Once upon a time, playing for the Lakers meant something more than living in Los Angeles and wearing a handsome purple-and-gold uniform. The words “tradition” and “history” and “championships” and “Hollywood” were major selling points for free agents and prospective draft picks. To be a Laker meant that you were part of something bigger than yourself, bigger than the team, bigger than the NBA — you were on the Lakers. Few franchises in sports history carry that kind of weight, and the perks that come with it.
Dwight Howard officially brought that mystique to an end by bolting for the redder pastures of Houston last week. It wasn’t necessarily a surprise from a basketball standpoint — the Lakers are old, the Rockets are young, and Howard wasn’t meshing with either Kobe Bryant or coach Mike D’Antoni — but it was a shock to those who thought the privilege of being a Laker would trump all.
For months after Howard was traded to the Lakers — and for months leading up to his decision to leave them after one year — the overriding sentiment was the he was next in a line of legendary Laker big men: George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal. Many assumed (hoped?) that Howard would step into the imprints their massive shoes had left behind, and become another dominant Lakers center who hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy.
They also assumed (hoped?) that a marketable star like Howard would want to stay in the most marketable market in marketdom. Outside of New York, there’s no better place for an athlete to become a superstar than L.A., especially if you want to be in the movies. It’s a movie star town, with a movie star vibe and movie star possibilities — including fantastic endorsements, famous friends and television shows.
Between the tradition and the location, L.A. seemed like a great fit for the outrageously talented and gregarious Howard, if we put aside chemistry with teammates and coaches and all that other stuff. That, and the winning.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, it seems all those draws are things of the past. While it might appear that Howard delivered the death blow to this mystique himself by virtue of being a brat, he was simply aware of the evident truth.
Regarding following in the footsteps of Laker greats — if you were good at your job, would you want people constantly comparing you to your predecessors? Where would be the joy in excelling for a team that has already seen a handful of guys just like you do all that and more? Do you really want to help a team win their 17th championship? You’d have to win at least five on your own just to bolster your sense of worth. Dwight Howard had little to gain from the Lakers tradition; he had plenty to gain from striking out on his own (so to speak).
On the other hand, there’s a lot more to be said for somebody’s legacy if they take a previously unheralded team to the top of the mountain. Dirk Nowitzki will go down in Mavericks — and NBA — history as the guy who won the franchise their first title. Ditto for whoever plays for the Cavs when (if?) they raise their first banner. Even in New York, which hasn’t seen a title since 1973, will appreciate a winning team more than L.A. at this point.
(Sure, Howard will be following in the footsteps of Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston. But the two rings the Rockets have, along with their smaller city and market, pale in comparison to the Lakers’ might.)
In today’s NBA, simply making the league is enough to make you a star. The idea of needing to play in a major to capitalize on endorsements is old news. Kevin Durant is one of the league’s biggest names and he lives in Oklahoma City. Ditto for James Harden in Houston, Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, etc. The Internet has made the world an increasingly tiny place, and nowadays all you need to do to increase your brand is sign with Jay-Z*. And Jay-Z doesn’t care where you live.
The Boston Celtics, a similarly revered franchise with even more titles than their west coast rivals, proved this off-season that no team is exempt from the long fall from grace. Perhaps this is a sign of a new era in the NBA, one in which big-market teams can’t coast on their pedigree and bright lights alone. Now is the time for the Thunder, and Rockets, and Pacers, and Grizzlies to show what small market teams — and their players — with the right mindset can accomplish.
After this year, the Lakers will have plenty of cap space with which to reload, and will have shots at all the top free agents of 2014 including LeBron and Carmelo Anthony. They’ll likely get one (or BOTH?!?!) of those guys or a slew of other helpful pieces to help Kobe make a final championship push and all will be right in Lakerland again. But it was refreshing to see, for just one moment (and now, season), the Lakers feel the kind of pain that the Cavaliers and Magic and other small market teams feel on a regular basis.
Dwight Howard, a man known for his immaturity and thoughtlessness, seems to have understood that. Bravo to him for smashing the Laker mystique in one fell swoop. It may be the start of something big.
*There are likely other ways to increase your brand — Jay-Z just comes to mind the easiest.
Photo via Getty