Reunion game? What reunion game?
The Houston Rockets will host the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night at the Toyota Center, and Dwight Howard — who left the glitz and glamour of Hollywood behind in July so he could pursue a shiny new championship trophy in Texas — isn't about to pretend there's any added meaning to this matchup.
"It's not a reunion game," Howard told USA TODAY Sports in a lengthy discussion in Portland, Ore., on Tuesday night. "What's the reunion? I think people are making a big deal out of the whole situation. Yeah, I left the Lakers. Ok, I did what I had to do. This is my decision, and for me it's another game. Half the guys on the team weren't on the team last year anyway, so it's really not like a reunion."
Translation: Nothing to see here.
Howard's annoyance with this tired topic was easy to understand. One night before, he made his first trip back to the Staples Center for a game against the Clippers. The horde of news reporters on hand peppered him with another round of questions as to why he did what he did.
Do you still speak with Kobe Bryant?
Is there anything else the Lakers could have done to convince you to stay?
As always in Laker Land, there was — as Howard saw it — the sense of shock and confusion as to how an elite athlete could ever willingly leave this storied place.
"It's time for everybody to get over it," Howard continued. "It happened. It's in the past. I've gotten over it. It didn't work out (with the Lakers last season). The timing was off. It just wasn't (there). Everybody was injured.
"People can say that I ran from the situation, that I couldn't handle the pressure. But I think there's more pressure coming here to win than there was in L.A., because I left the Lakers to come play for somebody else. So I'm supposed to feel like there's more pressure to win now, because everybody is like, 'He left the Lakers; can he win?' And I'm like, 'I'm happy. I'm going to win regardless.' I think people just need to let it go, and if they don't, then that's on them. I've let it go. It's in the past."
Besides, there's no sense in worrying about the past when his present is going so well. It's a wonder anyone still questions Howard's decision considering the chasm that his choice created between the two teams' fortunes.
The Rockets enter the non-reunion game with a 4-1 record, a locker room full of love for their new big man and a future that looks so incredibly bright with Howard, James Harden and company. The 2-3 Lakers, meanwhile,would have been hard-pressed to win even if Howard hadn't left the team (and the extra $30 million he could have had to stay on the same team).
Bryant remains out as he recovers from his Achilles tendon tear in April, meaning the potential face-off of former teammates who clearly never clicked likely won't happen until their second Houston meeting on Jan. 8 or the first Staples Center matchup Feb. 19. And for the record, as Howard made clear, they haven't spoken since he made his decision.
Steve Nash, 39, still is playing with injuries and losing his battle against Father Time. Pau Gasol is trying to carry the load. All around them, the exploits of relatively anonymous players such as Xavier Henry, Shawne Williams and — to a lesser degree — Nick Young have made the Lakers prime candidates for Charles Barkley's popular comedy sketch on TNT, Who He Play For?
And people still don't understand why Howard chose Houston?
The honeymoon period is still in full effect, to be sure, but Howard's decision has been validated at every turn so far. He's happy again. He's healthy again. And despite the fact that his league-wide status as NBA villain is alive and well (see Blazers fans strangely booing him during player introductions Tuesday night), he's nothing short of beloved by the teammates and coaches who weren't sure what to make of him when he first arrived.
"All you got to see of him was what was on TV," said Rockets assistant J.B. Bickerstaff, whose father, Bernie, worked with Howard as an assistant with the Lakers. "The picture is always painted of him being one way, and I think that's the furthest from the guy that he is.
"He's not a villain. He's not a bad guy. ... He's not the person who people try to paint him to be.
"He wants to win. He approaches things the right way. It's unbelievable how coachable he is, and how much he listens. What you ask him to do, he'll go out there and do it. Whether it's in a game, in practice, or sticking around and working after practice, he's been great to be around. He's a genuinely good person to be around. He makes people laugh. People want to be around him."
Reunion game? What reunion game?