HOUSTON – Dwight Howard watched how the derision dissipated for LeBron James, how the mocking turned back into marvel. The path to a superstar's public cleansing for past immaturities and missteps on free agency's jagged journey doesn't rise out of clever commercials and endless explanations.
Championships changed the framing of LeBron James, and an NBA title promises to be the sole basketball salvation for the league's best center.
"Last year, I felt like I was the villain," Howard told Yahoo Sports. "Now, I feel like I'm an even bigger villain."
Most of all, victory validates the villain. It promises to free Howard. That's the burden of this NBA now. Born of a belief these players and coaches and management offer him the best chance at a championship, Howard has come to the Houston Rockets with an eye eastward.
Howard wants to take James' and the Miami Heat's title, but confesses to finding comfort in the redemption of the best player on the planet. For Howard, another scorned star, James' redemption represents the light in the distance.
"He got hated for a lot of reasons," Howard told Yahoo. "I was really, really happy when LeBron finally won. I was unhappy that it wasn't me up there, but I was glad to see him get through that whole thing.
"I knew exactly how he felt. People putting you down, saying bad things about your character, who you are as a person. It doesn't sit well with you. When you go out on the court, you want to show them, 'Hey, this isn't who I am.'
"Here's a guy who's a great basketball player. He did something that was for him, and he did it in front of the whole world. I realized then that our issues, our problems, our flaws are out there for the world to see. You can't run from it. We have to learn from our mistakes and move forward."
Howard is relieved to be out of Los Angeles, out of the free-agency grinder, but he's still raw. James had a hard two years post-Cleveland until he won a title, but Howard's free-agency folly extended two-plus years before he could even thrust himself into contention.
"I'm happy all that is over with," Howard said, "and I'm in a better place physically and emotionally."
NBA free agency doesn't lend itself to the elevation in popularity of the league's star players. Former Players Association executive director Billy Hunter gave up so much in collective bargaining over the years, including U.S. professional sports' only cap on an individual player's salary. The maximum contract left the superstar underpaid for the impact they deliver on TV ratings, ticket sales and winning.
This doesn't happen in football, nor baseball, because the systems allow for free movement. The NBA doesn't have legitimate free agency, and the system creates an environment where the league's most valuable personas get dented for switching teams.
"Me and LeBron, especially dealt with that," Howard told Yahoo. "Chris [Paul] didn't get as much as attention as me and LeBron. Every day, people want to know where we're going. Last year, the year before, it was every day: 'Come play here. Come here. Where are you going?' I dealt with that for a whole season.
"Especially in Orlando, I really wanted to test the waters, but I loved the city. I didn't want to hurt people. You're stuck in this place where you want to do what's best for you, but, at that same time, you don't want to hurt people.
"I just remember LeBron being up at the stage, and saying he was going to Miami, and I just remember the look on his face … 'I don't want to hurt these people but I've got to do this.' I felt for him. I could just see it in his eyes and his face. And then I started thinking, 'You don't know what it feels like until you go through it.' "
Between two seasons of back and shoulder injuries, two years of Magic Johnson and Lakers fans wondering whether he had committed to them, this is the year Howard has it all again: a sound body, a strong supporting cast and the adoration of a championship city thrilled he chose it.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey earned Howard. Through shrewd drafting, deft deal making and a dose of fearlessness, he refused to take "no" for an answer. If Howard wanted to win, he had to select the Rockets in free agency. Morey left him no choice, and now Howard completes the franchise's remarkable and rapid transformation.
Come to Houston with James Harden and Chandler Parsons, or whither away with a coach, Mike D'Antoni, who Howard despised in Los Angeles and a superstar, Kobe Bryant, with whom he never connected.
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Everywhere Howard turns in Houston, there's a Hall of Fame big man staring him in the eyes. The Rockets coach, Kevin McHale. Hakeem Olajuwon. Ralph Sampson. For everything the Lakers sold to Howard on taking his place in the pantheon of historic Los Angeles centers, the chance to be with McHale and Olajuwon held so much more appeal.
"People talked about Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and working with him," Howard said. "But I'm not a 7-footer. I felt like working with Kareem, I'd have to change my game. Working with Hakeem – who did it with quickness, speed, explosiveness – that's more to my game; that's more where I want to be.
"My best year was in 2010, after working out with Dream for a summer. He's in my backyard now, always talking to me, always pushing me to get better.
"That's no knock on Kareem, but I felt like Hakeem will be better for me."
Dwight Howard will never be Hakeem on offense but he can deliver championship-level play on the defensive end. There's still no one else like him, no one with the talent to protect the rim and obliterate offenses. For Howard, history has shown that circumstances need to be right for him to perform at his optimum level. Everything he wanted, it's here now. No more distractions, no excuses, no one tugging him elsewhere.
Dwight Howard will tell jokes, and smile bright and wide, and ultimately it won't win people over. Validation comes with victory now, with Howard chasing LeBron James down that path toward the Lawrence O'Brien trophy.
"This was my best chance to win now," Howard said. "I know by saying that, people say, 'You're putting too much pressure on yourself,' but that's what this is about now.
"That's what's left to do."
Victory validates, and nothing short frees Howard of the stain of his free-agent folly, nothing framing him forever the way they were pushing LeBron James off that podium. Salvation is simple in sports: Win, and it all washes away. Win, and Dwight Howard is no longer the villain – only vindicated.