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Prior to their passing, Kobe Bryant shared what his daughter Gianna loved about going to NBA games with him.

USA TODAY

Dwight Howard has felt the frustration of a potentially lost NBA season because of the novel coronavirus. He has felt the agony surrounding Kobe Bryant and Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter dying in a helicopter crash about four months ago. And he has felt anxiety from anticipating when he might feel safe from the COVID-19 pandemic.

As he processed those raw emotions, Howard then dealt with more tragedy. Melissa Rios, the mother of Howard’s 6-year-old son, David, died on March 27 near her home in Calabasas, California. Howard said the death was not related to COVID-19, and that it stemmed from Rios having a seizure after fighting epilepsy.

“It’s extremely difficult for me to try to understand how to talk to my son,” Howard said Friday in a conference call from his home outside of Atlanta. “So I wouldn’t know how to talk to my son about it. So with just with him being here and stuff like that, it’s kind of given me some extra life. But I also try to think about how to cope with losing somebody like that.”

Howard said he had texted with Rios about visiting his home shortly before learning of her death just over two weeks after the NBA halted play because of COVID-19. Howard then joined David to attend Rios’ services on April 13 at Our Mother of Sorrows Catholic Cemetary in Reno, Nevada. The Rios family could not hold a traditional funeral because of COVID-19 restrictions. So instead, the family had a viewing at the funeral home and an outdoor burial for a handful of family members and friends. 

“There was no way I could not be there for my son and even for her family,” Howard said. “I definitely would’ve felt like that would’ve been bad. She deserves and he would deserve better if I didn’t do that.”

Since then, Howard has mostly stayed at his 23-acre home. The Lakers plan to open their practice facility on Saturday for voluntary individual workouts, but Howard plans to stay at his home until health officials consider it safe enough for him to fly commercially to Los Angeles. Though Georgia has eased some social distancing rules to allow for the opening of various businesses, Howard said he has stayed home both for his safety and to maximize family time.

During that time, Howard has tried to help his son handle his mother’s death.

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“I really just had to try to explain it to him in the best way possible,” Howard said. “But even the fact that he’s still young, he still wouldn’t be able to understand. So I’m just trying to find ways to bring analogies to life and his mom, and how she’ll always be here with us. So it’s just a learning process. I wouldn’t know how to deal with it.”

Howard has found ways to keep himself and his children occupied.

He has entertained his children with games of hide-and-seek and Uno, and has bragged he knows all the best hiding spots by his property. They have bonded over bonfires, playtime in the pool and hanging out with their 2-year-old dog, Diablo, whom Howard chided for his repeated barking and mused he “will scare the devil out of you” when he becomes mad. And Howard has included his children in his workouts: basketball drills on his private court, boxing exercises and conditioning drills, and at least 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 100 squats and a 2-mile run each day.

“It’s kind of given me some extra life, but also to try to think about how to cope with losing somebody,” Howard said. “Just being with (my son) and seeing him grow has kept me more grounded and understanding that every moment counts. Be grateful for every situation that you have and just be grateful for life.”

Nonetheless, Howard cannot help but think about year filled with potential and frustration.

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Last summer, the Lakers signed Howard on a non-guaranteed deal after he had tumultuous exits with the Lakers (2012-13), Houston (2013-2016), Atlanta (2016-17), Charlotte (2017-18) and Washington (2018-19). In order to salvage his NBA career that once spanned eight All-Star appearances, Howard pledged to buy into his reduced role by maximizing his conditioning, hustle plays and attitude. The Lakers liked how Howard bettered himself.

But then Bryant and his 13 year-old daughter, Gianna, were among nine people that died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26. On March 11, the NBA halted the season when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert became the first player to test positive for COVID-19.

“All of the things that I had talked about and worked on in myself, I was seeing it come to fruition,” Howard said. “It kind of hurt to see everything stop.”

The Lakers hope to win their 17th NBA championship and first in 10 years, as they currently sit in first with the Western Conference’s best record. If the NBA cannot salvage its season, the Lakers will remain unfulfilled, processing what-if scenarios. If the NBA resumes play, Howard sounded conflicted on how the Lakers reach their goal.

“The level of chemistry we had before this was off the roof. And then now, it’s like we have to build that up again,” Howard said. “Trying to pick that back up where we left off when we’re separate, it’s kind of tough. But I think with the group of guys that we have and the hunger that we have to win a championship, once we get back, it will be like we never left each other.”

Once the Lakers reunite, it might be under different circumstances. Although the Lakers plan to open their facility on Saturday for voluntary workouts, the city has extended stay-at-home orders through July. That makes it less likely that the Lakers will play at Staples Center. Meanwhile, the NBA has entertained resuming play behind closed doors at neutral sites in Orlando and Las Vegas.

“I want to play in front of Laker Nation. I don’t know how we can play a game without our fans. I don’t know how anybody could,” Howard said. “But it’s also a safety concern. There’s been a lot of people who have suffered from this coronavirus and I think the most important thing is making sure that we are all safe first and that’s the biggest thing.”

The other biggest thing: how Howard has prioritized his life. For all the frustration he has felt with a halted NBA season, it has paled to what he has faced with handling the passing of his son’s mother.

“It’s bittersweet because I do want to play basketball. But my son right now needs me more than anything,” Howard said. “This is a situation I would never expect, nobody would ever expect, especially right now in this pandemic. So it’s just kind of given me some more perspectives on life.” 

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

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