In the days following the memorial service for Dr. Jerry Buss, Dwight Howard seems like a different man than the one who made the 2,500-mile journey out to Los Angeles last August. Six months after leaving Orlando, he realizes that he's the key to sorting out the mess surrounding the Lakers this season:
Howard did, however, have a chance to pay Buss a visit in the hospital late last year and he made it a point to tell Buss that he was grateful for the opportunity to play for the Lakers.
The Lakers have played twice since the passing of Dr. Buss and Howard scored at least 19 points and grabbed at least 12 rebounds in both contests. While two games isn't nearly enough to make a definitive judgment, it seems as if something has changed recently in Howard's overall approach to the game. The man who has spent most of this season sulking and clowning around now appears to be ready to step up to the plate.
"I'm going to continue look at [Dr. Buss] and guys who did something special like that," said Howard in an interview with Ramona Shelbourne of ESPNLosAngeles. "It's all about winning."
For once, perhaps Howard and team captain Kobe Bryant are finally on the same page. In a pregame ceremony prior to the Lakers' 113-99 win over the Boston Celtics on Feb. 20, Bryant made similar comments when he took the microphone to talk about what Buss meant to the Lakers' organization.
"His vision has transcended the game and we are all, all, spoiled by his vision and by his drive to win year after year after year," Bryant said.
Winning is all the Lakers have been about in recent memory. During the 33 years in which Buss actively ran the team, L.A. made the NBA Finals 16 times and brought home 10 titles.
And while many of those championship teams had their fair share of in-fighting (particularly during the Bryant/Shaquille O'Neal/Phil Jackson years), they rarely let it affect their play on the court.
To be fair, the Lakers' problems go far beyond one person, whether it be Howard, Bryant or head coach Mike D'Antoni. But if Howard takes it upon himself to dominate the way that he did while as a member of the Magic, the Lakers may ultimately fulfill the expectations that many placed upon them prior to the season.
"All I could think about was [Buss'] legacy, what he stood for, how he changed the whole culture of the NBA, sports, L.A.," said Howard following Buss' memorial service on Feb. 21. "It meant a lot to me to hear what people were saying about him and thinking about everything I've seen since I've been here, since I've been a Laker."
Howard, much like every other superstar, wants to leave a mark on the league. Lest we forget, this is the same person who wanted to put a cross on the NBA logo.
However, being the best center in the world for a few seasons does little to define one's legacy. If the 27-year-old Howard truly has lofty aspirations, then taking responsibility for his actions this season is the first step in the right direction for both him and the team.
"I want to be how Jerry Buss was," said Howard. "He changed this city. Those are things I want people to say about me when I leave this earth."