Grinning and shirtless, Dwight Howard posed with his teammates flashing four fingers, each digit representing how many wins away the Lakers are from their first championship since 2010.
For Howard, it's been a long and incredibly difficult journey to get back to the mountain top of reaching the NBA Finals.
In fact, it's a place he never thought he'd be again.
"I didn’t think that this would ever happen," Howard said Saturday after the Lakers clinched their Western Conference Finals series against the Denver Nuggets in five games. "I’m just so thankful and grateful that I have this opportunity. I’m going to make the most of it."
It's been tough couple of years for Howard.
Back in 2009, Howard was a superstar on the Orlando Magic who carried his team to The Finals against the Lakers, where they lost a hard-fought, seven-game series.
Since that pinnacle, his career took a turn.
After leaving Orlando, he joined the Lakers for a disastrous one-season stint in 2012-2013, in which Kobe Bryant questioned his seriousness and focus. Unhappy, he left for the Houston Rockets. Howard went on to play for five more teams, including two that waived him. Last season, he played in only nine games for the Washington Wizards after a back surgery.
On Saturday, after purple and gold confetti streamed down onto his shoulders, he couldn't help but reminisce about all that he had overcome.
"Everything that’s happened over the last couple years: the ups and the downs, the surgeries, you know, all the things that have happened, this moment is just very special," Howard said. "And I just want to stay in the moment and I’m just grateful. I know our job is not complete yet but I’m just very grateful to be in this position again. So, I’ll take full advantage of every single moment that I have on the court and with my teammates. Because I haven’t been to the Finals in 11 years. That’s a very long time. And it’s one of the hardest things to do. So, I’m just very grateful."
Howard found a home on the Lakers this season.
In LeBron James' locker room, he was able to joke around without being perceived as a joke. He accepted his role and the team accepted him.
He went on to thrive, averaging 7.5 points and 7.3 rebounds in 18.9 minutes a game, infusing the team with a much-appreciated boost of toughness and intensity off the bench.
But after the season was suspended March 11 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, tragedy struck his family. And when the NBA came up with a plan to resume play in a bubble in Florida in July, he wasn't sure if he'd join his team until the final moments.
The mother of Howard's six-year-old son, David, died March 27 having an epileptic seizure at her home in Calabasas at age 31. In an interview in May, Howard called it "one of the toughest things I've ever had to deal with," adding that he didn't know how to talk to his young son about it.
That grief was compounded with the horror of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, dying after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis on May 25, leading Howard to publicly question whether basketball would distract from the fight for social justice.
After much debate, Howard decided to join his teammates at Walt Disney World and finish what he had started.
But he struggled inside the bubble.
He missed his family. He was stunned after someone reported him to the NBA tip hotline for not wearing a mask. He was heavily criticized for saying he was against vaccinations in an Instagram Live video. And then against the small-ball Houston Rockets in the second round of the playoffs, he hardly got any playing time.
Howard's coaches and teammates praised him for staying engaged and raucously cheering them on from the bench, but he acknowledged it was very challenging not to have basketball as an outlet during that period.
"It is extremely difficult, being in a location I can’t get out, can’t see family, friends," Howard said Sept. 16. "You just in the hotel. So that is very difficult, seeing the same walls every day."
But Howard got some reprieve.
His son, David, joined him in the NBA bubble when players were allowed to have their families arrive after the first round of the playoffs.
And in the Western Conference Finals, Howard once again became an important piece of the team's success. After impressing Lakers coach Frank Vogel with his toughness in Game 3, he started the last two games, finishing with 12 points and 11 rebounds in Game 4 and nine points and nine rebounds in Game 5.
"Dwight just brings energy, you know what I mean?" Vogel said after the Lakers' 114-108 win in Game 4 on Sept. 24. "He fits what we want to embody in terms of being a team that plays harder than our opponent every night. He plays extremely hard and extremely physical."
Howard is enjoying his success.
But even more so, he's relishing sharing it with David after everything they've been through.
"I think it will mean the world to him," Howard said. "He will never forget this moment and either will I. I know earlier when he first got to the bubble, me and him sat down and he said this is the worst year of his life and he asked why life is so hard. I didn’t know how to really answer that for him. But I just try to be the right example for him. Every single day. On the court, off the court. He pushes me to be the best I can be, so, I’m grateful that we had this opportunity together, despite everything that’s happened in his young life. Just to make this moment very special for him."
It's been a crazy decade and a dizzying year for Howard.
But now he's on the verge of playing for his first-ever championship over his 16-season career.
When asked what he's learned from all of this, he didn't hesitate in his response.
"It’s always stay patient, stay humble, stay hungry and never give up on yourself," he said. "Other people might give up on you, whether it be friends, family, through everything, jobs, but never give up on yourself."
Howard said his favorite childhood book was "The Little Engine That Could." And even as an adult, he has a picture that he often looks at of two guys digging in a tunnel. One guy gives up as he's about to reach the diamonds, while the other guy keeps digging.
It's a reminder to himself to never quit.
"You never know how close you are to your breakthrough, so you’ve got to keep pushing," he said.