Howard said he had a cordial relationship with Rios, and he was literally texting Rios to invite her to stay with him in Georgia when he learned she had died.
“It was very difficult to handle,” Howard said. “It was kind of hard to process. It still is. But I did attend the funeral. There was no way that I could not be there for my son, and even for her family. I definitely would have felt like that would have been bad, because she deserves — he would deserve better if I didn’t do that.”
Howard has five children between the ages of 6 and 12, and he is seizing the chance to be a hands-on parent during this unwanted break from his first season back with the Lakers. Howard and his children build bonfires, play card games, work out together and play hide-and-seek on his 23-acre property.
“It’s been bittersweet, because I do want to play basketball, but my son right now needs me more than anything,” Howard said. “It’s a situation that I would never expect, nobody would ever expect, especially right now, this pandemic. So it’s just kind of given me some more perspectives on life.”
Before Rios’ death added a tragic turn, the pandemic had already interrupted an inspiring season for the 34-year-old Howard. The eight-time All-Star selection has improbably become both a valuable reserve for the Western Conference-leading Lakers and a fan favorite at Staples Center, where he was the fans' most reviled player for the past six years since he initially left the Lakers in 2013.
With LeBron James and Anthony Davis leading the way, the Lakers were 49-14 before the pause in their rocky season. They had already persevered through a tumultuous preseason trip to China, followed by franchise icon Kobe Bryant's death in a helicopter crash.
“I think that I’ve had the best time of my life just enjoying the moment, ” Howard said. “I was like, ‘Man, this is a really good feeling.’ We were winning. We’ve had different obstacles come up, like the stuff that was happening in China, and then obviously the Kobe situation, and then with the coronavirus happening, it’s kind of like, ‘Man, it just seemed like this was it.’ All the things that I had talked about and worked on in myself, I was seeing it coming to fruition, so it hurt to see everything stop.”
Howard hasn't given up hope that the NBA season will have a happy ending. He's waiting to hear when he needs to return to Los Angeles — and while he knows it isn't likely, he would love to finish the season in front of the Lakers' fans, rather than in an empty gym in Orlando or Las Vegas.
“I don’t know how we could play a game without our fans,” Howard said. “I don’t know how anybody could. I think it might be different for fighting, boxing and stuff like that, but for basketball, that’s the energy. We feed off the crowd, especially at home — really, everywhere is home for (the Lakers). ”
Until then, Howard said he isn't leaving his estate in Georgia, which is opening its public spaces more quickly than California and other states.
Howard is playing ball and training every day, but he's also relishing this chance to be a full-time dad. While he spoke to reporters outside, his voice was occasionally drowned out by the excited barking of Diablo, his Belgian Malinois, while it played with his children.
“It takes all day to play hide-and-go-seek,” Howard said with a laugh. “I made a slide in the front yard. We come to the lake. We get in the pool. We box together. We run. We play Uno. We play all the games, so it’s been great. School is the hardest part for all of us.”
And does the 6-foot-10 Howard stand a chance against his half-pint children in hide-and-seek?
“Actually, I since I know my place, nobody finds me," Howard said.