Dwight Howard leaves past behind

LOS ANGELES -- It has been a while since it was all that much fun to be Dwight Howard. His back has hurt for nearly a year. Pain so bad it radiated down his leg and made it difficult to stand up on his toes. Then there was a year's worth of haggling with the Orlando Magic, national media and seemingly everyone in between over whether he'd spend the rest of his NBA days there.

His reputation was battered. His smile grew strained. The game was fun but not much else was.

Finally, at around 6:15 Sunday night, all that was over. The trade rumors, the mess with his former coach Stan Van Gundy, the back pain, the league-wide scorn were in his past. His future was in front of him on a purple-and-gold-trimmed court.

Howard couldn't wait.

But as he sprinted out to the court for pregame warmups, all smiles and joy and wide eyes looking at the adoring Los Angeles Lakers fans who've been ready to embrace him as one of their own for the past few years, he had a problem.

No one was behind him.

"Yeah, that was supposed to be something for the rookies, but they got me," Howard said, still a little embarrassed.

Pau Gasol was behind him in the tunnel, and then he wasn't. For a good 10 seconds Howard was by himself on the court as his new teammates snickered in the corridor.

"Actually, Steve Nash held me back," Gasol explained afterward. "I was the second guy out and he held me back. It was totally in the moment. It was spontaneous. We didn't plan it."

As icebreakers go, it was perfect. Howard had admitted during the week that he was going to be a jumble of nerves when the time finally came to make his Lakers debut. He'd even sought Nash's counsel on how to handle it.

"We're human," Nash said. "He has nothing to be nervous about. He's the best center in the game. But I think the fact that he is nervous means he cares a lot."

For those who know Howard best, that has been the hardest part of watching him go through the past 12 months.

"He's one of those guys, like all of us, he cares what people think of him. He's like, 'This is business, why is everybody jumping on me?' " said Lakers forward Antawn Jamison, who has been close with Howard since they played together for USA Basketball in 2006.

"I don't know the whole story of everything that happened with him and Orlando. But I'm just glad for him that it's over with. It just seemed to me like he couldn't really be himself with all that stuff going on."

Himself, as friends like Jamison have come to know Howard, is a fun-loving, God-fearing big man with a megawatt smile that reminds people in these parts of a certain 6-foot-9 point guard who also used to wear his emotions on his face.

"He's the type of guy where, what you see is who he is," Jamison said. "He's a fun-loving guy who enjoys and loves life. He understands that it's a blessing to be where he's at.

"As the fans embrace him, the sky's the limit for him in L.A."

As of Sunday night, that's his future. Or at least it will be if Howard is serious about turning the page and embracing life as a Laker.

That part is still to be determined. By Howard and by a franchise that just went all-in to get him. By how they take to each other, and how this season turns out.

The team traded for him thinking that once he got to L.A. and experienced a championship culture and a big-city lifestyle, it'd be easy to convince him to sign an extension with the team.

Along the way, Howard has dropped a few hints that he's thinking that way, too.

"The plan is to end up on the wall back there," Howard said, gesturing to the retired jerseys of Lakers greats that hang on the wall of the team's practice facility. "That's the goal."

Still, it's hard to get a read on him. For one, he can't come out and say he'll sign an extension with the Lakers yet. They can't offer and he can't accept yet. So the questions will persist all season.

But mostly it's because after a year of pain, pressure and affronts to his pride, it's a little hard for the man to trust and open up again.

"It was a rough year, but there's always a blessing in the storm," Howard said. "There's always going to be moments in your life where you go through trials and tribulations, but what matters is how you come out. I've always tried to stay positive."

For the past three weeks, he has been about as positive as a man who has to answer the same questions every day about his health and his back can be.

Some days, like Sunday morning, he'll imitate Lakers coach Mike Brown's news conferences. Others, he'll recall a conversation he has had with Lakers trainer Gary Vitti, whom he has playfully taken to calling 'Father Vitti.' But there are days when it has been too much for him.

Saturday morning he was almost done with it all.

"OMG," he said to the fifth or sixth question about whether he would indeed make his debut Sunday. "I don't know. I don't want to say I'm playing and then not play. I want to play, but it's all up to Father and the rest of the staff."

But then, toward the end of the interview session an unfamiliar reporter approached and Howard was back to being Howard again.

"Hey, new guy," he shouted out. "Where are you from?"

Told the reporter was from Canada, Howard smiled and started singing the Canadian national anthem.

It was good for a laugh, but it was also good for his soul.

It has been only three weeks and already Howard was calling somebody else the new guy.

This might just work out after all.