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How the Kobe Bryant-Dwight Howard relationship died

The past partnership between Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard was doomed to fail from the very beginning.

It’s difficult to imagine a pair of all-time greats who ranked toward the top of the league’s individual hierarchy simultaneously comporting themselves in such starkly different manners. Bryant was known for his maniacal work ethic and an unceasing will to win that often rubbed thinner-skinned teammates the wrong way. Howard, even at his peak with the Orlando Magic, certainly led by physically-dominant example come game time, but was otherwise always ill-suited for the leadership role that accompanies superstars, far more content playing locker-room jokester.

No one was surprised when reports of friction between Bryant and Howard emerged shortly after tipoff of the 2012-13 season. It was inevitable they were going to butt heads; the Lakers, like everyone else across the league, just assumed overwhelming talent – they traded for an aged Steve Nash the previous summer, too – would lead to the type of on-court success that rendered inevitable chemistry concerns moot. Winning, at least usually, cures all.

The bigger problem: Nothing was ever going to cure Howard’s debilitating back ailments fast enough for him to play at a level anywhere near the all-time one he’d reached with Orlando over the past few seasons. He underwent his first back surgery, for a herniated disc, in April 2012, only four months before Los Angeles acquired him in a blockbuster three-team trade with the Magic and Philadelphia 76ers. Still, Howard played in 76 games with the Lakers, missing just six contests despite fighting through back pain and tearing his labrum in January.

The true extent of Howard’s was revealed three weeks before eighth-seeded Los Angeles, playing without Bryant after he suffered a torn Achilles tendon while dragging his mismatched team to a playoff a berth, was swept in the first round of the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs. Following a post-game chat with Metta World Peace, Howard hesitantly agreed to show Bleacher Report’s Jimmy Spencer a photo of the “revolting” mass that had been extracted from his back the previous spring.

“It was pretty nasty,” World Peace said in late March of 2013. “I don’t even know how the hell he played. If he showed you the picture of that thing that came out of his back, the general public would take back all of the comments they made about him.”

But the distinct possibility of lingering injury – not to mention several reported verbal dust-ups with Howard during the season, memorialized by an instant-classic photo of he, Bryant, and coach Mike D’Antoni miming a fight in the Lakers’ training room – didn’t keep Bryant from openly lobbying for the free-agent big man to re-sign with Los Angeles. In fact, the Lakers’ icon was so invested in Howard continuing his career in purple and gold that he planned on getting “the final word” in Los Angeles’ meeting with basketball’s most sought-after free agent, per ESPN’s Dave McMenamin.

It didn’t work. Howard spurned Los Angeles to sign with the Houston Rockets, teaming with James Harden in a superstar tandem that initially seemed a better fit for his personality quirks. That didn’t end up proving the case, of course, as Howard made his final All-Star game during his debut season with the Rockets, leaving two years later as Houston’s cultural dysfunction led to a supremely disappointing 41-41 record.

But he also got in one more memorable disagreement with Bryant before the 16-time All-Star called it quits three years ago. The first time they squared off as opponents after Howard left the Lakers, Bryant took exception to an elbow from his former teammate, famously calling him “soft” again and again – to the delight of the Staples Center crowd, naturally – as they were being separated.

More recently, Howard has downplayed the tension between he and Bryant.

In an interview with Marc Spears of The Undefeated in 2017, he insisted they “never had an issue,” alleging that all he ever wanted with the Lakers was to win and learn from older greats like Bryant, Nash, and Pau Gasol. Howard struck a slightly different chord in July, telling FS1’s Kristine Leahy that though he “hated” that Bryant deemed him “soft,” he later came to understand what the five-time champion was talking about, even going so far as to thank him.

Bryant, predictably, has been more tight-lipped about his feelings on Howard since their time as teammates came to a close. But now that Howard is back with the Lakers, don’t be surprised when they cross paths at Staples Center in 2019-20.

Here’s hoping it goes more smoothly than the last time.