LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers will have a gift awaiting them when they arrive in Orlando, Florida on Thursday.
Center Dwight Howard, a leading candidate for NBA's Comeback Player of the Year Award will be there to greet them.
After weeks of consternation, Howard announced to CNN's Don Lemon on Monday that he plans to join the Lakers in Orlando and help the team win their 17th NBA Championship.
“I have a contractual obligation to my teammates, to my fans, the Lakers, the organization and everyone, but at the same time, I also have an obligation to my family and my community. So, yes, I will be joining my team in Orlando, but during that time, we will be getting a lot of work done here in Atlanta and around the nation as far as making sure people don't forget about us and what's going on in our communities.”
Howard had earlier gone on Lemon's show in June to discuss his concerns with the NBA's restart amidst the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the nation. Like a handful of other players, Howard believed that the resumption of the NBA season at Disney World in Orlando, Florida would ultimately become a distraction for efforts to enact police reform and confront racial injustice. "Basketball isn't needed at this moment, and will only be a distraction." He told Lemon on June 15.
Last week, as the Lakers practice facility reopened to players, and the NBA began testing everyone for COVID-19, Howard was a no-show at the team's facility. His teammate, Avery Bradley, another proponent of not playing because he believed it would interfere with the protests, announced he was opting out of the resumption of the season due to family reasons.
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However, multiple players and coaches on the Lakers still were hopeful that Howard would make the decision to join them at Disney World. General manager Rob Pelinka did not replace Howard's spot on the roster, and head coach Frank Vogel was optimistic Howard would be with the team at some point.
"We've been in communication with Dwight the whole way," said Vogel over the Fourth of July weekend. "We don't know what the level of participation is going to be yet. He wants to play, and we're hopeful he'll be able to join us."
On Tuesday after practice, Howard's teammate Danny Green told reporters via a Zoom conference call that he had spoken to Howard throughout the NBA's hiatus and had little doubt Superman would suit up for the Lakers once the season resumed.
"I have been in communication with him, even before all this. He was going through a lot when the pandemic first hit and started," said Green. "I'm happy for the news, but I wasn't surprised since I've been talking to him. I'm glad he's with us and glad he's on board."
Howard waffled with his decision for weeks, but believes he has found a way to make a difference not only for the Lakers championship chances, but also for the efforts against racial injustice by donating the remainder of his paychecks while playing in Orlando to the "Breathe Again" initiative. The amount reportedly is close to $700,000.
Howard started the "Breathe Again" initiative in 2015 as part of his D12 Foundation. Howard told Lemon he was bringing the initiative back and would be speaking about it during the resumption of the NBA season inside the Disney World bubble.
"I have an initiative I'm restarting called 'Breathe Again,'" said Howard. "During my time in the bubble I will use that time to talk about 'Breathe Again,' and I'm going to use my salary to help push this 'Breathe Again' initiative and push our movement and make sure people don't forget about what's going on with our society."
After the NBA announced the season would resume on July 30, the Lakers had the best odds to win the NBA championship with the assumption that Howard and Bradley would be playing in Orlando. After Bradley decided to opt out, and Howard was undecided, the Lakers championship odds fell to third, behind the Milwaukee Bucks and L.A. Clippers. Now that Howard has affirmed he will be joining the Lakers in Orlando, the team's odds rose to +225 on Tuesday (according to Bovada), tied with the Bucks as the favorites to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy in 2020, and just ahead of the Clippers (+300) in third.
If the Lakers do happen to win their 17th NBA Championship in franchise history, putting them in a tie with the Boston Celtics for the most all-time, the team announced on Tuesday that they plan to give a ring to Bradley. However, Bradley is still undecided on if he would accept it, despite not playing in Orlando.
"Will I accept the ring? I’m neither here nor there about it," Bradley told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports. "I am 10 years in this league. The physical possession of a ring doesn’t make me feel like more or less of a person. I play basketball strictly for enjoyment and to add to the support of my family. Supporting them is exactly what I’m doing right now."