It’s hard to find a non-arrested NBA player who has suffered the same speedy fall from grace as Dwight Howard. Eight years ago when Howard executed his Superman leap at the Slam Dunk contest he was at the top of the NBA world and beloved worldwide as a preternaturally youthful antidote to the Kobe Bryant and LeBron James work ethic seriousness. That year, more than three million fans voted for Howard to be a starter in the All-Star game. That year, he led his team to a victory over LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals and advanced to the NBA Finals.
Since then, the mere mention of his name invokes a steady round of jokes and slights. His image has dropped faster than a brick out of a thirty story building; at least the brick leaves an impression in the dirt. Howard’s name is just dirt. These days he is mostly ignored as if he’s relegated to the past and a narrative of great once upon a time who is now an over indulged and egocentric emotional slacker that whines, makes excuses, hates shooting guards, and has an inflated sense of his own worth.
It’s not just that Howard has disappointed on the court, even though that is very true. A lot of players are not what we think they should be. Deron Williams isn’t the same player he was in Utah but you don’t have the constant vilification outside of Brooklyn of Williams, even as Williams is unemployed. Furthermore, when Williams has a good game it’s almost always translated as Williams, the player we remember, is back. When Howard has a good game, there’s a lot of throwing shade and snickering and no one giving him any credit.
Howard attributes it to how he left Orlando. But. Players leave all the time and they are not excoriated for it. But the Howard drop off came because of two events.
The first was him asking management to fire Stan Van Gundy. When Van Gundy told the media about Howard going upstairs to get him fired, Howard walked in on the press conference, put his arm around Van Gundy as if they were besties and attached that smug grin on his face he uses to manipulate with his charm. It fell flat. No one believed him.
Not long after, Howard publicly stated he was going to opt-out of his contract which wasn’t a secret. And then, because local fans were upset about it, he changed his mind and said he was going to opt-in. I hate the Magic. I love the Magic. I hate the Magic. I love the Magic. His swift reversal made him appear immature, indecisive, needy, fragile and weak. His hypocrisy ruled the day. From that point on, Dwight Howard was viewed through a prism of scorn, something he is well aware of.
“I’m all about myself”, Howard said, when explaining fans perception of him. “I’m this diva. I’m stuck on being Dwight Howard, this famous basketball player, so a lot of people are saying we don’t like this guy. I hear that a lot. It really hurts me. My attitude towards the game is still the same. My drive is still there.”
That drive he has to discover playing in Charlotte. On paper, the team has a lot of things Howard needs. They don’t have a center. They have a pick and roll point guard. They are young enough not to have any impressions about Dwight Howard the diva. They just want a playoff run. But sitting in the front row is perfectionist Michael Jordan. When it is a game when Dwight gives less and the Hornets need more, what then?
Howard admits he overthinks and is emotional at the wrong time, like when he is not in the game. During the playoffs this year against the Wizards, he was taken out the game in the 4th quarter. He was a spectator. He pouted. It is what Howard does. Then he complained and was salty to the media. Finally, he was traded. Three seasons. Three different Dwight Howard teams. What has happened to his career?
If you listen to Howard talk along enough, you’ll hear him say the world dominate over and over again but his definition of domination is being the strongest and most physical rebounder and around the rim player and not the true meaning of the word, having a commanding influence on the entire game, both offense and defense. LeBron dominates. Dwight Howard yields to his emotions. Steph Curry dominates. Dwight Howard loses intensity. Russell Westbrook dominates. Dwight Howard often goes through the motions.
Howard’s sensitivity has always been a central part of the he ain’t that tight Dwight Howard narrative. He said he remembered when Charles Barkley said he would never be “good in the NBA”. The same for Magic Johnson, as far fetched as it is to believe Magic tried to ruin Howard’s dream.
“It’s not that I am a bad person and I want people to like me. I know people are not going to always like me. If you get to know me, I’m laid back and I like to have fun. I’m interested in winning.”
Howard is a fascinating figure, given his talent and early young resume because he has admitted to a lack of mental toughness which most men are loathe to do. He acknowledges he had checked out of games when something was happening on the court he couldn’t tolerate. “I have to be better”, he has casually tossed out there, almost like an inhale. But self awareness does not make up for admitting he quits which is what everyone who saw him play in Los Angeles and saw him play in Houston knew. At home in Atlanta, there was a familiar path in the dirt road of Howard’s career.
Howard often wears a blank expression, as if he fears being real with the public and laying it all out on the table. Does he agree with Charles Barkley when Barkley said, “you are on the back nine of your career.” As playful as Howard is, he will be 32 years old in December, which means his best years are behind him, not in front of him. What do we know? He lost in the Finals in 2009 and he lost in the Conference Finals in 2015. That’s how close he has come to winning anything of significance. The game has dramatically changed since Howard entered the league. Howard is now asked to defend shooters on the perimeter and to have the versatility that wasn’t required when he was a high school player coming into the league.
Conscious of the perception that Howard treats his professional life as an interlude between moments of having fun, he said “I have been doing this since I was three years old. I want to win. I don’t want to finish my career and not be up on that podium.” He said that after his last season in Houston ended in disaster. He also said, “I want to be better than I am now.”
What Dwight Howard really wants is history to be rewritten. He wants 2009 all over again and for the pendulum that marks careers to stop swinging in the negative direction. The affection he seeks once more he could have if he was honest with those fans who have turned their back on him. When asked a question, answer it. Don’t p.r. it to death. We all know he was opting out in Houston, that a divorce was pending. We all know he couldn’tn’t stand James Harden’s game. Why front? Why act like we are the fools for even bringing it all up? If you want us back, respect that we are not stupid. But that is not the Dwight Howard way. He wants what he can’t have and he wants what he can have but that is not how the world works. You gain something. You lose something. In Howard’s case, he has lost a lot.
But he doesn’t know it. He is still living in the past. Asking us to remember Orlando. But forget L.A. Forget Houston. Forget Atlanta. Remember me, the old Dwight Howard. The Slam Dunk champion who got a $25 million dollar payday then was traded for loose change. But forget the version of me who sulks and pouts and is no better than an above average center destined for a first round playoff exit. Which happened in April.
Charlotte has their turn at the Dwight Howard mystery. If they solve it, they will be better than three NBA teams before them. They may in fact be miracle workers.
photo via llananba