Dwight Howard: The happy dunker
Orlando's Dwight Howard is often compared to Shaquille O'Neal
Howard, however, is anything but another "Biggest, Baddest, Dude"
The easygoing Howard has yet to take Orlando past the second round
This story appears in the April 20, 2009, issue of Sports Illustrated.
As shadows go, this is a big one. Enormous, really. Himalayan. And it won't stop following him around. When the NBA playoffs begin this week, they'll practically take the court together: Dwight Howard and his gigantic, Twitter-happy, bad-mouthing shadow. And the only way the bounding, dunking Howard will ever be rid of the thing is if he keeps bounding and dunking deep into June. Until then, he'll continue to be haunted by the words of another center whose dominance he one day hopes to replicate.
"Dwight Howard? Who's that? I don't know that name."
It is a cool morning in San Francisco, and the Suns are in town to play the Warriors. Phoenix has just finished its shootaround at a downtown athletic club and, standing on the sideline, buttons of sweat covering his enormous shaved skull, Shaquille O'Neal is staring at a reporter, unblinking.
"You know," the reporter says. "Big guy, All-Star, Orlando Magic."
"Nope," O'Neal says. "Haven't heard of him." He turns to guard Jason Richardson, seated nearby. "J, you know this guy? What's his name?"
"Nope," says Richardson.
"Hey Amar'e," O'Neal continues, turning to power forward Amar'e Stoudemire. "You heard of this guy, Howard?"
"No," replies Stoudemire.
Satisfied, O'Neal turns back to the reporter. "No, don't know him. We don't talk about impostors."
Over the season O'Neal would say plenty more about Howard, including, "Everything he's done, I've invented" and, "It's normal for a kid to copycat his idol, but you know he can never be this good." And, of course: "He wins three, four championships, then we can talk about him." Still, that one word stands out. Impostor.
It's not just that the 23-year-old Howard has adopted the same superhero stylings and affectations as O'Neal. It's also what Howard has the potential to become -- a player just as intimidating as Shaq ever was. And this is not something Shaq takes lightly. See, while O'Neal may crack jokes and ham it up for the camera, he has always taken his role as the NBA's Biggest, Baddest Dude seriously. It is a role he inherited, at least symbolically, from Wilt Chamberlain, he of the 100 points and thousands of women, and one that only two players have held in the last 40 years. This is a title that goes beyond Best Big Man, one which Howard can arguably already lay claim to. To be the BBD is to be larger than life in every respect, to strive to be a black hole of attention on and off the court while remaining unapologetic and fierce. No one messes with the Biggest, Baddest Dude. Ever.
But to spend a day with Howard -- hell, to spend 10 minutes with him -- is to realize that despite his imposing stature and freakish athleticism, he may be among the least badass big men in NBA history. For starters, he has this unfortunate habit of smiling all the time, even when he's dunking on someone. Clearly, this violates one of the cardinal rules of intimidating big men, namely Thou Shalt Posture and Grimace Upon Vanquishing Thy Foes. This means you have three choices: flexing concrete biceps (like Alonzo Mourning), grasping your crotch with authority (à la Shawn Kemp) or letting loose a banshee scream (see Kevin Garnett). Smiling, however, is not an option.
Howard? This is a guy who sings Beyoncé at the free throw line to ward off distractions, who quotes not Scarface but Finding Nemo. He fools around during practice, during press conferences and during shootaround, where Magic coach Stan Van Gundy has had to institute a no-flatulence rule because, as forward Rashard Lewis says, "Dwight really likes to cut the cheese." During the photo shoot for this story, Walter Iooss Jr. had such a difficult time getting a serious pose out of Howard that he eventually told the young star to just do whatever came to mind. Unshackled, Howard launched into 20 minutes of antic posturing (including fake gangster looks and a Will Ferrell imitation), eventually producing so many fey poses that were SI so inclined, it could now put out a coffee-table book titled Dwight Howard: Dandy-at-Large.
This is not just a phase of Howard's, either. When he was a boy being coached by his father, Dwight Sr., a Georgia state trooper who is just as stern as you'd expect for a man in that line of work, the elder Howard used to shout, "Stop smiling out there. Why can't you take the game seriously?" Likewise, when the Magic drafted Howard with the No. 1 pick in 2004, straight out of Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy, the team saw his goofball persona as something an 18-year-old kid would eventually outgrow. And five years later? "I used to want him to think of it like going into battle, being real serious," says general manager Otis Smith. "Now I've come to the realization that that's just who he is."
And who is that exactly? Plenty of front-office folks believe that Howard is a future pillar of the league who, with his rare combination of size, power and dedication, could dominate the paint for the next decade. After all, Howard is the reigning All-NBA first-team center who won a gold medal in Beijing and at week's end had clinched the titles for rebounding (13.9 per game) and blocks (2.9) -- a double only four others have ever achieved. He's also the first player to garner more than 3 million All-Star votes, his popularity blossoming after his win in the 2008 slam dunk contest.
But Howard has never taken Orlando past the second round of the playoffs, and his easygoing personality has some wondering how far he is capable of leading a team. During the slam dunk finals in February, he allowed 5-foot-9 New York Knicks guard Nate Robinson to jump over him, effectively ceding his crown and emasculating himself in one tidy three-second span. Of course, Howard says the competition was all in fun, and true, the fans loved it, but would Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant ever let an opponent do that? "F--- no," says Bryant. "Especially not to lose no goddam dunk contest."
So which will it be for Howard: intimidator or goofball? Or must there be a delineation -- can Howard prove, in these playoffs, that the Biggest, Baddest Dude can also be the Biggest, Bubbliest Kid?
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