HOUSTON – The cold war seems to be over -- we think.
The rising Houston Rockets (12-12) won a basketball game 126-97 over the pitiful Los Angeles Lakers (3-21) on Saturday, and one of the main stories of the night was the ending of this feud between two elite basketball players.
It stems from Howard's leaving the Lakers in free agency and signing with the Rockets in the summer of 2013. That left Bryant and Lakers fans bitter. In last season’s season opener, Howard elbowed Bryant in the face twice. Bryant called Howard soft and dared him to start a fight. Howard laughed that off.
Well, the bitterness between Howard and Bryant is over. Time, and maybe age, seems to mellow elite basketball players too.
“Listen, I’m a competitive person, and I don’t really take much crap on the court,” Bryant said after scoring 25 points. “I’m always going to be confrontational. Even with my friends, I’m going to be that way. But you can also move on. It’s not personal. You’ve got to let that stuff go.”
Yes, it’s time to move on.
“I think everybody made it seem like we just hated each other,” Howard said after his 18-point, 12-rebound night. “There's no need for us to hate each other. This is his last season -- congratulate him on that -- and I basically wanted to see if he wanted to get more 3s up. He had shot a couple. That’s what I was talking about at halftime with him. He's one of the greatest players to ever play the game, he’s getting recognized in every city that he plays in for his accomplishments on the floor, and I think all of us want to have that kind of reception when we’re about to finish our career.”
Lakers fans never forgave Howard for leaving them. Another great center for Bryant to play with would have given him another chance at a ring and maybe exalted Howard to legendary status with other great Lakers centers such as Wilt, Shaq, Kareem and Mikan.
Instead, Howard went to a place also known for centers of the Hakeem, Moses, Yao and Elvin variety.
Howard was the first big star to shun the Lakers in free agency and bypass the bright lights of L.A. to come to the southwest. The theory is nobody wanted to play with the demanding and aging Bryant. After Howard left, no elite free agent has elected to play with the Lakers.
The issues between the pair were something Bryant thought about.
“I think it’s hard for people to really understand," he said. "It may seem cold from a distance, but it’s not ever personal with me. You’ve got to get people to do their job and bring the best out of them and, like I said, a lot of times, it’s not very pleasing for my teammates to go through [that], but it is what it is. And I don’t think about it from a personal standpoint whatsoever."
Howard wanted his own legacy and is trying to build it with James Harden.
“People are always gonna make past judgments on a situation,” Howard said. “But that situation is over and done with, and Kobe has done excellent for the Lakers ... I think a lot of the fans are just upset that I chose to go somewhere else to go play basketball, and that’s understandable, so there's nothing I can do about it, and I don’t think he's that upset by me leaving. At the end of the day, we're all men, and we make decisions based on our life, so I don’t think he was really upset after it was over and done with. I don’t have an issue with him. I pray for the guy every day, and I’m happy to see him go out on a high note.”
It was still strange to hear Howard booed in his own arena as he shot free throws. It was mainly the bitter Lakers fans not letting go of what happened.
What happened in L.A. soured some on Howard, one of the nicest guys in the league. He plays hard and through injuries. He played with two sprained knee ligaments in the West finals last season, yet has a reputation for being soft.
Bryant, and maybe Lakers fans, forget Howard played with a partially torn labrum during his one year in Los Angeles. How’s that for soft?
Everything is OK now, though.
“They’ll always be cool. They’ll always be fine,” Bryant said. “My responsibility, when Dwight and I played together, was to get him to play his best basketball. That involves sometimes pushing buttons when guys don’t necessarily appreciate it at the time. But as a leader, that’s your job. That’s your responsibility. It’s nothing personal. You just try to get the best out of them, even if they don’t really find the humor in that at the time.”
There was humor on the floor Saturday, and now everybody can move forward.