Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Dwight Howard made right move despite loyalty questions

It occurs to me I happen to be living my life as if change was bad, though of course I know it usually is not. This wasn’t planned; it just worked out that way. Grew up in the same house in Hollywood. Worked for the same company since back when carrier pigeons delivered the news. Married to the same wonderful woman all this time.

Even in sports, the two most important athletes in my life formed a 40-year linear timeline for me, and represented the opposite of change. These are things you never think about, until you think about them.

Carl Yastrzemski, whose 1967 Red Sox were my first love, spent his entire 23-year career with Boston. And the very year Yaz finally retired, as if an invisible baton were being passed, Dan Marino was a rookie setting out on a 17-year career spent only with the Dolphins.

These were the two athlete/icons who helped transport me from young childhood to middle age and didn’t even know it. I appreciated the constancy of them. Like some sort of living security blanket, they were always there.

What they represented is becoming all but extinct in sports — one athlete spending all his career with one team — to the point Dwyane Wade’s 10 seasons (and counting) with the Heat would be remarkable to me even if they didn’t happen to include stardom and three championships.

Heck, I even felt a small, wistful pang the other day in hearing Stephen Weiss had departed the Panthers after skating all 11 of his NHL seasons here. And I can count on one hand the times Weiss and I ever spoke.

I appreciate loyalty, is what I’m getting to. I’m nostalgic for it.

I also understand we must change how we define the word, because we have little choice. I once clack-clack-clacked on a manual typewriter, too. Times changed. We adjust. But evidently, a lot of fans are having a tough time with that.

Dwight Howard is being called disloyal and worse because he dared leave the Lakers for Houston in NBA free agency, and little could be sillier. Only Yankees fans have a higher regard for themselves than Lakers fans, and so the purple-and-gold side of Los Angeles cannot fathom that anyone would rather play elsewhere than with Kobe Bryant. But this was never about loyalty — not after a mere one season that found Howard not only battling old injuries but drowning in the curdling dysfunction that surrounded him.

Yet critics came out with words sharpened, including Shaquille O’Neal intimating that Howard was not up to a big-city spotlight, and Jeff Van Gundy concurring that Dwight needed a “friendly” media environment. Ice Cube, of all people, chimed in, eviscerating Howard onstage at a has-beens of rap concert in L.A. on Sunday.

Lakers fans went to social-media sites to show themselves angrily burning their Howard jerseys in effigy — just what Cleveland fans did with LeBron James jerseys three years earlier.

Exercising rights

The truth is, Howard not only had every right to leave but was wise to. The Lakers are old and yesterday, just like biggest-fan Jack Nicholson mummified behind the prop of his nighttime sunglasses. They aren’t even the best team in L.A. anymore. Howard found a better situation, brighter prospects moving forward, in Houston.

That Chris Paul chose to re-sign with the Clippers does not make him a better person than Howard, or even more loyal. Neither situation was about loyalty. Both were about pragmatism.

For LeBron, leaving the Cavaliers for Miami was more about loyalty, but mostly and ultimately about Clevelanders’ selfish definition of it.

That LeBron was a kid from Akron, Ohio, never writ a guarantee he’d be there all his career. It would have been terrific if he had been a latter-day Yastrzemski or Marino, the King of Cleveland. But who are we to say he was wrong for looking out for himself and his future first?

For LeBron, “The Decision” will forever be all wrong but the decision was dead-on right. Two consecutive championships prove it, but he did not need those rings or MVP trophies to justify what he did. He had given half his career to the city of Cleveland. He deserved to devote the second half of it to himself, to his dreams of being a champion or being the biggest star he could be or whatever he decided was best for him.

Same with coach Doc Rivers leaving Boston for the Clippers. You can say he “quit” on the Celtics. I’d say he found a better professional situation for himself.

Athletes and coaches are either tied by contract to their team or they are free agents. In neither instance is their first obligation to a city or its fans — except to the degree they wish it to be.

Exceptions to rule

The Carl Yastrzemskis and Dan Marinos always were the anomalies, and thank goodness for them. But we must know that, as much as athletes always emphasize thanking their fans, their obligation always is first to family and future. It is their career and life, not ours. They own us maximum effort and civility while playing for our teams, and not much more.

The very notion of loyalty is a funny thing sometimes. Weren’t Cleveland fans loyal to LeBron until the moment they were cursing him and burning his jersey? Didn’t they love him like family until he dared to leave home?

Miami fans could be similarly tested in these matters, in how we define loyalty, just one year from now, when LeBron will be free to either re-sign with the Heat or take his talents elsewhere. Heck, Wade will have that choice, too.

Can you imagine if one or both left?

We would have a decision to make. It would be complicated. It would demand the best of us but might get the better of us.

You could envision a visceral reaction, shock or outrage, a feeling of betrayal, perhaps even the requisite jersey burnings — because extreme disappointment sometimes needs an escape valve.

There is another reaction, too, though, one I hope might be in the majority here. It is the response of mature fans who must say goodbye to a cherished player who did good but is moving on. That response?

“Thank you.”