Dwight Howard, Lakers not a match

LOS ANGELES -- He seemed like the perfect fit.

The second coming of Superman.

A dominating center to follow in the footsteps of George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal.

A larger-than-life personality tailor-made for the bright lights of Hollywood.

He seemed to be the perfect player to take the torch from Kobe Bryant, who will turn 35 in August, and become the next franchise player for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Everything seemed to fit perfectly except for one thing: Dwight Howard didn't want it.

On Friday, he made that abundantly clear when the All-Star center told ESPN's Stephen A. Smith that he would sign a free-agent contract with the Rockets when the league lifts its annual moratorium on player business Wednesday.

As much as Angelenos wanted to embrace Howard as one of their own and put him alongside the other great centers who came before him, he never truly allowed them to by never committing to the team and the city that so desperately wanted him.

He met every question about his future with the Lakers with an equal amount of uneasiness and uncertainty.

The Lakers tried to woo Howard the same way they wooed O'Neal 17 years ago. Back then, former Lakers general manager Jerry West walked O'Neal onto the court at the old Forum and told him to look up at the retired jerseys and championship banners, and told O'Neal that he wanted his jersey up there along with a few championships before he retired. Current Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak made a similar pitch to Howard when he gave him a tour of the team's training facility when he had his introductory news conference.

O'Neal accepted the challenge. Howard ran from it.

His introductory news conference last year should have been the first hint that Howard wasn't the right fit for the Lakers.

He used the word "fun" about 50 times while uttering the word "championship" only once.

Kupchak introduced Howard to Los Angeles at the time by saying, "We're hopeful that 10 years from now, we can add a jersey to that wall over there that says, 'Dwight Howard.'"

A little more than 10 months later, Howard decided to ditch a dream that was never his and the team that thought he would be the future of the franchise.

Howard not only becomes the first superstar player in the prime of his career to leave the Lakers, but he took a pay cut to do so. The Lakers offered him a five-year, $118 million contract, and he turned that down in favor of one fewer year and 30 million fewer dollars from the Rockets.

Let that sink in for a second.

He left Los Angeles for Houston. He left one of the most storied franchises in sports history and a winner of 16 championships for a team that has won two titles and hasn't even won a division title since 1995. He leaves a team that has missed the playoffs only five times in its 65-year history for a team that has missed the playoffs eight times in the past 14 years.

In hindsight, maybe Houston is actually the perfect fit for Howard, who always seemed to be more about having fun than winning championships.

It's not always fun taking the journey to win a championship. As Bryant recently noted, "I'd rather be perceived as a winner than a good teammate."

Howard found that out the hard way in his one season as Bryant's teammate. Bryant wanted to win. Howard wanted to have fun. Those two mindsets never meshed, and neither did Howard and Bryant.

Bryant rode Howard harder than he ever has been ridden. His goal wasn't to drive Howard out of town but to drive him to be a champion. By the end of the season, Bryant knew the chances of Howard staying and learning under him for the next few years were a long shot.

The Lakers were never Howard's first choice. He was traded to Los Angeles after several attempts at a deal with his first choice, the Brooklyn Nets, fell apart.

By the end of his first and only season in Los Angeles, the Lakers should have known they still weren't Howard's first choice. They should have realized the dream they had for Howard's career didn't fall in line with Howard's dream for his career. They should have understood Howard was no longer the perfect fit for this team and this city.

While Kupchak talked about erecting a statue in Howard's honor, and the Lakers plastered banners and billboards around town pleading with Howard to stay, Los Angeles quickly became as uninterested in Howard as he was in the Lakers.

Los Angeles is a city that isn't used to pleading with anyone to stay, and the Lakers aren't a team used to pleading with any player to re-sign. The jarring image of both taking place around the city and during the Lakers' two-hour meeting with Howard this week should have been a good indication that this was not a relationship worth salvaging.

Howard and the Lakers seemed like a perfect marriage a year ago, but in the end, their pairing met with the same swift fate as so many failed Hollywood marriages before it.