- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- An image Los Angeles Lakers fans have been dreaming of for two years finally became a reality Friday night as Dwight Howard held up his newly minted Lakers jersey for the first time at the team's training facility.
Sitting on the Lakers' practice court with 10 Larry O'Brien trophies staring down at him from Lakers executive vice president Jennie Buss' office and 12 championship banners and eight retired jerseys surrounding him on the walls, Howard quickly was introduced to the expectations that now will be placed on him before he even addressed the media.
"There's been a lot of speculation regarding Dwight being traded for the last six to eight to 10 months to a year," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said. "Today, the speculation finally comes to an end. And we're hopeful that 10 years from now, we can add a jersey to that wall over there that says Dwight Howard."
There's no question the ordeal took longer than Howard, the Orlando Magic and everyone involved would have liked, but Howard finally got his wish to be traded from the Orlando Magic on Friday.
In the process, the Lakers were able to pick up the most dominant big man Los Angeles has seen since Shaquille O'Neal, who left Orlando to come there 16 years ago last month.
Howard now joins a storied lineage of Lakers big men dating back to George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and O'Neal, who all led the Lakers to championships after joining the team.
"I don't want to try to compete with those guys," Howard said. "I want to bring my own flavor to L.A. I saw a picture last night. It was like the Mount Rushmore (of Lakers centers) and they had all those guys up there and said, 'Will he join the list of heads with the Lakers greats.' I want to be great in my own right. I want to write my own history and today is the first day of that history."
Howard let out a big sigh and flashed a big smile when he finally was given his No. 12 Lakers jersey and held it up for the first time. He inspected it from front to back before carrying it around the rest of the day, peaking at it from time to time to make sure it was real.
"It's kind of unreal," Howard said. "It finally happened. It's here. Just walking around upstairs and driving here ... I'm really a part of the Lakers. It hasn't really hit me yet. I'm just happy to be here and I'm going to make the best out of it."
It took four teams, 11 other players, five draft picks and countless rounds of talks over many months, but the Magic decided the time was right to start over without the NBA's best center and end a saga that has dogged the franchise for what seems like an eternity.
"Are we taking a step back? Absolutely, we are," Magic general manager Rob Hennigan said. "But we're taking a step back with a vision."
A lot of players found new homes in the blockbuster, including Andrew Bynum, sent by the Lakers to the Philadelphia 76ers. The 76ers sent Andre Iguodala -- part of the U.S. Olympic team that advanced to the final of the London Games on Friday -- to the Denver Nuggets.
"I know my best basketball is ahead of me," Iguodala wrote on Twitter.
Orlando got guard Arron Afflalo and forward Al Harrington from Denver and forward Moe Harkless and center Nikola Vucevic from Philadelphia and forward Josh McRoberts and guard Christian Eyenga from the Lakers. The Lakers got Howard, guard Chris Duhon and forward Earl Clark from Orlando. The Magic also traded guard Jason Richardson to Philadelphia.
The Magic also will get a second-round draft pick from Denver next year, a first-round pick from either Denver or New York in 2014, a conditional first-round pick from Philadelphia and a conditional second-round pick from the Lakers in 2015, and a conditional first-round pick from the Lakers in 2017. Orlando also will have a $17.8 million trade exception to use over the next year.
When Howard actually will make his Lakers debut, following season-ending back surgery in April, and if he will be back in Los Angeles next season remained mysteries at the end of his news conference.
"Right now, it's about today and I'm here with the Lakers and that's the only thing that matters," Howard said when asked if he would sign a long-term deal with the Lakers next year. "Whatever happens a year from now we'll wait until that time. Right now, it's all about the Lakers and me starting fresh. I'm happy to be here and that's the only thing that matters now."
Howard also was unsure when exactly he would be cleared by doctors to return to the court.
Multiple sources told ESPN that Howard is expected to miss the start of the regular season as he continues to recover from back surgery.
"My health is great," Howard said. "I'm getting a lot better and a lot stronger every day. I'm looking forward to the doctor saying you are free to play. I can't wait for that day."
Howard and Kupchak were optimistic that day could be before the season opener but made no promises.
"We'll see what the doctor says," Howard said. "If I'm ready for opening night I'll be there but I'm not going to rush it. A back is very serious, so I'm going to take my time and make sure I'm 100 percent because I want to give everybody 100 percent. I want to give everybody everything I have."
Kupchak, who had two back surgeries during his playing career, said Howard's back was a concern but he was confident Howard would return to the court sooner than some are projecting after talking to Howard's physicians.
"We feel very assured that he's going to be back," Kupchak said. "We're hopeful he's back for camp, we're hopeful he's back to start the season, but we know he's going to be back and playing at a high level at some point in time."
Kupchak was not as definitive on Howard signing a long-term deal with the team next year, admitting the Lakers have yet to discuss an extension with him and took a gamble that Howard will re-sign with the team next year after he experiences a season in Los Angeles with teammates such as Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol.
"Our feeling was, no matter what anyone says, let's just get him to Los Angeles and we'll take our chances," Kupchak said. "It's the organization, ownership, the city of Los Angeles, our ability to win games, surrounding Dwight with players that will make it easier for him to play the game and not have to burden a load that's maybe not fair."
One source briefed on Howard's plans told ESPN.com's Marc Stein the All-Star center will indeed stand firm on his intent to play out the 2012-13 season without extending his contract so he can become a free agent on July 1, 2013. Going that route will enable Howard to decide how comfortable he is in Los Angeles before deciding whether to re-sign with the Lakers or join the Dallas Mavericks, who will have the requisite salary-cap space to sign Howard and who remain one of his preferred destinations from his original list of three teams (Nets, Lakers and Mavericks).
"If Los Angeles doesn't work out for Dwight, Dallas will be there waiting for him," the source told Stein.
While Howard wouldn't commit to the Lakers past this season, he sounded like a player who looked forward to learning from Bryant, Nash and Gasol and one day taking over the reins of the Lakers.
"I want to be a great leader and I have an opportunity to learn from the best in Kobe on how to lead a team," Howard said. "In order to be a great leader, you have to learn how to follow. I'm looking forward to following in the steps of Kobe Bryant in how he leads a team and Steve Nash and Pau. I'm looking forward to learning a lot from those guys because one day I want to be the guy that leads the team to a championship and this is a perfect time to start."
The Lakers pulled off the deal and somehow kept Gasol in the process -- something many didn't expect when the Lakers first started getting mentioned in the Howard trade mix.
The trade was announced during the Spain-Russia semifinal matchup at the Olympics. Gasol scored 16 points, helping the Spanish team reach the gold-medal game with a 67-59 win.
Gasol admitted that he struggled to keep his focus fully on Spain's victory.
"It was hard for me to block it out completely," Gasol said.
Howard said a reported phone conversation he had with Bryant last season that initially soured him on coming to the Lakers was in the past and that he spoke with Bryant on Thursday night and did his best Bryant impersonation in relaying what Bryant told him.
"L.A. is happy to have you," Howard said, imitating Bryant. "You're part of the team now and we're looking forward to getting this ring now. I'm happy for you man. It's all over with. I'm happy for you."
Howard said Bryant was the first player he talked to since the trade and is looking forward to talking to others and working on his impersonations of Gasol and Metta World Peace.
Bryant, meanwhile, quickly proclaimed the Lakers are "locked and loaded to bring back the title."
"I'll probably play two or three more years. Then the team is his," Bryant said from London, where he helped Team USA into the gold-medal game at the London Games earlier Friday. "I'm excited for the franchise because now they have a player that can carry the franchise well after I'm gone. This should be his and he should want to accept that challenge."
For the past four months Howard has been rehabbing his back in Los Angeles and staying at a hotel in Beverly Hills. The relatively short commute from his hotel to the Lakers' training center in El Segundo enabled the Lakers to schedule a news conference on the same day the trade was made official by the league. There was a crowd of fans and paparazzi surrounding the hotel as Howard left for the news conference Friday.
"Sitting down in the hotel for four months is very tough for somebody like myself," Howard said. "I really appreciate things more now than I did before the surgery. I'm just happy to be here in L.A. I've been here for four months, and it's been home for me. It's been great. I started off walking around Beverly Hills and every day I had this one lady who would always come and say, 'Come to the Lakers! Come to the Lakers!' If she's watching, I'm here."
When Howard was given a tour of the Lakers' training facility, he stopped when he saw the Larry O'Brien trophies in Buss' office overlooking the practice court.
"The first thing was, when we (came) here to practice, they tell us that those are not the real trophies," Howard said. "So when I got up there, they said those are the trophies. I was like, 'Well let me touch one.' I didn't know those were the real trophies, so that's why I was up there. Touching the trophies and making some wishes."
Howard also held Buss' 2002 championship ring and inspected it before looking up at the championship banners surrounding the practice court and smiling again as he looked down at his Lakers jersey.
"This has been a tough summer but it's finally over," Howard said. "I'm looking forward to starting fresh here today and making history here for myself and the organization. Thank you for putting up with me during this time. It's going to be better."
Information from ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard and ESPN Senior Writer Marc Stein and ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin and ESPNLosAngeles.com's Ramona Shelburne and the Associated Press was used in this report.
4dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann