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On basketball

Dwight Howard’s act only inspires great doubt

Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers look on following a foul against the Boston Celtics during the game on February 7, 2013 at TD Garden in Boston.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers look on following a foul against the Boston Celtics during the game on February 7, 2013 at TD Garden in Boston.

What Dwight Howard has accomplished over his nine-year career — an NBA Finals appearance, three Defensive Player of the Year awards, the reputation as the most dominant center since Shaquille O’Neal — he wants to count as equity now that he has been injured the past two years.

Howard appears insulted when he is asked about his desire to play despite a partially torn labrum in his right shoulder, his desire to play with the Lakers, and his understanding of the sense of urgency in Los Angeles.

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Howard approaches the subject in stoic fashion, as if observers can sense his seriousness, his passion for the Lakers, and how he is enhancing his reputation by playing with one good shoulder. But he is a bad actor. Howard isn’t fooling anyone.

After years of clowning, laughing, and frolicking — and getting away with it because of his immense talent and the lack of a spotlight in Orlando — Howard got exactly what he said he wanted last year as he pouted his way though his final season with the Magic. He wanted attention. He wanted respect. And he wanted allure.

The problem is, those who get those things in cities such as Los Angeles, Boston, and New York actually earn them. It takes more than a bright smile and a body that could be on the cover of Men’s Health magazine.

Being the star on the grandest stage requires sacrifice. It requires toughness. It requires something more than athletic prowess, which was good enough in Orlando. On Thursday morning, after he finished practicing free throws during shootaround (yes, he actually practices), Howard was faced with questions about his toughness and Kobe Bryant’s comments about the Lakers being bigger than Howard’s torn labrum and his desire to save his body for his next mega-contract this summer.

Howard was more annoyed with the assertion that he refused to play when he could, that a partially torn labrum is something that can be patched up and played with. And he did try Thursday night against the Celtics, wearing a padded shirt under his jersey.

He was about 60 percent as he labored to get up the court, dispassionately spun for a jump hook, and used one hand (his left) to grab rebounds. After finishing with 9 points and nine boards in 28 minutes, the question is whether Howard played because he felt he could help the Lakers or whether he was trying to prove something to Bryant and his critics.

Howard was prickly when questioned about his injury, which would cost a baseball pitcher a season but for Superman . . . ? Maybe a week.

“These people never had injuries. They can say what they want about playing through pain and playing through injuries but I spent the whole summer last year trying to recover because I wanted to play through pain to show people that I’m tough. I spent eight years in Orlando, never really had an injury, and the injuries that I did have, those were the ones I could play through. Stuff like this with the shoulder and the back, that’s not something that you can just say, ‘I’ll play through.’ ”

What is expected of Howard is probably unreasonable, but the game’s great big men have walked the line of unreasonable and been challenged when they didn’t — such as Bill Russell calling out Wilt Chamberlain during the 1969 Finals.

Bryant’s summation that the team is bigger than Howard’s future is unfair and unreasonable, but consistent with what we expect from the most imposing physical specimen in the game.

“He’s not a doctor, I’m not a doctor, that’s his opinion,” Howard said in regard to Bryant’s comments. “Well, it’s torn. I don’t know people who play with torn labrums.

“Yeah, I want to play. Why wouldn’t I want to play? But at the same time, this is my career, this is my future, this is my life. I can’t leave that up to anybody else. Nobody else is going to take care of me.

“So if people are [upset] that I don’t play or I do play or whatever it may be, so what? This is my career. If I go down, then what? Everybody’s life is going to go on. So I don’t want to have to have another summer where I’m rehabbing and trying to get healthy again. I want to come back and have another great year.”

It’s understandable that Howard would consider his future. He is only 27 and about to sign his career-defining contract wherever he decides to go.

But it seems his detractors are asking him, begging him to take the game more seriously, to want to be legendary, not just intimidating.

Superman is supposed to brush off torn labrums and herniated disks, but if he can’t, he is supposed to act as though not playing is killing him, damaging to his soul.

Howard’s emotions are difficult to read. If not playing at a high level is painful to his pride, then he’s certainly a better actor than we thought, because that doesn’t seem to be the case.

For the rare occasion Thursday morning, he wasn’t clowning. He was seething, and it took some pointed questions to spark a reaction.

“Last year, I wanted to prove and show people that I could play through injuries, and the back is something serious and I don’t want that to happen,” he said. “The way I play, the post is not an easy position. You’re pushing guys 260, 270 and you have to use a lot of force to do that.

“If I play tonight, we’ll see how it feels later on. If I don’t, we just have to move forward.

“Have I talked to Kobe? Why do I have to explain it to Kobe? Is he a doctor? So I should explain that to all my teammates then, right? That’s his opinion.”

Give Howard credit for trying Thursday night. Give him credit for at least attempting to give the perception that he cares more about the Lakers than himself.

But no one should question the extent of Howard’s injury; what they should question is his desire to reach the highest level.

Because he isn’t there yet.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe
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