BY: KWAME FISHER-JONES
Dwight Howard is finally a Los Angeles Laker, and it makes sense.
Playing for what many feel is the modern day gold standard, in all of professional sports, will be both the gift and the curse for D12. No other franchise has the nightly expectation of championship or die. Yes, Laker fans can be that delusional at times, many fans believe any regular season loss somehow equates to losing an NBA title. In L.A. there are no pats on the back for 60 win seasons, those, like traffic on the 405, are to be expected.
In Orlando it was enough to compete for an NBA title, and in some NBA cities fans will take solace in the occasional trip to the NBA Finals, not in Los Angeles.
In fact, in the case of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal it is not even enough to win three NBA titles. Bryant and O’Neal are both marred by what they should have done, instead of what they did do. That, ladies and gentlemen, is LakerNation.
George Mikan delivered on his promise and talent in Minneapolis to the tune of four NBA titles and the NBA’s first three-peat. Despite what history tries to recreate both Jerry West and Elgin Baylor did not walk that championship trail. West and Baylor both lost several NBA Finals appearances, and it was Wilt Chamberlain who provided Los Angeles with their first title, escorted by the NBA’s longest winning streak.
Welcome, Mr. Howard, to your desired utopia.
Mikan was a Laker from birth and won in just the infancy stages of his career, Wilt and Kareem arrived in Los Angeles as champions and left as legends. Yet, it was Kareem’s journey that plays a significant role in how Howard will ultimately be judged. It was Abdul-Jabbar who raised the bar that Shaq was unable to reach.
Just as Kareem superseded Wilt and took his own historic footsteps along glory road, by building on Wilt’s one championship with five of his own. It appears the basketball gods have presented the City of Angels with another history altering gift.
This episode of déjà vu takes place 37 seasons after Abdul-Jabbar first stepped onto the Great Western Forum. Howard, like Abdul-Jabbar, is following a player that was known as the most dominating force in the modern day game, in Shaquille O’Neal. The former Magic center will also be attempting to outdo the resurrection Shaq provided upon his arrival. Much in the same way Abdul-Jabbar had to overcome the shadow of the player who brought Los Angeles their very first title.
When KAJ arrived in Southern California the Lakers did not instantly morph into Showtime. In fact it was quite the contrary, L.A. experienced two straight seasons of missing the playoffs, and one of those seasons included the franchise center acquired by then general manager Pete Newell. Once Kareem arrived there was still the season of discontent as the Lakers finished 40-42, thus missing the playoffs.
In short, Los Angeles still had a ways to go before they would win their first title as the Showtime Lakers.
It would take eight seasons from the time Wilt nabbed the Lakers first NBA crown to when Abdul-Jabbar brought the Purple and Gold their second NBA title. The start of the 2012-2013 season will mark 12 seasons since Shaq led the Lakers to the title, just as it was 12 seasons from Kareem’s last title to Shaq’s first title.
The former Magic centers also share the dubious distinction of losing their only NBA Finals appearance before arriving in L.A.
Now it is Howard’s turn and his legacy thus far resembles Shaquille’s, much like Kareem’s resembled Wilt’s when KAJ arrived in Los Angeles. Yet, it is Kareem’s path that Howard must abide by if he desires similar accomplishment.
Few players, or athletes for that matter, symbolize excellence the way Kareem Abdul-Jabbar does. His commitment to excellence was scoffed at during his playing days, but appreciated nonetheless. The known as “Cap” by his Laker teammates, choose endurance over power.
The five time champion’s offseason workout included Martial Arts. Kareem managed to cultivate his offensive game to fit his skill set, and not that of a conventional big man. This allowed the center to be an unstoppable on both ends of the floor, and now Howard must do the same.
However, even if Howard is as dominate as advertised, his adversaries are just as potent. The Miami Heat reloaded this offseason and have finally tasted the fruits of their labor. One cannot forget the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, and San Antonio Spurs all are legitimate threats and all are prepared for the new look Lakers, both in roster and in mentality.
Lost in the transition of those big men is none won a title their first season with Los Angeles. It took both the “Big Dipper” and “the Diesel” four seasons, while Abdul-Jabbar toiled for five seasons before getting his hardware. What would be the reaction if Howard’s carnation took that long?
The pressures of Orlando forced the defensive stalwart to lose his composure, and Los Angeles’ bright lights can make even the good and sane fall victim to the pressures of the game. All three predecessors dealt with adversity before they were professionals, and while they struggled at times in their prospective careers, they could gain strength from previous trials and tribulations.
What is D12 prepared to do should the Lakers struggle? One person’s probing in Central Florida caused the center to have issues. What happens when you add the cameras of ESPN, the micromanaging of Kobe Bryant, and the burn from the spotlight? If the Lakers struggle and Howard is not getting his desired touches, will there be beef between the post and the point?
Or worse, what if L.A. rolls early? What will the self-proclaimed caped crusader do when he is given all the credit from the national media for L.A.’s success, and he now has to deal with the ego and pride of champions who feel his adulation is premature. You combine those feelings with the skepticism of a city yet to see him hoist the hardware.
No one knows how Howard will respond, and only a selected few know what he is set to endure. Dwight’s passion for the game must exceed his passion for the glory, just as his forefathers did. The center must focus on the process and not the result.
Now wearing the garb of champions Howard must perform like one nightly as champions are never excused or given the benefit of the doubt.
How will the newest Laker respond to the pressure that greeted Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, and O’Neal? The young man’s ignorance to success must keep him from being engulfed by the beast of expectations.
This upcoming season the Lakers plan to retire Shaq’s number and immortalize the great KAJ with a well overdue statue. Sitting courtside to indulge in the celebration of each center’s accomplishment will be what many hope is the next in line.