Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Lakers season thus far has been the excellent play off the bench from Dwight Howard, who was limited to nine games in the previous season with Washington due to injury, but came in and totally embraced his role as a defender, rebounder and screen/roll specialist from the jump.
Howard wasn’t in the original blueprint for the roster, but after DeMarcus Cousins suffered an injury in the summer, VP and GM Rob Pelinka brought Howard in for a workout, and soon inked him to a deal.
There was no doubt about Howard’s basketball resume, which included Hall-of-Fame-worthy five times on the All-NBA First Team, and eight All-Star appearances. The question had more to do with health, and with embracing a role he’d never played before.
It was apparent from Day 1 in L.A. that Howard was healthy and committed to whatever coach Frank Vogel asked of him, and he’s played in 62 of 63 games, averaging 19.2 minutes towards 7.5 points (73.2% FG’s, 2nd in the NBA) with 7.4 rebounds (13.8 per 36 minutes) and 1.2 blocks. In certain matchups, he’s effectively closed games alongside LeBron and AD.
Today, here in May, more than two months into the COVID-19 hiatus, Howard joined reporters on a Zoom call, sharing his hope that games can resume at some point, once it is deemed safe enough to do so for all parties.
“I think everybody’s anxious just to get back playing,” he said from his home in Georgia. “I think we’ve all felt like this was our season and this was our time. So it’s more so everybody’s just anxious to play, it’s like we’ve been sitting down waiting to get back out there and win, so it’s been pretty tough.”
With that said, Howard’s doing his best to embrace this unprecedented period of time at his place that includes 23 acres of space he’s been utilizing for two main reasons: to spend time with his five children; and to work out.
“I haven’t had an opportunity to really just spend real quality time with my kids because of the season and stuff like that and us traveling,” he said. “This has been an amazing time for me to just get that time that I haven’t had to spend. It’s been amazing just to see my kids and be able to grow with them, learn from them and just all of us grow.”
His property also includes a pool, a gym, and a basketball court. He’s been doing a lot of boxing for conditioning, plus what he calls the “One punch man” workout, which 100 pushups, 100 situps, 100 squats and running two miles.
“I train every day,” said Howard. “I spend a lot of time doing some conditioning as far as boxing and things like that. The main thing for me being 34 is just staying in shape, mentally and physically. So that’s the best and biggest thing I’ve been focusing on is just making sure I stay in good shape.”
I asked Howard what he’s done to stay healthy, and to keep such a clear focus this season.
“After I had my back surgery, the last one, I promised myself that I would change my life,” Howard replied. “I was going to do whatever it’s going to take to heal myself physically, mentally and spiritually. I spent that summer doing that and before the season, I promised to give my teammates energy, all of me, every single night. I came into the season thinking that if I gave my teammates myself, all of me, no matter what the situation is, what happens, how many points I score, how many rebounds I get, I think that I’ll have the best time of my life and just enjoy that moment.
“The season started and I was like, man, this is a really good feeling. We’re winning. We had different obstacles come up like the stuff that was happening in China, and then obviously the Kobe situation, and then with the coronavirus. It’s kind of like man, it seemed like this is it. All of the things that I had talked about and worked on in myself, I was seeing it come to fruition. It kind of hurt to see everything stop.”
Tragically, Howard has also had to deal with some very personal pain. As he explained on the call, the mother of his 6-year-old son passed away due to complications from epilepsy.
“It’s extremely difficult for me to try to understand how to talk to my son,” Howard revealed. “Something I’ve never experienced, so I wouldn’t know how to talk to my son about it, so just with him being here and stuff like that, it’s kind of given me some extra life but also try to think about how to cope with losing somebody like that. And over this time just being with him and seeing him grow has given me, just more… just kind of keep me more grounded and understanding that every moment counts.”
This year’s group of Lakers are a very close unit, and Howard’s been receiving constant calls and texts from the players and coaches. That family feel of the team has been there from the start.
“Just the chemistry we had before this was off the roof,” he said. “And then now, it’s like we have to build that up again. We got to get that engine flowing … But I think with the group of guys that we have, I also think with the hunger that we have to win a championship, once we get back it will be like we never left each other.”
“The way we care for each other, we care for this team, this city and winning the championship,” he added later, when asked what would be captured behind the scenes with this team in spirit of “The Last Dance” documentary. “Everything is already broadcast, a lot about who we are as people and our character. I just think you’d get a chance to see it more in depth. Just how much we really love being with each other, how much we really enjoy the game, enjoy playing with each other. We’ve all had to come from some difficult situations and things have all happened to us in our personal lives and for us to really sacrifice whatever we’ve had to sacrifice for this team.”
And so, until Dwight can rejoin the Lakers in Los Angeles, he’ll continue to train in the morning, and spend time with his children.
“Some bonfires,” he responded when asked how he passes time with the kids. “Hide-and-go-seek, which is kind of the craziest game because my house is 23 acres and we play outside. So it takes all day to play hide-and-go-seek. I made a slide in the front yard. We come to the lake. We go in the pool. We box together. We run. We just play Uno games. We play all of the games. This has been great. School has been the hardest part for all of us.”
I wondered if, at 6’10’’, 265 pounds, it’s a bit hard to hide?
“No, actually,” Howard responded. “Since I know my place, nobody finds me.”