Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers come full circle with title in Orlando

Dwight Howard became a NBA champion 11 years after nearly leading the Orlando Magic to the mountaintop. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Dwight Howard became a NBA champion 11 years after nearly leading the Orlando Magic to the mountaintop. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Los Angeles Lakers celebrated their second title won in Orlando, helping Dwight Howard realize his dream and come full circle.

The last time the Los Angeles Lakers won a NBA championship in Orlando, Dwight Howard sat quietly on the bench and watched.

He and co-captain Jameer Nelson wanted to soak in the moment, watching Kobe Bryant jump and let loose having accomplished the ultimate goal. Kobe Bryant took a giant leap and embraced Pau Gasol as the confetti fell around them. Paul Porter was announcing the Lakers as the champions.

Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson watched. Their futures still seemed in front of them. Howard was 23 years old. He led a quirky Orlando Magic team farther than anyone anticipated. They defeated the heir to the throne in LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals.

They sat there and watched the Lakers celebrate that title knowing they would need that hurt and pain to get back there and have their celebratory moment.

The 2010 season was perhaps their best — and perhaps Howard’s best. They waltzed through the first two rounds and had homecourt advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals.

But it was not meant to be for Howard. The Boston Celtics, champions in their own rights, locked down the Magic’s perimeter players. Orlando lost in six games, scrambling just to get there after three embarrassing losses to start the series.

And then the championship window closed. The Magic could no longer compete. Howard could no longer carry the team.

His career wound through frustration and clashes with the Los Angeles Lakers to another star turn with the Houston Rockets to becoming a journeyman role player with several teams as he struggled to find his place with new teams and in a new place.

There Howard was Sunday. Back in Orlando. Watching the Lakers win a championship.

Except for this time, he was celebrating.

Howard was not the star anymore. He had to come in and accept a role as a shot-blocker and defender and sometimes an irritant. He was on the floor when the final buzzer sounded as the Lakers wrapped up a blowout win in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

The trophy was his. He was not the star. It was not with the team he hoped he would win the title with. But Howard was back in Orlando celebrating a championship, achieving a dream he was so close to but never thought he would get again.

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It was indeed a long journey for Howard. It is fitting that his first title did come in this place where so much of his career was built. And it is easy to see how much this title meant to him.

Even for a role player, getting to the top of the mountain means so much. It is the culmination of a lot of work. And this journey especially was difficult for everyone involved.

The pandemic forced this season to last longer than a year, bleeding into the time of year when the season was supposed to start anew. A championship is not meant to be celebrated in October — this is not baseball, after all.

The trip here was made more difficult for Los Angeles and the whole basketball community with Kobe Bryant’s tragic passing in January. The connection between Howard, Bryant and Orlando was forged in that 2009 Finals. Howard’s sometimes contentious year as Bryant’s teammate in 2012 hid the respect Howard had for his elder, like so many players of his generation.

That tragic death seemed to give this Lakers team some added inspiration, purpose and drive. The whole basketball world mourned his passing.

It was then that we first thought back about that 2009 Finals loss for the Magic and reflected on what it meant to watch Bryant win his fourth title on the Amway Arena floor. It certainly gave that moment a different meaning and a different perspective.

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  • Championships are hard to win. The greatest players are the ones that overcome those difficulties and come out on top. Nobody ever knows when the window will close and just how long they will be on a team that can stick together long enough to compete for a championship.

    Even the best dynasties end.

    Howard needed to go on a journey of self-reflection just to get back to Los Angeles and get a second chance at a title.

    So too did coach Frank Vogel.

    Vogel was knocking on the door, guiding an upstate Indiana Pacers to challenge the Miami Heat in two consecutive Eastern Conference Finals. But their window closed quickly. And Vogel was searching for a new home just two seasons after his second Eastern Conference Finals.

    He arrived in Orlando next, promising to bring the same defensive discipline that lifted the Pacers from small-market darling to title contender.

    The Magic never gave him a team that could even compete at a base level. The expectations were too high, the team too underdeveloped and the front office in too much disarray for his message to sink in. The vision he had for the team and the Magic had for the team never meshed, nor did they mesh with the league at large.

    He was gone after two years and like Howard entering this season, it was uncertain if he would get another opportunity.

    He took a year off to study the league and get a fresh perspective. He was not the Lakers’ first choice. But he proved to be the right one for them.

    Los Angeles Lakers
    Los Angeles Lakers /

    Los Angeles Lakers

    He got the Lakers playing a dominant defensive style, bucking a lot of NBA trends with two bigs in the lineup. But he showed some of the flexibility he did not have with the Magic to push the Lakers to the title.

    Having star players clearly helps on that front, but Vogel made several strong tactical decisions to put the Lakers in a position to win. And with the way the season was extended, coaches had to work double-time to keep their teams together and focused through everything they have gone through.

    This was a challenging year for him. But he was back in Orlando too, winning a title in a place he had his biggest professional struggle.

    This title was not supposed to be celebrated in an empty gym in Orlando. It should have been at Staples Center or American Airlines Arena. There should have been fans and adoration and parties into the night — that may still happen at the now-legendary Three Bridges at the Gran Destino.

    For Howard and Vogel and to some extent this Lakers team, celebrating here was bringing everything full circle. All the struggle, near misses and hard work paid off in one glorious moment. They could all finally let loose having achieved their spot at the top of the mountain.

    Howard watched Bryant celebrate on his floor in Orlando more than 11 years ago now. The image of him sitting with Nelson watching the celebration is one still etched in Magic fans’ minds.

    It was a reminder of how close the Magic were and the work that still had to come. Howard believed he would have another shot at a title and soon when he watched Bryant. Magic fans are still waiting.

    Instead, the Lakers won again in Orlando. In a season in honor of Bryant.

    Next. Orlando Magic fans choose to remember the good times with Vince Carter. dark

    This time, Howard was not watching. He was celebrating his place at the top of the mountain. Everything does come around full circle.