WASHINGTON — With his megawatt smile and cheesy, cornball charm, Dwight Howard can still win a news conference. Howard has become an expert in that area over the past six years, captivating rooms in Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, Charlotte and now Washington with some witty jokes, self-effacing reflections and promises of grandeur that have yet to be fulfilled.
Why Howard has been placed in this position once again — and will soon be able to claim that he’s played for one-fifth of the teams in the NBA — is a question that he can’t easily answer. But in repeating comments that he’s expressed several times before at previous stops, Howard stated that he wanted to play until he’s 40 and retire with (insert new team here). He also weaved together his path from larger-than-life-superstar to reluctant journeyman into an awesome soundbite: “I learned Magic for eight years. Traveled to La La Land. Learned how to work with Rockets. And then I went and learned how to fly with some Hawks. Got stung by the Hornets. Just a joke. But through all of that, it’s taught me how to be a Wizard.”
The room was filled with laughter and amusement. Howard knew he aced it, chuckling to himself in that moment and later as he checked social media several minutes after the cameras and recorders slipped away to see that the comment went viral. Behind the showmanship and the giggles is a player whose game still has substance; a player whose passion should never be questioned given the work he’s invested into regaining some of that cartoonish athleticism following several major injuries; a player who remains in pursuit of a championship that has become ever so elusive since he came the closest with Orlando in 2009. But that player’s image has also been smeared by the perception that he’s a disruptive force whose departures are celebrated by teammates and coaches alike.
“I know it’s a narrative. I know it’s a story. And I know it was someone else’s opinion that started it. And then it’s just something that kept going,” Howard said. “It’s like when I was Orlando that wasn’t the narrative. Because we were winning. The narrative in Orlando was I smiled too much. That was the whole thing. He smiles too much. He doesn’t take the game serious. Then it became, I wasn’t smiling, now he doesn’t enjoy the game. ‘Look he doesn’t even smile anymore. He needs to stop playing.’ It’s always something to where if I’m doing what everyone else wants me to do, I’ll never be happy.”
The Wizards are aware of the risk involved in taking on a player who is about to suit up for his fourth team in four years, but are also desperate enough to see if Howard could be the piece that helps John Wall and Bradley Beal finally take the next step. Each situation in Howard’s bounce around the league has been unique: his personality never meshed with Kobe Bryant with the Lakers and he couldn’t flee fast enough. James Harden began his ascension into stardom just as Howard began to show signs of a physical decline in Houston, where the coach who was looking to feed Howard the ball eventually got canned. His homecoming in Atlanta soured quickly, prompting the Hawks to go into rebuild mode. And his reunion with Steve Clifford in Charlotte resulted in some memorable performances — such as his first career 30-30 game — but ended with Clifford getting fired and several teammates annoyed by his mere presence. The dots don’t connect in a straight line, but Howard has been the common thread through all of the drama. And the shocking trade to Brooklyn — and subsequent scuttle about him not being well liked in the Hornets’ locker room — provoked Howard enough to reach out to Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak and new coach James Borrego for an explanation.
“I didn’t see any signs. I wouldn’t think after having a really good season a team would be like, ‘OK, let’s trade you.’ That really caught me off-guard. That’s why I said in the press conference, the Hornets stung me,” Howard said. “I asked Mitch and I asked the coach: What did I do? Was it something in the locker room that I did? And Mitch said, ‘No, it had nothing to do with the locker room. It has nothing to do with you as a person. We just felt like we wanted to go in this direction as a team.’ I asked him, ‘If this is the truth, you need to come out and say this stuff, because people are thinking it’s because I did something in the locker room or acted a certain type of way.’ And I’m like, ‘This is not who I am.'”
Howard added, “I’m from the country and they say, ‘A lie don’t care who tell it.’ A lie will get around a lot faster than the truth, because a lot of people can’t really handle the truth. A lot of people hate what they don’t understand. I can’t focus on that.”
Those who have been around Howard over the years don’t complain that he’s a bad, ill-intentioned guy, just someone too immature to understand and too oblivious of how his attitude can adversely affect the people around him. Howard is disappointed that the lack of stability in his career since leaving Orlando has made it difficult for others to appreciate his contributions. He’s only in Washington because the Brooklyn Nets — the organization that was responsible for Howard wanting to leave behind a good thing with the Magic — acquired him for the sole purpose of dumping a player whose résumé includes eight All-Star appearances and three Defensive Player of the Year awards. And here’s a little known fact: Howard and Dirk Nowitzki are the only prominent stars from this era to have faced LeBron James in a playoff series and not caught an L.
Try as he might, Howard cannot escape the hate. It greets him every time he checks his Instagram and sees a message from an angry fan telling him he “sucks” or is “a bum.” Howard usually ignores the comments but felt compelled to respond to one agitator who referred to him Sunday night as “a failure.”
“I sent back a message to him that said, ‘I came from nothing. College Park, Georgia. The smallest school in Georgia and I made it to the NBA. That’s no way near being a failure,’” Howard said. “But I said, you know what, ‘I’m sending you positive vibes. Enjoy your life.’
“It’s just the way of the world. Everybody latching on to the negative stuff and that’s all they hear about,” Howard said. “So, if you hear about a guy like Terrell Owens, he has every stat in the world. He was an unbelievable talent and an unbelievable wide receiver, but nobody talks about that. The thing they talk about, to have a story with him, is that he’s not a good person, he’s a bad teammate and all this stuff. They try to say that will carry on. But like I said, you can’t really worry about your reputation from other people, because that’s just their opinion of who you are. Your focus has to be on your character. And I know my character, I know who I am. And that’s never going to change.”
Howard said he won’t waste his energy attempting to appease people by being something he’s not. During one of his news conference riffs, Howard said he’s back to slapping the backboard like he did during the days when donned a cap and won the slam dunk contest in the role of Superman. He joked that he’s bringing back the cape in Washington. “It was a little dusty, had a couple of holes in it, so I had my seamstress put it back together and got it cleaned.” Asked later to expound on that comment, Howard said the cape goes deeper than just rocking superhero attire for a slam dunk contest that, yes, he’s considered entering again in his 30s with some prodding from his personal trainers.
“The cape was more so talking about being who I am, being Dwight,” Howard said. “The personality that I had in Orlando. Just bringing that same type of person back. The fun. Enjoying the game. But not letting the game take over me. Not letting off-the-court things take over who I am as a player. That’s what the cape was about. That’s what Superman was about. Embracing people but also enjoying the game.”
Despite the knocks against him, Howard will likely wind up in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame whenever he decides to walk away. “I haven’t really thought about it. A lot of people said, it’s a 99 percent chance that I’m in,” Howard said, “but I want to win.” And he doesn’t want to leave the game without one day holding up the Larry O’Brien Trophy that Bryant held up in his home arena at his expense. Howard has been haunted by coming up short with the Magic, and even more by the lack of success in subsequent years but has never been interested in chasing a ring. The Golden State Warriors were a team Howard considered after the trade to Brooklyn but said he changed his mind when Wall called to ask, “You want to come to D.C.?”
“I was like, ‘Nah, this is the spot right here,’” Howard said. “On the court, Golden State would’ve looked great. We could’ve won. But the impact of winning in Golden State and D.C. is totally different. I think winning in D.C. would be a lot bigger and it would mean a lot for this city. And to accomplish it with a team that has not done it since 1978? That would be amazing. So if we won, I’d be done graduated, man. … I’d be done graduated.”
And he would’ve won something more significant than the room.
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