- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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They had spoken briefly a few months earlier under far different circumstances -- before Howard had given away his leverage by opting into the final year of his deal with the Orlando Magic; before Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers had been thumped by the Oklahoma City Thunder, losing for the second straight season in the second round of the playoffs.
Everything was different this time. They'd both been humbled enough to realize how much they needed each other. But they also knew there was only one way it could work.
The Lakers still had to be Kobe's team.
The terms are pretty simple: For at least the next two seasons -- the years remaining on Bryant's current contract -- or for however many seasons he decides to keep playing, the Lakers are Bryant's team. After that, he will gracefully hand off the NBA's most glamorous franchise to Howard.
"I got a question earlier about whose team this is," Bryant said Monday at the Lakers annual media day. "I don't want to get into the, 'Well, we share ...'
"No, it's my team. But I want to make sure that Dwight, when I retire, this is going to be his. I want to teach him everything I possibly know so that when I step away, this organization will ride on as if I never left."
They didn't talk about all that over the phone this summer. Nothing was signed or agreed upon. Dwight Howard's making that call said everything.
We read too much into the order of things sometimes. Who calls who and in what order. Who said what when? Who stood in front of whom?
But in this case it's important. Earlier in the summer, Bryant had communicated to Lakers executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss that if the team had a chance to get Howard, it should do everything in its power to do so.
It was his way of letting the organization know he was happy to share the spotlight in L.A., then help mentor and prepare the organization's next standard bearer to replace him someday. Whenever the transition came, it would be a peaceful one. Not like the ugly handoff between Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant in 2004.
"This organization has done so much for me. I'm so thankful to them," Bryant explained. "That's one of the conversations that Jimmy and I had over the summer. It was like, 'If you have the opportunity to get Dwight over the summer, get him, because I want to see this organization continue to flourish and continue to be successful long after I'm gone.'"
Bryant knew exactly what he was doing and saying. What it meant for the rest of his career and his legacy. If he said he might retire in two years, that he would gracefully hand off the Lakers to Howard after that, he had to mean it.
But he also knew this really was the moment when he would be able to show how much he'd learned and grown from the way his relationship with O'Neal ended.
It was Howard's turn to go next. Bryant had given his blessing to the trade in his communication with Buss. He'd opened the door.
To walk through it, Howard had to reach out and say something like this:
"Learning from Kobe, I think this is something that I need for myself so I can grow as a player and as a person," Howard said on Monday. "He’s been through almost every single situation possible on the court and off the court, and I think he can really help me out a lot."
Howard is still finding his voice with the media here. Still getting comfortable in a new town. Still figuring out how to be himself again and not the guy who wanted out of Orlando so he could chase a title but was too nice to keep saying so all of last season. But this response was perfect.
Deferential. Respectful. Tacitly accepting the terms of the arrangement Bryant had effectively laid out for him. If all goes as outlined, Howard will sing this tune for the next two seasons.
For all the twists and turns leading up to it, you wonder if the trade could've gone down in any other way. If Howard would've been able to accept his (temporary) place here without having been humbled so deeply by the process.
But you also wonder if Bryant would have offered up these kinds of terms without having lived and learned from the way it ended with O'Neal.
Twice this summer he happily welcomed another star into the fold knowing full well that if the Lakers win a title with Steve Nash and Howard, it changes the way people will view his sixth NBA championship.
That acceptance, the act of opening the door for Nash and Howard to walk through, will define the end of Bryant's career. And it's why both newcomers are so willing to let the Lakers remain his team.
"This is undoubtedly Kobe's team," Nash said. "He's been here his whole career. He's won championships. And he's the best player on the team."
It's too soon to know if all these best-laid plans will hold up. The Lakers don't officially pick up a basketball until Tuesday. Howard might not don a Lakers uniform until the end of the month as he continues to return from back surgery.
But the terms and roles have been set. The Lakers are still Kobe's team. He will score, Nash will quarterback, Howard will learn, Pau Gasol will thrive. So long as nobody tries to renegotiate ...
"All we have to do is be ourselves," Howard said. "We don’t have to be anything extra or do anything out of the ordinary but just have fun and be ourselves, and we’ll be fine."
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