Dwight Howard sat in front of his locker, speaking in hushed tones and often looking down.
Howard, who declined to talk to the media in the Lakers' first two games after Kobe Bryant's death, was finally ready to open up about his former teammate on Tuesday.
"I never expected in a million years that we’d be talking about Kobe passing away," Howard said after the Lakers' 129-102 win over San Antonio. "So it was very sad. Man, there were nights I just cried myself to sleep just thinking about it. And it still hurts to this day. It’s kind of hard to talk about it because I just get these overwhelming feelings from it."
Howard and Bryant had a complicated relationship when they played together on the Lakers in 2012-2013. Bryant didn't think Howard was serious enough and called him soft. Howard felt as though he couldn't be himself and left for Houston that summer.
Now Howard is filled with regret over words that went unspoken.
"A lot of people thought me and Kobe hated each other and stuff like that," Howard said. "There were times where we just didn’t understand each other and I didn’t get a chance to tell him how appreciative I was for our time together and how thankful I was to be back here in L.A."
After leaving the Lakers, Howard's career flailed. He joined four teams and was waived by two of them. Then the Lakers gave him another shot, signing him to a non-guaranteed one-year, $2.56 million deal during the offseason. Howard lost weight, accepted his role and thrived -- and he longed for Bryant to see that.
Howard wanted to show Bryant he had matured. He wanted to show him who he had become. He wanted Bryant's respect.
"All year long I just wanted to show him that I was gonna do whatever it takes to help this team win," Howard said. "I’ve been wearing his shoes since the season started."
In fact, Howard wanted to team up with Bryant once again.
When Howard decided he would participate in the dunk contest during All-Star weekend, he reached out to Bryant. Three days after telling the media his plan, Bryant died in a helicopter crash along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people on Jan. 26.
"He was going to do something for me in the dunk contest, which is kind of heartbreaking," Howard said. "It’s been on my mind everyday. Man, I can’t believe it. I’m still in shock. It hurts. It’s tough. I just never thought that somebody like that would be gone. And it’s something that, you know, I just tell people, if you have any bitterness or anger, whatever, strife towards anybody, let it go. Let them know how you feel. Get those feelings out. Let them know because you never know what could happen. Life comes and goes just like that."
Even though Howard and Bryant didn't always see eye-to-eye, a certain closeness was formed over shared meals, bus rides and flights. NBA players are part of an elite brotherhood, and Bryant and Howard were bonded by their shared experiences both on and off the court.
"Being a teammate of somebody that passes away, somebody like Kobe that I grew up watching, played on the same team, played against, played in the Olympics together, had dinners, movies, went to his house after he had Achilles surgery," Howard said. "Just knowing that, seeing that he passed away, so being back in this arena [Friday] was super emotional."
Above all else, Howard always deeply admired Bryant. Everyone did. Bryant was the paragon of excellence, the model of hard work. He was a five-time NBA champion, a two-time Finals MVP and a one-time regular-season MVP in 2008 over his 20 seasons with the Lakers.
"It’s super sad because I really wanted to tell him how much I appreciate everything he’s done, all the things he’s said," Howard said. "Even at the time that we were on the same team, we didn’t understand each other but I saw a different Kobe and I even saw a change in myself. And I’m pretty sure he saw it. I just wanted to be able to tell him how I felt about him and I never got the chance to. That was really the most heartbreaking part. Everyday it’s been on my mind. It’s something that I’ve just got to deal with."
Howard has been struggling since Bryant's death.
He wishes he had done things differently.
He wishes he told Bryant just how much he meant to him.
"He’s the first legend for all of us that we’ve seen in our lifetime just pass away," Howard said. "It’s shocking, it’s disheartening and it just makes you realize that we all we got. It doesn’t matter what you have, it doesn’t matter who you are, we are all we got. And love each other while we’re here on earth, treat each other the right way, respect each other and never have any hatred or animosity towards anybody because you never know what could happen to him."