It’s hard to find a non-arrested NBA player who has suffered the same speedy fall from grace as Dwight Howard. Seven 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. 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. Appearing on Inside the NBA, he was candid (or as candid as Howard can be) about what has happened to him and his career. He was correct in saying it all went sideways when he parted ways with the Magic. What he failed to detail was it wasn’t his leaving, per se. 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. Whether he stayed in Orlando or not, the business move was to opt-out. But he couldn’t take the criticism that came along with wanting higher compensation because he was still stuck on the LeBron burned jerseys and fearing that was his fate. 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.”
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.”
For the first time, Howard admitted to a lack of mental toughness. He acknowledged he checked out of games when something was happening on the court he couldn’t tolerate. “I have to be better”, he casually tossed out there, as if that makes up for admitting he quits which is what everyone who saw him play in Los Angeles and saw him play in Houston knew. Name one other star player who would get thrown out of an elimination playoff game because of double technicals? It happened in Los Angeles.
Howard often wears a blank expression so it was difficult to discern if he agreed with Charles Barkley when Barkley said, “you are on the back nine of your career.” As playful as Howard is, he will be 31 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.
“I was very upset to lose to Golden State the way we did. We have myself and James Harden on the same team. We weren’t able to be great. I was pissed off.”
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.”
“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 is opting out. We all know he can’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. Remember me, the old Dwight Howard. The Slam Dunk champion who wants a $25 million dollar payday this summer. 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.
photo via llananba