LOS ANGELES (AP) — Dwight Howard swatted the shot into the stands and playfully wagged his index finger, his famous smile visible to the back of the lower bowl at Staples Center.
And not for the first time Sunday night, thousands of Lakers fans rose from their seats and cheered for the single most reviled basketball player in Los Angeles for the past six years.
Hollywood loves a comeback story, but this big man's redemption arc is almost too unbelievable for LA.
Six years after Howard spent one tumultuous season with the Lakers and then spurned them in free agency, his unlikely return to the team this year has begun with an even more improbable development.
Howard is playing superbly, and Lakers fans have already embraced him again after just three games.
Howard made an enormous impact off the bench in Sunday's win over the Charlotte Hornets, scoring 16 points on 8-of-8 shooting and grabbing 10 rebounds with four blocked shots in just 23 minutes.
And the way he did it — hustling, grinding and playing stellar defense — was wildly appreciated by Lakers fans who largely thought of him as the epitome of an NBA diva just a few months ago.
"I'm just grateful," Howard said. "I think myself and the fans, we've been through a lot together. But just to be back here means a lot, so I'm just taking it all in. Every second, every moment on the court is valuable, and the fans enjoy when we go out there and put everything on the line."
It's difficult to overstate the about-face that has occurred for both Howard and Lakers fans. Howard's every appearance in any uniform at Staples since 2013 had been greeted with deafening boos and vitriol — but in the Lakers' first three games, he has earned multiple ovations for his selfless, energetic play.
"That's why we brought him here," LeBron James said. "We felt like when everyone else was writing him off, we could give him a great opportunity. We believed in him, and his word, and he's making the most of it."
It all goes back to 2012, when Howard joined the Lakers from Orlando and teamed up with Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol on a potential superteam. Those Lakers foundered and crashed out in the first round after Bryant and Nash were injured while Howard struggled through a back injury.
After clashing with Bryant and reacting negatively to the Lakers' championship-or-bust culture, Howard was so eager to leave LA that he signed with Houston for $30 million less than he would have made in the deal offered by the Lakers. LA's fans took it personally.
The Lakers haven't made the playoffs since, and Howard's career never reached its former heights. He bounced from the Rockets to five more franchises, including two that waived him before he even played for them.
Howard is 33 years old now, and he missed all but nine games of last season with Washington after back surgery. A player who ranked among the league's elite during the first decade of his career had been reduced to a journeyman with no clear future.
Howard thought deeply about the state of his career during his recovery, spent largely alone on his farm back in north Georgia.
"You don't want to take anything for granted," Howard said. "Surgeries, missing games, being out for seasons — every moment that you have on the court is valuable. Before I even had the opportunity to come to the Lakers, I just kept telling myself, 'Wherever I'm at, whoever I'm playing for, when I step on the court, just give 110%. Even if it's 2 minutes, 30 seconds, 15 minutes, just do whatever you can to help that team win.' And now I'm coming back to the best team in the best city in the world, so I'm very thankful."
When DeMarcus Cousins blew out his knee shortly after signing with the Lakers, they needed a second center to spell JaVale McGee and Anthony Davis.
Howard auditioned for the job, flying to Los Angeles for a workout and spending time in conversation with veterans. Howard insisted he had changed, and a championship was his only goal. While LA hated him, he still loved LA — and he would play any role for the chance to contribute to a good team.
After agreeing to a non-guaranteed contract that allowed the Lakers to cut ties with him before January, Howard has done everything he promised. His coaches and teammates are thrilled.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel called Howard's effort against Charlotte "off the charts. He was a star in his role tonight, and that's what we're asking him to be. Not the superstar he was the first time around, but to be a role player and to be a star in the role."
And when Vogel pulled Howard from Sunday's game with a 16-point lead and a few minutes to play, Staples Center rose and cheered again.
"Obviously he wanted to redeem himself from the first stint," James said. "But just being back on the floor, a guy that hadn't played since last November, and the fact that he is a big contributor, I think it was just a big night for him."
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