didn't want to go through that again. I wanted to come out and do it all the right way."
Howard's declaration caps 16 months in which he announced he would opt into the final year of his contract in Orlando, was dealt to the Lakers, and, in his latest move, turned down an extra $30 million in L.A. to bolt for Houston. The Lakers are now left with 39-year-old point guard Steve Nash, 33-year-old center Pau Gasol and 34-year-old shooting guard Kobe Bryant, who is recovering from a torn Achilles tendon.
"I wouldn't say it was anything negative [about the Lakers]," Howard said. "It wasn't the proper time. In the NBA, it's all about fits and timing, and the timing was a little bit off for the situation to work. It was perfect timing, and a great fit, for a place like Houston."
Howard is 27 and will be paired with Harden, who is 23. They immediately form the backbone of the newest contender in the Western Conference. Although Howard's numbers sank last season to 17.1 points and 12.4 rebounds per game, he was recovering from back surgery and appeared far more active in the second half. Howard prefers to play with his back to the basket, and Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni used him largely to run pick-and-rolls. With McHale and Olajuwon helping to polish his post moves, Howard should return to his comfort zone in Houston while sidestepping the expectations of L.A. The Lakers, perhaps propelled into rebuilding mode, are left to wonder if they really just chose D'Antoni over Howard.
While the Lakers must plot for next summer, when every contract except Nash's comes off the books, Houston can search for one more headliner to place alongside Howard and Harden. The NBA's big domino has fallen, a moment Howard has anticipated for nearly two years. Mercifully, all the pondering and speculating and jockeying are behind him.
"Happiness, relief, joy," Howard said, his voice hoarse as he summed up his emotions. "I feel really good right now. I'm just happy everything is over with."
He has, at last, crossed the divide.