It wasn’t quite the same venom as the time when LeBron James returned to Cleveland as a member of the Miami Heat, but Dwight Howard’s return to Orlando was still dramatic.
There were plenty of boos and some fans brought vulgar signs. The worst was the “FCK D12” shirts, and the “Dwight Coward” reference was sorta clever. But all the boos and all the negative energy that surrounded the Orena seem to fire up Howard, who is slowly returning to form after a long and arduous rehab from offseason back surgery.
Howard was active on both ends of the floor, and his activity translated to more touches and more paint points. He finished with 39 points and grabbed 16 rebounds. But the most impressive part of his Orlando homecoming was his free throw shooting. Despite the Hack-a-Howard strategy, which put the Lakers center on the line a NBA record 39 times (tying Howard’s own mark set in 2012), Howard hit back by sinking 25 of 39 foul shots, including 16 of 20 in the second half.
“I missed a lot of free throws, but it was good that I made a lot of free throws,” Howard said after leading the Lakers to a 106-97 win.
Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni joked that the Hack-a-Howard gimmick was the best offense the Lakers have going, and he was glad Orlando fouled him that many times.
Every time Howard stepped to the line he was booed, which was expected. The Magic fans are still seething at Howard for turning his back on a team that basically raised him since he entered the league in 2004 out of high school. Despite all the fans’ anger aimed at him, Howard had nothing but love for the Magic fans.
“I wanna thank everybody here in Orlando who supported me for my eight years,” he said. “I don’t care how many times they boo me, I don’t care how many times they make signs or whatever I still got love for these people.”
In an interview with Kevin Frazier, Howard says he apologizes for the way things unfolded in his final days in Orlando.
“I am sorry for everything that happened,” Howard said. “Some things I could have handled a lot better. But never intended to hurt those people. At the same time, I’ve moved on. I needed a change for my life. I needed everything that could have happened so I could become a stronger man.”
“Dwight genuinely loves Orlando,” D’Antoni said. “I’m sure for him there was a lot of emotion, but he got through it.”
Howard, who is deeply religious, says getting traded to the Lakers was the right play for him, although it didn’t appear that way for months when Howard seems real uncomfortable wearing the purple and gold, and was constantly dropping hints that he was unhappy in L.A. But Howard said all the negative press has been blow out of proportion, including his reported riff with Kobe Bryant. Howard claims he and Kobe are “cool” and that he’s started to get more comfortable in his role with the Lakers.
“I think all this stuff is good for me, as a person, as a man,” Howard said. “We didn’t allow the outside chatter to affect us as a team. We found a way to get better.”