The Lakers had hoped to make it much ado about something, putting up billboards, sending out tweets and assembling a large contingent of players, coaches and team executives to persuade Dwight Howard to stay with the storied NBA franchise.
The league's most coveted free agent rendered it all an exaggerated exercise in futility late Friday when Howard announced that he would instead sign with the Houston Rockets, spurning the Lakers and making some wonder whether the effort had been worth it.
Losing Howard was only part of the anguish. Critics contended the Lakers, a franchise that usually let its championship tradition speak for itself, had resorted to groveling in an attempt to keep the superstar center.
"When we think of the value of a sport brand," said Thomas Boyd, dean of the school of business and management at Kaplan University and a former sports marketing professor at Cal State Fullerton, "history figures prominently and this is clearly a strategy that is inconsistent with both the history and the brand image they have built over the decades."
Howard picked the Rockets over the Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors. He cannot officially sign a four-year, $88-million contract until Wednesday, when an NBA-imposed moratorium on free-agent business ends.
The departure of Howard sullied what for the Lakers had been a nearly perfect record of retaining key free agents. The team had not lost a prominent player since forward A.C. Green opted to play for Phoenix in the summer of 1993.
"When you're a Laker, you had no intention of going anywhere else," said Mychal Thompson, who spent the final five seasons of his career with the "Showtime" Lakers, winning titles in 1987 and '88. "The way the Buss family treats you, the fan support, the notoriety you get as a Laker — there's no reason to play anywhere else if you don't have to."
Thompson, who is now the team's radio analyst, said the Lakers don't normally recruit players because it's not necessary given their tradition of success. He joked that he begged the team to keep him in 1990 when he became a free agent.
"I recruited them," Thompson said. "My billboard would have said, 'I want to stay.'"
Thompson was alluding to a series of Howard billboards sprinkled across Southern California and a massive banner affixed to one side of Staples Center that materialized last week. Each featured an action shot of Howard's muscular 6-foot-11 frame in a Lakers uniform with an unmistakable message in capital letters: "STAY."
The signs also directed fans to Twitter with the hashtag "StayD12," part of a barrage of social media messages intended to entice Howard, a seven-time All-Star and three-time NBA defensive player of the year who has also been the league's top rebounder six times.
Jeanie Buss, the Lakers' executive vice president who runs the team's business operations, tweeted the "Lakers offer 1) best opportunities for your playing & post-playing career 2) have BEST fans 3) I'm here for you."
Former Lakers Coach Phil Jackson tweeted that "I expect to see you get on board tis ur [sic] place."
Current Lakers also weighed in. Before he boarded a flight from New York to Los Angeles on Monday, point guard Steve Nash tweeted: "Dwight Howard we're coming for you. You're going to love the statue we build for you outside Staples in 20yrs!"
Nash was part of a group of seven Lakers employees who met with Howard and his representatives Tuesday at the Beverly Hills office of Howard's agents. Also present at the meeting were executives from Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns Staples Center and other sports venues as well as a share of the Lakers, and Time Warner Cable SportsNet, the team's broadcast partner.
Among the messages delivered to Howard were the Lakers' intentions to build around him as long as he remains with the team and the enormous branding potential that he would enjoy from staying in the nation's entertainment capital.
Never one to remain in the background, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant made an impassioned plea that he was uniquely qualified to help Howard win his first championship.
"You need to learn how it's done first, and I can teach you here," Bryant said, according to Yahoo Sports. "I know how to do it and I've learned from the best — players who have won multiple times over and over."
The nearly two-hour meeting represented the second time Howard had come face to face with Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak in a three-day span. Shortly after the free-agency period officially started at 9:01 p.m. PDT on Sunday, Kupchak met briefly with Howard in person to reiterate his importance to the organization.
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.
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