Dwight Howard prepares to take leadership

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Dwight Howard was the last player on the court after practice Saturday.

He is almost always the last player on the court.

It might not show, but he spends hours working on his free throws with Lakers assistant coach Chuck Person before firing a few shots from beyond the arc as he yells “Sam Perkins!” -- an ode to the former Los Angeles Lakers big man who had a penchant for hitting the deep ball.

Howard, however, did something different Saturday after the Lakers finished their first practice following Kobe Bryant's ruptured Achilles tendon just 12 hours earlier, which will sideline him for the next six to nine months.

With his teammates gathered, Howard stood in front of them and spoke for the first time as the team leader.

“I just told them that [Lakers management] put this team together for a reason, and we all know how to play basketball,” Howard said. “We’ve all done special things in our career before, and it’s time to do it again. We’ve all been blessed to play with Kobe, but we all have talent too, and we have to show it.”

For the first time since being traded to the Lakers in August, Howard was given the opportunity to lead the team. It’s a position he held with the Orlando Magic for the previous eight seasons and one that he anticipated accepting with the Lakers at some point after Bryant retires.

“That’s why they brought me here,” Howard said.

In the offseason, the Lakers brought Howard and Steve Nash to the Lakers to join a strong nucleus that already included Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace. It was an All-Star lineup that was not only expected to win the title but to do so in record-breaking fashion.

The wheels quickly fell of this train before it really even had a chance to leave the station. Mike Brown was fired as the head coach just five games into the season, and every Lakers starter has missed significant time due to injury. Gasol has missed 33 games, Nash has missed 30 games, World Peace has missed seven games, and Howard and Bryant have missed a combined eight games.

Howard didn’t want to use any excuses as he sat down after practice. He knows if the Lakers win their next two games against the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets that they will be in the playoffs, and he believes anything is possible if that happens -- even with Bryant out.

“We know what we have to do,” Howard said. “We know he’s out, but we can’t put our heads down like it’s over with. We have to go out there and play. We have a lot of talented guys on this team, and I think we can accomplish something great with or without Kobe. So we can’t hang our heads down because he’s gone. We have to go out there and play.

“The only thing that matters is these two games and getting into the playoffs and making history. That’s the only thing that matters. We’re going for [franchise championship] No. 17.”

Howard spoke to Bryant after the game and again before Bryant’s Saturday MRI. Last season, Howard had back surgery in April that knocked him out for the season and forced him to miss the playoffs and the Olympics. While the injuries are different, Howard said he understands what Bryant is going through.

“I know how it feels,” Howard said. “When I hurt my back and I had to have surgery, I was hurting all day and I was crying and asking, ‘Why me? Why now? Why at this point in my career am I having to go through this?' I’m pretty sure he’s having those same thoughts. He just has to stay strong. There’s a reason for everything.”

In Bryant’s absence, Howard understands he has to assume more of a leadership role. That doesn’t just mean the offense must run through him, which it will now, but it means being a vocal presence in huddles, meetings, practices and games.

“This team’s got to ride my back even though my back is still healing,” Howard said. “I feel I can do all things and take this team to the next level.

“Everybody is looking at me, so I have to tell the guys how I feel. The main thing is we have to go out there and play together. Without Kobe, there is still a lot that can be done with this team.”

As much as Howard felt for Bryant and his injury, he was irked at the notion that the Lakers were finished.

“We’re not clueless,” Howard said. “We know how to play basketball. Look at the guys on this team. We know how to play. We’re not going sit up here and act like we don’t know what to do now that Kobe’s out. We’re all sad that he’s gone; we’re hurt. All of us came here with the same mission and goal -- and the same goal -- and to see our top dog go down hurts all of us, but we can’t sit up here with our heads down from now on.

“We got to move forward. I don’t think he wants us to keep our heads down. He wants us to go out there and fight just like he would fight, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Howard wasn’t ready to discuss his future with the Lakers after practice or how Bryant’s future could affect his, but these next two games and a possible playoff run, no matter the length or outcome, will give a good preview to how a Howard-led Lakers could look if he does sign a max contract with the team, as many suspect that he will sometime this summer.

“It’s not about me proving anything,” Howard said. “It’s about me having fun and playing basketball. We all need each other, and that’s the only way we’re going to get this done.”