Los Angeles Lakers center and pending free agent Dwight Howard is not having the best time right now. As Howard considers his options, rumors swirl that he will leave L.A. because the fans are unappreciative. (The tenor of the latter report, from the fan site Lakers Nation, does a lot to prove Howard's alleged point.) Once a leading superstar, Howard has seen his reputation fall considerably. A new start could help him get back to where he once was, but it's going to take a while.
Things were once so much simpler for Howard. When he entered the NBA at 18, he was a shy, apparently pious kid with braces and a man-child's physique. Nine years later, Howard has seen enough that she should theoretically have learned a lot about what it takes to succeed and keep a good head on one's shoulders in the crazy world of professional sports. He'd have a lot to tell his younger self.
So, that's exactly what he did as part of an ESPN the Magazine feature in which famous athletes write letters to their childhood selves at ages of their own choosing. Unfortunately, 27-year-old Howard's epistle to the 12-year-old Howard shows a startling lack of self-awareness. Join us after the jump for a full, FJM-style breakdown.
Dear Little Dwight,
That's what they call you now. I know that because I'm Big Dwight, 27, and I'm writing to you from the future. Weird, right?
I'm going to assume that no one has ever called the contemporary Dwight Howard "Big Dwight," but at least he made things easy for Little Dwight. Also, it was a bold choice for Howard to gesture towards the scientific implications of this letter-to-younger-self technology. It would indeed be weird, as well as make us question the basic physical laws of the universe.
Stop freaking out, and listen up: I want to tell you some things that you should know before you turn into me.
There are two ways to interpret this line. One is simple: you are going to turn into 27-year-old me, because time is unchangeable and time travel has to remain an ethical practice, as Hollywood movies have taught us for years. The other is much darker: if you do not change your ways, you will turn into me, an unloved basketball star whose desire to be liked got the better of him.
The first thing, Little Dwight, is to always smile and enjoy life.
Dwight Howard's default mode seems to be "smile and pretend everything is fine," so I'm pretty sure Little Dwight will have no problem achieving this goal.
Now, that's not always going to be easy. As you get older, you'll have responsibilities. You'll have to learn how to take care of others. You'll mess up. And, believe it or not, some people aren't going to like you because you smile and have fun. And they will try to change you. Don't let it happen.
Howard posits the blowback to his personality as if the problem were that we all hate fun, but it's more specifically tied to two issues: 1) Howard's smiling sometimes look false, as if he wants to communicate that he is having a good time rather than just naturally having one and 2) there are certain times in life at which acting like everything is fun and great is a bad idea. A person who cannot take certain things seriously has a problem.
[Next paragraph of the letter elided herein because it is the most cliched "wisdom" possible, like an excerpt from the worst essay in "Chicken Soup for the Basketball Player's Soul"]
Okay, you probably want to go outside and play, but hold up. I have three more pieces of advice for you:
This letter is not very long, so if the recipient wants to go outside and play it's probably the fault of the author.
1) You can shoot free throws. Don't let anybody tell you can't.
Over his nine seasons, Howard has shot 57.7 percent from the free-throw line, with a career-high of 67.1 percent in his rookie year. Based on the data, it's likely that Little Dwight was a pretty good shooter, or at least a passable one. On the other hand, Howard has shot below 50 percent in each of his last two seasons, so if he still believes he can shoot free throws he is more than a little deluded.
2) The ladies will always be there, okay? Keep your focus on your priorities.
3) Finally, when you're in eighth grade, you'll get braces. You'll want to wear those braces until you get to the NBA. Don't do it! Please, please, PLEASE get them taken off in high school. And smile.
This is some confusing advice. Howard tells himself to take his braces off before it is dentally advisable, but then says that he should smile as much as possible. Yet it stands to reason that someone with bad teeth would not want to smile for fear of showing his chompers off to the world. This is the kind of direction that produces anxiety disorders.
P.S. Seriously, Little Dwight, don't become a robot when you get older. You know what I mean.
Again, Howard's insistence that he's not robotic — effectively, that everyone else just isn't alive enough — suggests a basic confusion about the current state of his public image. While Howard gained favor in his first few seasons as a star who seemed to enjoy his good fortune, somewhere along that way that basic appreciation of his circumstances became a brand. When things were going well, that was fine, because it was an organic extension of what fans liked about Howard.
But when the situation in Orlando got worse, Howard's attempts to please came across as cloying, manufactured, and inappropriate. If he originally became popular because he seemed naturally fun, then he stopped being so because that fun seemed false. In other words, it became a robotic response to every scenario.
Of course, things could be worse for Howard. In the same feature, well-paid Washington Wizards center Emeka Okafor, the man taken one pick after Howard in 2004, wrote to himself at 18, right before he enrolled at the University of Connecticut. This is the only reference to the NBA in Okafor's letter:
Basketball is going to test you. The first practice will be a monster in every sense of the word. You'll learn that Coach Calhoun always makes that first practice hard because he wants to instill toughness. Afterward, everything will hurt. You'll lie in the fetal position in that extra-long, twin-sized dorm-room bed questioning if you have what it takes. The NBA? Yeah, right. You can't even comprehend getting through practice tomorrow. You're convinced the only thing your foreseeable future is shame. Was that ticket round-trip?
Okafor's advice is actually pretty good — focus on the challenge at hand, don't look to far forward, stay humble — but it's fairly telling that a formal second-overall draft pick doesn't want to talk much about the NBA. Despite the ways in which Howard's career has soured, he's still reached the heights of his profession. Not everyone is so lucky.