By Ben Golliver
This week's Sports Illustrated cover story by Lee Jenkins examines Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard, who enters the season on a new coast while embarking on a two-prong journey. On the one hand, Howard is in major image rehabilitation mode after he torched the Orlando Magic and then bolted. On the other, he's trying to fit in with a demanding, driven and talented set of stars who now face the highest possible expectations.
The following is a sneak peek: three great vignettes from the story in the magazine, which hits newsstands and the iPad on Wednesday. (Click here to subscribe to Sports Illustrated.)
1. Being traded to the Lakers drove Dwight Howard to drink ... well, sort of.
Jenkins writes that Howard, who attended high school at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy (Ga.), felt "sheltered" upon his arrival in the NBA and wakes up early every morning to read the Bible. Until this summer, Howard says he had never had an adult beverage.
When the Magic, Lakers, Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers put the finishing touches on a complicated, blockbuster trade that sent Howard to L.A. after months and months of trade rumors and speculation, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year allowed himself a celebratory moment.
On the night of Aug. 10, when Howard was dealt to the Lakers, he went to dinner at Mastro’s in Beverly Hills, and a large group of strangers invited him to their private room. “They said, ‘Dwight, we want to welcome you to L.A. and make a toast to you and your new journey here,’ ” Howard recalls. “I told them, ‘Thank you, but I don’t drink, I’ve never had a drink before.’ And then I thought about it, and I was like, You know what, I think this deserves a drink.” He clinked glasses and lifted one to his lips.
Surely, 3,000 miles away in central Florida, there was some drinking going on too.
2. Kobe Bryant tries to put the Dwight Howard/Shaquille O'Neal comparisons to bed early ... in hilarious fashion.
For years, we heard reports of Howard's reluctance to join the Lakers because he didn't want to give the impression that he was mimicking the career path of Shaq, another Magic No. 1 overall pick who headed to Hollywood. The verbal back-and-forth between the two centers, including tiffs over something as petty as the "Superman" nickname, has been going on for some time, ramping up with O'Neal's move into the broadcasting world with TNT.
Jenkins writes that it might make more sense to compare Howard to Magic Johnson rather than O'Neal because Johnson went through a period of criticism over his alleged coach-killing of Paul Westhead. Bryant also draws some distance between Howard and O'Neal, as only he can.
Howard is more outgoing than [Steve] Nash, more benevolent than Bryant and more dedicated to the dirty work than O’Neal. The similarities between the two amiable big men are mostly superficial. “Shaq was a goofball, but Shaq was a big a--hole,” Bryant says. “And I was a little a--hole.”
The piece also touches on Bryant's mentoring of Howard as a competitor, including a nice sequence in which Howard's extra effort on defense in a practice scrimmage impresses No. 24.
“A goofball doesn’t make plays like that,” Bryant says. “You need to have a little of that dog in you. It’s there. It’s just a matter of digging deep and pulling it out.”
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made Dwight Howard cry ... in a good way.
The relationship between the Lakers and the NBA's all-time scoring leader, Abdul-Jabbar, has always seemed, at least from the outside, more tense and petty than it needed to be. Abdul-Jabbar grumbled in recent years about feeling "slighted" by the Lakers, called out Andrew Bynum for his work habits and griped about not receiving a statue outside the Staples Center. The Lakers, in turn, have mostly tried to take the high road, and the statue is on its way.
Howard, Jenkins writes, not only seems eager to learn from Abdul-Jabbar but he also broke into tears after the Hall of Famer welcomed him to Los Angeles.
Three weeks later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stopped by the suite at L’Ermitage and formally welcomed Howard into the pantheon of Lakers centers. Abdul-Jabbar showed Howard a championship ring and gave him a jersey. “He told me I had athleticism like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell,” Howard says. “He said, ‘You’ve put in a lot of work for the last eight years, you’ve sowed your seeds, and now it’s time to reap the benefits.’ ”
When Abdul-Jabbar left, Howard wept, and not simply because he’d gained the acceptance he always sought. “With everything I was going through, all the pain,” Howard says, “I was just so happy someone understood how hard I had worked.”
OK, sticking to only three vignettes turned out to be impossible. There was just too much here. Two final, quick postscripts for the road:
• Howard lived at a hotel for five months this summer and the staff made a point of stocking his room with Skittles and Starburst.
• His "favorite pastimes" during his rehabilitation, according to Jenkins? "Building Legos, playing video games and watching cartoon movies." Impeccable taste, Mr. Howard. Impeccable.
For more on the Howard story, the Lakers' title chances and the biggest NBA storylines for 2012-13, listen to Jenkins with SI's Richard Deitsch on the Inside Sports Illustrated Podcast.
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