Dwight Howard has a tough battle on his hands and it has nothing to do with his rehab from back surgery or rediscovering his game after a long layoff.
Going into the 2012-13 NBA season, you'd be hard pressed to find a more disliked player than him. From the way he publicly and relentlessly demanded a trade from the Magic, to flip-flopping about opting in to his contract, to missing a basketball camp with kids in Orlando, Dwight has taught a master class in how to ruin an image. His fall from grace has been spectacular in its depth, trajectory and velocity.
But for Lakers' fans, all of that is water under the bridge.
While Lakers fans can be notoriously fickle and hard on players (if you don't believe me, visit the comment section of any Lakers site after a bad loss), they can also be fiercely loyal to their own. Especially, when outsiders are in full attack mode as they have been with Howard.
However, it's not just about Howard being a Laker that has their fans ready to forgive all former sins and back him up in any argument. It's that he's already given fans reasons to dole out their support and respect.
This isn't to say that Dwight won't earn the scorn of Lakers' fans at some point. But as of now, he's earned their respect.
Let's dive right into the reasons why.
Los Angeles is all about star power, and the Lakers embody that to the fullest. Whether it's the celebrities in court-side seats, or the dimming of the lights in the stands to present the players on the court like actors on a stage, the atmosphere at a Laker game requires a star quality.
In Dwight Howard, the Lakers fans have that caliber of star. This fact alone gives Howard a leg up in winning the respect battle.
He's proven himself as one of the game's greats, giving him instant credibility and more leeway than a player whose skills are fantastic but may not have the same cache attached to his name (see Gasol, Pau).
This isn't to call Lakers' fans superficial or not knowledgeable about the game. They appreciate the little things players do to help the team win and value the contributions that don't show up in the box score like fans of teams that don't have a "Hollywood" aura attached. But, when it comes to earning fans' respect, it certainly helps to be universally recognized as one of the game's elite players as Howard is.
Now, all Howard has to do is continue to be that caliber of player when he returns from rehabbing his back. No pressure, Dwight.
Lakers fans love loyalty. They love players who express a desire to be with the team and can sour quickly on guys who seem indifferent to what it means to put on the Laker uniform. For proof, one only needs to see the differences in how fans reacted to Lamar Odom in comparison to Pau Gasol after the Chris Paul trade was vetoed.
So, while Dwight Howard hasn't come right out and said he'd like to be a Laker long term by stating he'll re-sign next summer, he's hinted at it strongly enough to ease fans' concerns. Even if only a pseudo commitment, Dwight embracing the organization goes a long way in building up the trust that will keep fans on his side.
Remember, Kobe Bryant once flirted with the Clippers in free agency and later demanded a trade to the Bulls when the organization was struggling. In those down times, fans questioned Kobe and openly wondered if the team would be better off without him. However, once he came back to the pack and reaffirmed his desire to be a Laker for life, his wandering eye was essentially forgiven and forgotten.
The same is proving true for Dwight right now. He's said enough to get fans to believe he wants to be there long term and it's paying dividends in their support of him.
Of course, the bigger test will be in the summer of 2013 when Dwight's contract expires and he has the choice to re-up with the team or leave to another franchise. But, until that decision has to be made, all Dwight has to do is continue to express his love of the franchise, the city of Los Angeles and hint that he's found a long-term home. In other words, exactly what he's been doing.
Another way of getting Lakers' fans on your side is embracing the history of the organization and to make a keen effort to live up to the standards set by the great players that came before.
This is especially true if you're a center. From George Mikan to Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O'Neal, the Lakers have a lineage of great big men that have achieved levels nearly impossible to duplicate. But, if you're a big man following in their footsteps, acknowledging that challenge and stepping up to it is a great way to earn fans' respect.
In his first few weeks as a Laker, Dwight is doing just that.
First, on his twitter account, his profile picture is a depiction of himself standing in front of the jerseys of those aforementioned great big men. Clearly, Dwight is sending a message that he hopes to fill the shoes of those former Lakers and continue the legacy of dominant centers.
Second, Dwight openly said he'd love to work with Kareem in order to further improve himself as a player. Kareem has a rocky history as mentor to Laker bigs (ask Andrew Bynum), but for Dwight to accept him as a mentor shows he understands the value of having the all-time leading scorer in his corner. Following up and actually meeting with Jabbar and further expressing his delight was another positive step.
Third, after initially being reluctant to follow in Shaq's footsteps by leaving Orlando for the Lakers, Dwight has said that he's no longer concerned about what other people think and has reiterated that he wants to be a Laker.
These acts may seem like a little thing to outsiders, but to Lakers' fans who understand the team's history and want the players to live up to those high standards, Dwight's approach is music to their ears.
One of the best ways to get fans on your side is to make yourself available to them. And, by any measure, Dwight is succeeding at this in a way few Lakers' superstars ever have.
First of all, Dwight's not a recluse. He goes out in public. He's been seen at Dodger games and even made an appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards. He's said in interviews that he loves to walk around his hotel and interact with the fans. Not cooping himself up is a great way to let the fans know he's happy to be in L.A. and that he's accessible to them.
Second, Dwight has once again become very active on twitter. Shortly after the trade to the Lakers was finalized, Howard ended his hiatus on the social media platform and started to interact with fans (and those who aren't fans) more frequently. He responds to direct questions, posts pictures and even invites some ribbing from his followers.
These types of interactions go a long way in making Howard a person fans not only identify with but can get behind and cheer for. And, after going through the type of public fall that he has, taking on all comers and handling the back and forth with grace while still keeping it light-hearted and fun will earn him respect from the hometown fans.
In order for a team to be successful, every player has to accept a role that helps maximize the results of the entire group rather than what's best for the individual.
From a fan's perspective, it's much easier to appreciate and respect a player who understands what his role is and embraces it for the betterment of the team. For Dwight, that means accepting the fact that he may not be the team's go-to offensive player now that he has other high-caliber teammates that can help carry that load.
So, Dwight's garnered a lot of respect from fans simply by acknowledging that his primary goals are to "dominate" by controlling the paint on both ends of the floor and focusing his energy on defense and rebounding. At his introductory press conference, he reiterated this point multiple times while stating that he understands how he can best help the team perform at their peak.
Some might be quick to dismiss such statements as only saying the right thing, but Howard has won multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards and is a perennial leader in rebounds and blocked shots. The things he says he will do to help the team are actually the parts of his game that are the foundation for his greatness.
Of course we'll have to see if he's up to the task when he's healthy enough to take the court, but by simply saying these things—and doing so with what seems like genuine desire—Howard is already engendering himself to a fanbase keyed into the team's weaknesses.
It may sound harsh, but Dwight Howard will get bonus points with some fans simply because he's not Andrew Bynum.
For a variety of reasons, the Lakers' former franchise center fell out of favor with a lot of Lakers' fans. Whether it was the fact that he'd sometimes loaf in games, that he purposely sat out of some huddles, his injury history or any other number of transgressions, but by the end of the 2011-12 campaign, Bynum was not the favorite son of fans.
For some fans, it had gotten to the point that Bynum should be traded for any number of available players that could help the Lakers, not just one that was clearly better. So, when Bynum was in fact dealt away and was turned into the one player who is considered to be better and plays the same position, fans were ecstatic.
It's not just the simple swap that swayed fans, though. Add in the perception that Howard exemplifies the traits that fans consistently ragged on Bynum for not being—focusing on defense first, hustling all the time, not being injury prone (his bad back notwithstanding)—and the comparisons only further favor Dwight.
This isn't to say that fans don't appreciate all that Bynum gave the team over the years. His contributions were instrumental in winning back-to-back championships. Plus, watching Bynum develop into one of the best big men in the league during his Lakers' tenure was very rewarding.
However, any time a player can be turned into an even better player via trade, fans are going to be happy. Combine that with the differences in style of play and they're going to accept the newcomer quickly, showering him with praise and accolades.
In this case, fans respect Howard not only for being who he is—clearly one of the best players in the league and a game changer on both ends of the floor—but also for not being the guy he's replacing.