Over the next three days, Howard met with groups representing the Rockets, Mavericks, Hawks and Warriors before the Lakers were given the final chance to woo their top target. One voice missing from the Lakers' presentation was that of Jerry Buss, the late owner whose last-minute appeal had famously secured Bryant's return to the team in 2004 when he considered becoming a Clipper.

The Lakers weren't the only team to try offbeat approaches. Dallas owner Mark Cuban showed Howard an animated mini-movie during its pitch meeting and Houston General Manager Daryl Morey on Friday released a video showing several children, including his daughter, asking Howard to join the team.

But none of the other teams have the cachet of the 16-time NBA champions, who decided that wasn't enough.

"It is unusual," TNT analyst Greg Anthony said of the Lakers' recruiting efforts, "but remember this is not Dr. Buss running the ship anymore and they've done a lot of unusual things recently. It was unusual they decided not to hire Phil Jackson and go with Mike D'Antoni. Mike D'Antoni is a very good coach, but it was shocking to most people."

Some fans suggested the Lakers had gone overboard in their attempts to retain Howard, who failed to make the impact many had envisioned when the team traded for him last summer. Though he averaged an NBA-best 12.4 rebounds per game and played his usual stellar defense, Howard never developed much chemistry with Bryant or Nash and the Lakers were swept in the first round of the playoffs.

In response to a Times story detailing the Lakers' efforts to keep Howard, a fan "josephf23" wrote: "I'm really embarrassed on behalf of the Laker organization in pursuing him."

The Lakers had one clear advantage over other teams in their pursuit: As Howard's most recent employer, they could offer him a contract containing one more year and $30 million more than other suitors per NBA rules.

But each of the Howard hopefuls held its own allure.

Atlanta is his hometown. Golden State has a young and emerging core of players and a new waterfront arena in San Francisco on the horizon. Dallas features Cuban, one of the NBA's most dynamic owners, and a superstar in Dirk Nowitzki. Houston has a roster built to contend for a championship next season and the team is wildly popular in China, which could present its own marketing opportunities for Howard.

Ultimately, the Rockets prevailed and the Lakers were left to wonder what went wrong.

Maybe the joke was on Lakers after the team last week digitally altered a photo of Howard sticking out his tongue with his right arm stretched over the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Now he's gone, like the billboards that never had the intended effect.