CHICAGO — There were times not too long ago, as the NBA left him for dead, as injuries gnawed at his body, and as his spirit and reputation suffered with it, when Dwight Howard, in his own words, “wanted to shy away from people.”
And so there were times, not too long before the renaissance, when Dwight Howard was no longer himself. As a basketball player and more importantly as a person. He was no longer the All-Star with the All-Star personality, nor the entertainer. He was no longer the crowd-pleaser who fed off the joy he gave others.
He was no longer Superman.
Because when he became a basketball liability on an outsized contract, the chatter crescendoed. He heard it. “There are a lot of people who are always going to tell you that you can't do something,” Howard says. There was a lot of negativity that seeped into who he was.
But over the past two summers, with his NBA value at an all-time low, he learned to stop listening. He learned that hearing “noise” and internalizing it are two different things. The former is inevitable. But the latter?
“No, I can’t do that,” Howard says of his recent change. “That’s not who I am. I’ve never been that way. So let me embrace the moment, embrace people, and just enjoy the moment.”
And as he speaks, it’s clear he’s doing just that. He’s sitting at a podium in downtown Chicago, surrounded by cameras. That old smile spreads across his face. It’s natural and uninhibited. It hibernates as he eulogizes Kobe. It returns when a reporter asks how smart he is at this stage of his career compared to before. “Was I dumb?” he responds with a head-tilt and a good-natured chuckle.
In about 12 hours, he’ll take flight once again. He’s back in the Slam Dunk Contest at NBA All-Star Weekend, 12 years after injecting new life into the event. Back on the stage that contributed to his celebrity. In one sense, it’s a footnote in his 34-year-old Lakers resurgence. In another sense, it’s everything.
Because All-Star Saturday night is about joy, and so is Howard’s rebirth. “I decided coming into this year, he explained on Saturday, “that I wasn't going to allow anything to steal my joy no matter what goes on.”
Howard, in a way, realized that joy and dunking were intertwined this past summer. He hit Venice Beach. Ditched his shirt. And went back and forth with a professional street dunker. A courtside announcer narrated as music bumped. A crowd of about 100 cheered, ooh’d, ah’d.
And Howard loved it.
“I enjoy dunking. I've been dunking my whole life basically,” he said Saturday. “After we finished dunking [at Venice Beach], I was like, ‘Man, that felt really good to really get the crowd into it, and just enjoy dunking a basketball again.’ ”
He admitted to being “surprised” that he could “still get up and dunk like that.” But “from that moment on,” Howard told himself, “ ‘I'm going to try to get myself ready for the dunk contest.’ And here we are, here today. This is great.”
So the joy is back. There’s skepticism his athleticism will return with it. Howard is an underdog against Aaron Gordon, Derrick Jones Jr. and Pat Connaughton on Saturday night. Nobody quite knows what to expect. Howard previously revealed that Kobe had agreed to help him out with a dunk. In light of Bryant’s tragic death, there’s no telling what type of tributes may be in the works.
The other question, of course, was the one shouted by a reporter Saturday morning: Is Superman in the building today?
Howard smiled. “I can’t tell you,” he said, shaking his head. “Can’t tell you.”
“Superman’s here right now,” he clarified, toothy grin still bright. “But I can’t tell you about tonight.”
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