NICE GUYS Don’t FINISH LAST
JOLLY GIANT DWIGHT HOWARD HAS BEEN KILLING THE LEAGUE WITH KINDNESS AND COMING UP SHORT. HE’LL NEED A MEAN STREAK TO COMPETE WITH DWYANE WADE’S WRECKING CREW. QUESTION IS: WHY DOES HE THINK THAT LAST SENTENCE IS FUNNY? — Thomas Golianpoulos
On this late-August afternoon, I’ll join him for an hour-long workout in the suburban Orlando gym of his trainer, Bryan Meyer. Howard wears all-black Adidas apparel over his massive 6’11”, 265-pound frame. His traps resemble bowling balls. And you can’t tell where his biceps end and his triceps begin. We start with warm-up squats before moving onto a circuit designed to improve Howard’s hypertrophy, strength and stability. Howard coaches me through the routine and lightens the mood with some jock humor—after exploding through his set of overhead lat pull downs, he doesn’t change the weight and watches me struggle. It’s a Sisyphean challenge; meanwhile, Howard laughs.
The toughest exercise is a lunge combination trunk-twist with a thick resistance band. During our first set, I used the same red band as Howard. My limbs wobbled and flailed indiscriminately. Needless to say, my form sucked. “We have one [band] with less resistance,” Howard says, as we prepare for the next set. He walks toward the equipment rack. “Here, you can use the girly band. You see how it’s cute and purple.”
Dwight Howard, the same man-child who naively fawns over tigers, aspires to become a cartoon character and records kiddie music, is talking shit. It’s not exactly a mean streak. But it’s a good start.
DWIGHT HOWARD IS A really nice guy—a God-fearing, eager-to-please, genuine nice guy. So far, it’s worked out well for him. He’s a four-time All -Star, two-time Defensive Player of the Year and has led the NBA in both rebounds and blocks for the past two seasons. He won a Gold Medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics and guided the Orlando Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals. But he might need an attitude adjustment in order to win an NBA Championship.
Nice doesn’t fly in the NBA, where being a mean son of a bitch is an essential character trait. All the greats have their own form of assholedom: Michael Jordan created phony rivalries to despise his opponents; Larry Bird was a vile trash-talker; Tim Duncan is aloof and domineering; Kobe Bryant screams at teammates and makes demonic facial expressions; LeBron James crushes his city’s dreams without flinching (more on him later). Dwight Howard does none of the above. He likes gospel music and, oh yeah, tigers.
I’m not nice on the court just because I smile.When I’m smiling and having fun, that’s when you better worry about me.
Charles Barkley criticized him for his limited offensive skills. ESPN’s resident crank Skip Bayless doesn’t think he’s a winner. Scottie Pippen says Howard can’t carry a team to a championship. What else? He smiles too much. He fouls too much. He’s not an Alpha Dog. He lacks a killer instinct. He can’t shoot free throws…
“They have it twisted,” he says. “I’m not nice on the court just because I smile. When I’m smiling and having fun, that’s when you better worry about me. [Boston Celtics head coach] Doc Rivers said, ‘If Dwight is smiling we got to look out. But we got him if he’s mad.’ I’m not going to let anybody tell me that because I’m smiling I’m not taking the game seriously. I take this game very seriously.”
He cites his greatest failure—Game 4 of the 2009 NBA Finals—as proof of his passion. Up three points with 11 seconds to play, Howard went to the free throw line with a chance to end the game and tie up the best-of-seven series with the Los Angeles Lakers. He missed both free throws, and Derek Fisher hit a three-pointer to force overtime, where the Lakers prevailed. That night, Howard sat outside his Orlando home, looked up at the stars and played Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” on repeat for five hours. “It’s the song where he says, ‘You got one shot,’” Howard says. “I felt like this was my one shot. I felt like this was my one shot for the people of Orlando and all our fans.”
After the Magic lost Game 5, Howard sat on the bench watching the Lakers celebrate on his home court. “It stung so bad,” he says. “I remember the guys trying to get me to come back into the locker room. I couldn’t do it.” He broke down in tears after returning to the locker room.
DWIGHT HOWARD NEVER went through a rebellious phase while growing up. “I never fought with my dad,” he says. “I just tried to be the best son I could be.” When I ask if he ever cursed at his father, Howard looks flabbergasted. “Oh no,” he says, shaking his head. “I never cursed at any adult until I got into the NBA.”
His dad, Dwight, Sr., was a Georgia state trooper—and a disciplinarian. He is now the athletic director at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy in Atlanta; Dwight, Jr. attended the school from kindergarten to 12th grade. Off the court, Howard was both the class clown and class president. “I think I won off popularity,” he says. He was equally well-liked on the court. Howard didn’t boast about his imminent NBA career or play like a ball hog. “There were times when I thought he was too unselfish,” says his high school teammate Aljamon Alexander. “I wanted to see him take over games and score 50, but that wasn’t him. He would rather get 20 points, 20 rebounds and six assists. He wanted everyone to have some of the limelight.”
Howard still defers to teammates too often. Despite leading the NBA in field goal percentage last season, Howard was only fourth on his team in shots attempted, averaging 10.2 shots per game. His points per game dipped to 18.3— his lowest since 2006-’07—and his lack of touches were instrumental in the Orlando Magic’s flameout against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“Our coach always tells my teammates, ‘When Dwight is in the paint we have to give him the ball.’ My teammates need to have confidence to make those passes,” he says. At this point in his career, though, shouldn’t Howard demand the ball? Shaq and Hakeem were known to scowl at teammates if they didn’t acquiesce. “You can’t yell at everybody. If I yell at certain guys on my team, that will not have a great effect on their confidence.”
Orlando will have to find a way to get Howard the ball, because the Eastern Conference is even stronger this season: Boston added aging Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal; Carlos Boozer is now a Chicago Bull; and—in case you didn’t hear—Chris Bosh and LeBron James joined Dwyane Wade in Miami.
For the record, Howard watched The Decision and knew James would sign with Miami after seeing a photograph of Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade dining—the two members of “Team John Dillinger” were sitting at a table for three. Howard has three years remaining on his contract and scoffs at the idea of starring in his own version of The Decision. “There’s no need to do all that stuff,” he says.
“If I were to stay in Orlando, I would do it before the season ended. If I decided to go somewhere else, I wouldn’t [get] on TV. I just don’t need that kind of unnecessary attention.”