HOUSTON — Dwight Howard has a new team and catchy new nickname.
“He’s not Superman anymore. He’s Rocket Man now,” longtime Rockets broadcaster Bill Worrell said Saturday as he introduced the team’s major free agent acquisition.
As Howard took the stage and greeted several Houston officials including owner Leslie Alexander and coach Kevin McHale, a couple of his new teammates playfully repeated his new moniker — ‘Rocket Man, Rocket Man’ — and were met with a huge, toothy smile from Howard.
“It means a lot to me just to have a fresh start and have an opportunity to write my own story,” Howard said. “I don’t think people understood the fact that I got traded to L.A., and now I had a chance to really choose my own destiny, and this is the place where I chose and I’m happy about it.”
The Rockets gave him a four-year deal worth about $88 million, a year less and far below the $118 million the Lakers could have offered.
The center was formally introduced in Houston on Saturday after spurning the Lakers to sign with the Rockets. He was greeted by some of the brightest stars in team history.
Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon and Yao Ming were among those on hand to celebrate Howard’s signing. Also joining the party were Ralph Sampson, Clyde Drexler and Elvin Hayes.
He will be the latest in a storied line of centers to play for the Rockets. He has long worked with Olajuwon to improve his game, and “The Dream” was among the contingent that flew to Los Angeles to woo him into joining the Rockets.
Olajuwon didn’t shy away from raving about his student.
“He is the missing piece where he can really bring the team to a championship contender,” he said.
Howard joins a team starring James Harden that reached the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and battled back from a 3-0 deficit before being eliminated by the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 6.
General manager Daryl Morey, a Highland High graduate who led the effort to land Howard, is excited about upgrading his team and knows this puts the Rockets among the preseason favorites to contend for a championship.
“I think it absolutely gives us a chance,” he said. “What you do this job for is to have a chance. The reality is five to seven teams have a chance any given year. The way it is in this league, you’ve got to have multiple All-Stars, you generally have to have dominant top players and we have two guys that we think are in the top 10 in the league in James and Dwight.”
Howard was traded from Orlando to the Lakers in a four-team trade that also included Philadelphia and Denver last year. He recovered from back surgery last season and averaged 17.1 points and 12.4 rebounds.
His one season in Los Angeles was filled with unrest, including an admission that there were times that he wasn’t having fun and what many believed to be a less than positive relationship with Kobe Bryant The Rockets believe that will change in Houston.
“If you can be a great player and can’t be happy, what difference does it make? He’ll be very happy here,” Alexander said. “Dwight recognizes that his boyhood dreams will come true as a Rocket.”
Yao made a call to Howard to help recruit the 27-year-old player to Houston. As the most recent star center to play for the Rockets, Yao is eager to see Howard take the team to “the next level.”
“I feel so happy that he chose the Rockets and I feel the Rockets will be the best fitting team for him because we have such a great, rich history of big men,” Yao said.
Howard is perfectly happy dealing with lofty expectations from outsiders because he believes he should control the game every time he sets foot on the court.
“That’s what I’ve always expected out of myself,” he said. “Before I got injured, that’s what I did every night — I dominated the game on both ends of the floor. It’s not about putting up big numbers, none of that; the biggest thing is just going out there and having fun and dominating and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Of all the people the Rockets enlisted to help lure Howard to Houston, the star admitted that his new teammate Chandler Parsons made the biggest impact.
“Chandler is probably the guy you should really thank,” Howard said. “He’s been blowing my phone up every day. He’s been great.”
Howard couldn’t pinpoint one thing Parsons said that helped sway his decision, but noted that they had numerous conversations about Houston’s great team chemistry and the feeling of family.
Parsons, a second-round pick in 2011 who has developed into a solid starter, said he tried to sell Howard on the idea of winning.
“I just told him: ‘We’re going to be really good without you, we’re going to win games without you. Come make us great,’” he said.
The Rockets also got a push in a rather random way.
Howard was in Aspen, Colo., while mulling his options and prayed for a sign of what he should do.
“I believe in signs … and when I was in Aspen it seemed like everybody I met was from Houston,” he said. “I just had a good feeling in my soul about everything, the direction of the team, and just had a great feeling about what they were trying to accomplish.”
Though his nickname got switched on Saturday, the Rockets unveiled a Superman-inspired marketing campaign this week that features a man’s torso with hands ripping back a suit to reveal a red shirt that says ‘Rockets,’ above their slogan ‘A New Age.’
That picture along with several other shots flashed on a video screen above the stage during Saturday’s introduction.
After he was done speaking with reporters, Howard and the other Rockets’ stars made their way outside where the street in front of the Toyota Center was blocked off for a rally to allow fans to welcome him to Houston.