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The Happy Dunker
CHRIS BALLARD
April 20, 2009
Great centers don't come any more easygoing than Orlando's Dwight Howard. But can he take the Magic to the Finals—and get one big, bad dude off his back—while keeping his smile intact?
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April 20, 2009

The Happy Dunker

Great centers don't come any more easygoing than Orlando's Dwight Howard. But can he take the Magic to the Finals—and get one big, bad dude off his back—while keeping his smile intact?

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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 5'9" 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?

IT IS a March afternoon, and Howard is showing a visitor around his house in suburban Orlando. This is not a brief process. At 11,000 square feet, with an extensive game room and outdoor patio, a swimming pool with miniature palm trees and a waterfall, and an elaborate but seldom used nursery—for one-year-old son Braylon, whose mother is a former Magic dancer—Howard's abode is so expansive that, as he says, "I barely see some of these rooms."

Howard bought the house last fall for $8 million, the most expensive sale ever in Seminole County. He says he saw the house in a dream, in particular the faux Roman columns in the foyer, where he spends much of his time stretched out on an antique couch and gazing into one of the half-dozen gas fireplaces on the grounds. As a boy, he loved to study the sky. Now, Howard says, "When I can't see the stars, I come in here and look at the fire. Even though it's artificial, it looks real."

When Howard moved in, the home was mostly furnished, but the touches he has added bring to mind what might happen if you allowed a 13-year-old boy to decorate a mansion. So there is, in addition to the game room, a Wii room, a PlayStation area, an extended family of flat-screen TVs and a pantry that is stocked almost entirely with candy—boxes upon boxes of Skittles and Starburst and M&M's, all neatly stacked, as they would be at a Walgreen's. True, there is a wine cellar, but since Howard doesn't drink, the glass-encased space feels like a diorama; all that is missing is the stuffed wine aficionado, frozen in mid-sniff. There is also a closet in the hallway that Howard says contains his "weapons of mass destruction," though, like any good son of a state trooper, he is quick to say that the firearms are all registered. Asked why he could need these weapons in the estatery north of Orlando, he gestures toward the woods beyond his backyard and says, "There are bears out there." And, as it turns out, he isn't joking. There are bears out there—his property is near Wekiwa Springs State Park—though one has to wonder which creature would be more scared upon running into the other: a small black bear or the towering, block-chested Howard.

The blocky chest is a matter of some pride, by the way. Before he goes out on the town with his boys, Howard will sometimes drop down for 30 push-ups. His boys, friends from high school, do too. And soon all of them are grunting and flexing and throwing in some sit-ups for good measure while Howard does his best Arnold Schwarzenegger voice, yelling, Everybody get down, do it now! "Then we put on our tight shirts and go out," says Howard, "and we're all swole up."

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