EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Dwight Howard flattened the creases across the chest of his brand-new gold jersey and joined his teammates for a group photo, joking around and laughing even while saying cheese.
The superstar center might be an eight-year NBA veteran, but Monday still felt like the first day of school.
And it was, in a way: Howard is just getting started on his real NBA education from the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant, who is just as eager to teach as Howard is to learn.
“I know he’s going to be tough on me, but I expect that, and I want him to be that,” Howard said. “I want to be that guy. I’ll take all the heat he’s going to give me, because I know at the end of the day, it’s going to make me a better player and a better person. … I’m willing to go through that process, learn from one of the greatest ever to play the game, and I think it’ll be great.”
Howard and Bryant wore their gold uniforms together for the first time Monday as the Lakers opened training camp with a revamped roster and sky-high expectations. After two straight seasons ending in the second round of the playoffs, a remarkable offseason shuffle by Los Angeles general manager Mitch Kupchak and owner Jim Buss has put the Lakers in prime position to contend for their 17th NBA championship.
Even while Metta World Peace crowed about the Lakers’ depth and Pau Gasol expressed his gratitude for staying with the Lakers after popping up in innumerable trade rumors, everybody’s eyes were on Bryant and Howard, the Lakers’ unquestioned leader and the supremely gifted big man he has already appointed as his heir.
“This is my team, but I want to make sure that Dwight, when I retire, this is going to be his,” Bryant said. “I want to teach him everything I possibly know, so that when I step away, this organization can ride on as if I never left.”
Even while both men say the situation is ideal, the entire NBA is eager to see how this teacher-student partnership will work.
The 34-year-old Bryant is a ferocious perfectionist with famously little patience for teammates who aren’t serious about winning — including Andrew Bynum, the sometimes-immature All-Star center dispatched in the deal for Howard.
The 26-year-old Howard raised league-wide doubts about his maturity during his strange, protracted departure from Orlando over the past two years — and don’t forget, Howard has just one season left on his contract.
What could possibly go wrong? Nothing, according to Howard.
“Me and Kobe have talked many times about it, and I think it’ll be great,” Howard said. “Learning from Kobe, I think, is something that I need for myself, so I can grow as a player and as a person. He’s been through almost every situation possible, on the court and off the court.”
Two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, Gasol and World Peace joined Howard and Bryant at the Lakers’ training complex Monday, the new starting five posing for seemingly every camera in Hollywood. Antawn Jamison, Chris Duhon, Steve Blake, Jordan Hill and Jodie Meeks were just offstage, all thrilled to be supporting players in this superstar-driven production.
“I’m sure we’ll draw a little bit of attention from time to time this year,” said Nash, who will chase his first ring after the Lakers acquired him from Phoenix. “I think probably from the outside, it appears this is going to be a cinch. We’ve got a bunch of great players, we’ll come together and win 60-something games and go (into the playoffs) as a contender, but it’s going to be a big challenge for us. With so many personalities and dominant players, to try to find a cohesion and understanding is going to be a big challenge.”
After carrying the entire Magic franchise on his broad shoulders for most of the past eight years, Howard has more help than he ever imagined on the West Coast. The Lakers also appear remarkably balanced, from Nash’s peerless playmaking and World Peace’s defensive prowess to the selfless supporting play of Gasol and Jamison, who is absolutely thrilled to be on a good team after 15 years with the NBA’s also-rans.
“On its face, it’s the best talent I’ve been around,” Bryant said. “Whether that translates into a winning a championship remains to be seen, but just on paper, you’re talking about defensive player of the years, MVPs, All-Stars — guys who are at the top of their position and have been at the top for a long time.”
Bryant suited up with all types of teammates during his first 16 years in Los Angeles. His relationship with Shaquille O’Neal yielded three championships and four NBA finals trips under Phil Jackson’s stewardship, yet ultimately ended in 2004 with both players eager to be apart.
“It’s a different dynamic than when I was here with Shaq, because I had to do something that … I naturally don’t do, which is be a quarterback and make plays for other people,” Bryant said. “The responsibility of him getting the ball fell on me, and this is not naturally what I do. I figured it out, but here, that’s Steve (Nash). Steve is the quarterback, and he has a great system and offense to play around with and manipulate, and I just slide to my natural spots.”
Bryant and Howard can’t immediately get to work on their on-court chemistry, of course. Howard still has no timetable for his return to the court from offseason back surgery, discounting rumors he’s targeting the Lakers’ season opener Oct. 30.
But Howard is feeling better every day while working with the Lakers’ training staff and his own team. He worked on post moves without contact last week with the Lakers’ coaching staff — and the big man is eager to show off everything he’s already learning in L.A.
“I don’t want to have any setbacks,” Howard said. “I don’t want to play a couple of games and then have to sit down. I want to be able to play the whole season. I owe that to the fans and the team. We all have one mission, one goal. I want to be 100 percent before that, so I can give my teammates everything I’ve got.”