EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Dwight Howard flattened the creases across the chest of his brand-new gold jersey and joined his teammates for a group photo, joking around and laughing even while saying cheese.
The superstar center might be an eight-year NBA veteran, but Monday still felt like the first day of school.
And it was, in a way: Howard is just getting started on his real NBA education from the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant, who is just as eager to teach as Howard is to learn.
"I know he's going to be tough on me, but I expect that, and I want him to be that," Howard said. "I want to be that guy. I'll take all the heat he's going to give me, because I know at the end of the day, it's going to make me a better player and a better person. ... I'm willing to go through that process, learn from one of the greatest ever to play the game, and I think it'll be great."
Howard and Bryant wore their gold uniforms together for the first time Monday as the Lakers opened training camp with a revamped roster and sky-high expectations. After two straight seasons ending in the second round of the playoffs, a remarkable offseason shuffle by Los Angeles general manager Mitch Kupchak and owner Jim Buss has put the Lakers in prime position to contend for their 17th NBA championship.
Even while Metta World Peace crowed about the Lakers' depth and Pau Gasol expressed his gratitude for staying with the Lakers after popping up in innumerable trade rumors, everybody's eyes were on Bryant and Howard, the Lakers' unquestioned leader and the supremely gifted big man he has already appointed as his heir.
"This is my team, but I want to make sure that Dwight, when I retire, this is going to be his," Bryant said. "I want to teach him everything I possibly know, so that when I step away, this organization can ride on as if I never left."
Even while both men say the situation is ideal, the entire NBA is eager to see how this teacher-student partnership will work.
The 34-year-old Bryant is a ferocious perfectionist with famously little patience for teammates who aren't serious about winning — including Andrew Bynum, the sometimes-immature All-Star center dispatched in the deal for Howard.
The 26-year-old Howard raised league-wide doubts about his maturity during his strange, protracted departure from Orlando over the past two years — and don't forget, Howard has just one season left on his contract.
What could possibly go wrong? Nothing, according to Howard.
"Me and Kobe have talked many times about it, and I think it'll be great," Howard said. "Learning from Kobe, I think, is something that I need for myself, so I can grow as a player and as a person. He's been through almost every situation possible, on the court and off the court."