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Dwight Howard: The happy dunker


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.

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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?

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."

Only Howard is already plenty swole up, and in this regard at least, he certainly looks the part of the BBD. Anyone who's been to a Magic game is familiar with the sight: While other players warm up in long-sleeved shirts over T-shirts, Howard ambles around in a tight, futuristic-looking tank top, shoulders like twin armoires. Explains Howard, "I used to be the skinniest person in the world, so now that I've been lifting, yeah, I want to take my shirt off." Magic trainer Joe Rogowski says lifting is "almost like his escape, his hobby." If so, it is a fruitful one. Howard is not only the strongest player on his team but also one of the strongest in the league. Before this season, "just for fun," Rogowski put Magic players through combine-style drills. Howard benched 225 pounds 25 times, or what an average NFL lineman might do. He also maxed out the grip strength machine at 90 pounds per square inch with both hands; most Magic players scored in the 50s and 60s. Says Rogowski, "That's like a dog's bite."

Howard also possesses unusual athleticism for a man his size. With a running start he has a vertical leap of 37 inches, and he has touched a spot two feet, 6 1/2 inches above the basket. As testament to the amount of time he can linger above the rim, two of the dunks he considered using in the contest this year were a double windmill off two feet ("I could never quite get it down pat," he says) and a windmill from the free throw line ("My legs were dead, or I would have tried it"). He is also surprisingly fast. When Rogowski timed players in a three-quarter court sprint, Howard finished third on the team, in 3.14 seconds, behind only guards Courtney Lee and Mickael Pietrus and a nose ahead of point guard Jameer Nelson.

Of course, all the physical talent in the world is worthless if you can't apply it, and that is the continuing challenge for Howard. Early in his career, he was essentially a glorified dunker. Teams had to be wary of him on pick-and-rolls, alley-oops, putbacks and little else. Now, while still a prodigious attacker of the rim -- at week's end almost one in four of his shot attempts were slams and he led the league with 196 -- he has also developed a post-up game, highlighted by running hooks with either hand. (Many people don't know that Howard is actually lefthanded; he developed his right hand after breaking his left wrist in eighth grade.)

Though he was averaging 20.7 points a game through Sunday, Howard struggles when he ventures outside the paint; assistant coach Patrick Ewing says working on Howard's jump shot has been "like starting from scratch." His form isn't much better at the free throw line (he is shooting 59.4 percent this season), where the Shaq comparison is painfully apt (though, strangely, O'Neal never claims Howard copies him in this regard). Van Gundy estimates Howard is still only "halfway to where he can be" offensively. Likewise, one Eastern Conference scout ranks him behind Houston Rockets center Yao Ming when it comes to dominant post players. "You can throw the ball into Yao 20 times in a game and play a game through him because he's a phenomenal passer out of double teams," says the scout. "You can't do that through Dwight. He can finish at the rim, but you can't just run turnouts and post-ups for him 20 times."

Then again, the scout points out, you can still use the word potential with Howard, whereas Yao is pretty much maxed-out. "And that's what scares the rest of us," says New Jersey Nets G.M. Rod Thorn. "Who knows how good this kid can be?"

On D that potential is already being realized. Howard is on the short list for Defensive Player of the Year, which would make him the youngest player to win the award. Orlando ranks in the top 10 in the NBA in six defensive categories, including leading the league in defensive rebounding, in large part because of Howard, who collects boards so effortlessly that it looks as if he's merely reaching up and plucking them off some high shelf to which only he has access. While Van Gundy will talk at length about what Howard needs to improve on offensively -- specifically his decision-making in the post and adding a baseline turnaround -- he believes that Howard is almost fully formed on defense: quick on rotations, intelligent in the paint and capable of changing the game "when the effort is there." The scout agrees. "Really, he could block 10 shots a game and alter another 10, he could be that dynamic defensively," the scout says. "It's all a matter of focus and intensity."

Ah, yes, focus and intensity.

Strange as it may sound, there is one thing upon which Van Gundy and Shaquille O'Neal agree. "Look, Shaq's a guy who takes shots at everybody, that's just who he is," says Van Gundy, who coached O'Neal in Miami and has feuded publicly with him since. "You have to learn to deal with that, but basically what Shaq says about Dwight is true also. I think that one of the things that all young players have to understand is that you're ultimately judged on winning in this league. It's not awards, it's not All-Star votes, it's not any of that. Its winning and how high you can lift your team, and that's basically what Shaq has said, so" -- and here Van Gundy pauses, obviously not savoring the conclusion he's come to -- "he's right."

There are nights, and plenty of them, when Howard appears to understand this. Smith, the G.M., points to the first round of the 2008 playoffs, when Howard averaged 22.6 points, 18.2 rebounds and 3.8 blocks in a five-game vanquishing of the Raptors. This was BBD-worthy stuff. "You could see it," says Smith. "He clicked on, and when he does, he has the ability to affect the game in ways most guys can't. But he doesn't always do it."

It's something that flummoxes even Howard. "The biggest thing for me is, I have to learn how to play hard on a consistent basis," he says. "I do it for five or six games, and then I might take one game off. Not that I take a game off, but I might take some possessions off and I'm not as aggressive as I can be." Asked why, he frowns. "I don't really know. We had a game the other night in Philly, and I was so excited to play, I was amped up. But as soon as the game started, for some reason my energy was gone. The whole game I was frustrated; I had a couple of fouls. I wanted to get myself going, but I couldn't ever do it."

Thus there is an organization-wide effort in Orlando -- call it Operation Get Dwight Going. Van Gundy employs a multipronged approach, critiquing Howard to the media (because he knows he'll be motivated by it) and employing visual reminders. For example, in every Magic player's locker, Van Gundy has taped up a sheet of paper outlining his role. Most are short and to the point; the one for backup center Marcin Gortat is in about 36-point type and reads, defense. rebound. run. For Howard, however, the sign is crammed with words (47 in all, in about 16-point type). There is a role heading (including dominator and runner), a greatness heading (including intelligence) and a work on/improve heading (beginning maturity -- more serious and play through adversity).

Smith is so focused on turning Howard into a leader that he's taken some counterintuitive steps -- such as excising players who are too influential, even in positive ways. "We loved Grant Hill, and he was great for this franchise, but we thought it was best for Dwight as a leader if he weren't here," Smith says. "Same for [outspoken reserve guard] Keyon Dooling last year. We'll protect Dwight until the point where he can handle what I call a dominant personality."

And when will that happen? Smith guesses "when he's 25 or so," noting that "he doesn't have a Garnett-type mentality." So while Nelson would qualify as a team leader, he and Howard are so close and so closely allied that when guard Keith Bogans was with the Magic, he referred to them as "sisters." As for the rest of the team, it falls into the mold of mellow (Lewis), quirky (swingman Hedo Turkoglu) or just plain young (plenty of players). That means that with Nelson lost for the season to a shoulder injury, Orlando heads into the playoffs, for better or worse, with a goofy 23-year-old at the helm.

And though this fun-loving side of Howard frustrates basketball types -- "some of us don't care for it," admits Smith -- it is also part of his popularity. Is it such a bad thing for an NBA player to clearly be enjoying the game, not just cashing a paycheck? Plus, Howard is in many ways the epitome of a family-friendly star. He's handsome, tattoo-free, doesn't swear and already attires himself in such an exemplary manner, with slacks and ties and crisp button-down shirts, that Orlando p.r. folks encourage him to get fully dressed before every postgame interview so the folks at home can see how good he looks. If the cameras also catch him pantsing a teammate or singing Rihanna during warmups, is that necessarily so bad?

Because what if, despite all the goofing off, Howard really did care?

What if, when his dad questioned young Dwight's desire, he responded, "But you know if we lose, I'll be the first to cry."

And what if he still is? "My first year, I used to cry all the time if we lost," he says. "If we lost to Kevin Garnett, I would be boohooing. I tried to be the last one in the shower so no one would see me crying." Other times, Howard would wait until he got home, then get into bed, tears tumbling down his cheeks. "It still affects me to this day," he says. "Like when we lost to Detroit. We got swept our first year in the playoffs, then we come back and lose to them again! It hurt so bad, man. It hurt so bad that I didn't want anything to do with basketball for a couple weeks."

We're not accustomed to this: the superhero athlete with feelings, who doesn't mind baring his soul, or openly questioning his decisions. Like with the dunk contest this year. On the one hand, when Robinson asked if he could use Howard as a prop two days before the contest, Howard said yes because he likes Robinson (they have the same agent, Aaron Goodwin), and after all, what's the worst that could happen? Then Saturday came and Robinson told Howard how the prop part would work: He was going to leapfrog him. Howard couldn't back out because, as he says, "I'd given him my word." Even up to the moment of dunkage itself, as Robinson approached at full speed, Howard had second thoughts. "I thought about turning around and blocking it, like 'I'm not going to let you jump over me' " -- says Howard, and here, one can imagine Smith and Van Gundy cheering at the instinct -- "but then I was like, Just go ahead, man, it's all for fun." And it was, sort of. Still, Howard knows that, "if I wouldn't have let him jump over me, I would have won."

And here we return to the question of intimidation. The reason Howard let Robinson leap over him is the same reason he won't flex or grimace or beat his chest to celebrate downing another man on a basketball court. "People want to see a mean streak, but that's just not me," he says. "I'll be mean and dunk the ball, but I'm going to laugh, because it's fun! I can't be the guy on the court huffing and puffing and trying to blow everybody down. My teammates know that I take basketball very serious, but I'm going to have my fun regardless. I'm going to dance in the huddle, I'm going to joke around with the coaching staff, play around with the fans, that's just me. That's always been me."

Here's what people may not realize: Howard never set out to be the Best Big Man, let alone the Biggest, Baddest Dude. Growing up, he played point guard and idolized Magic Johnson, watching the VHS tape Magic Fundamentals so many times he can recite the stilted dialogue by heart. Even after Howard enjoyed a freak five-inch growth spurt during his sophomore year, he harbored dreams of becoming the world's first 6-foot-11 point guard. He practiced threes, made no-look passes and was his team's second option to bring the ball up against pressure. Howard even created his own character every time he played NBA Live: a big man who runs the offense.

But still, he is a big man, and a self-aware one, so it's surprising he didn't see Shaq's umbrage coming. Here he was, a young powerful center playing in Orlando, and he was adopting the same nickname as ... another powerful center who had been picked No. 1 by the Magic. Howard says the whole issue is a bit of a misunderstanding. That he just became obsessed with a certain pop song -- Soulja Boy's Crank That -- that happens to feature a chorus and a dance move involving Superman. Then one thing led to another and Howard was dunking with a cape on and next thing he knew, everyone was calling him Superman. Which might be believable if it had stopped at that. But then you go to a game at Amway Arena, where the Orlando P.A. plays the Superman theme when Howard dunks and flashes a graphic of him in a cape on the videoboard. And, oh, yeah, let's not forget that he actually came out of a phone booth at this year's dunk contest wearing Superman regalia. So, yeah, we'd have to say it's intentional at this point.

Which would be all well and good if the current BBD didn't himself have a Superman tattoo on his left biceps, a long history of affiliating himself with the Man of Steel and a well-earned place as the league's reigning lovable, comic court jester. "I mean, Shaq takes it to another extreme," says Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw, a friend and former teammate of O'Neal's. "On his gate outside of his place in Orlando there's a big Superman emblem. On his bedspread there's a big superman emblem."

Add to that the other affectations Howard has "borrowed" from Shaq, often with less panache than O'Neal -- including looking at his hand in disbelief as he runs upcourt after making an impressive shot, the same way Shaq looks at his hand in disbelief -- and Shaw says, "I think that's probably what ticks him off a little bit, the idea that I am still here, and here he is stealing my stuff."

Now it is March 3 and the two men are meeting on the court in Orlando, where the crowd is ready to embrace its current superhero at the expense of its previous one. They boo O'Neal lustily during introductions, and hold signs that read will the real superman please stand up.

Before the game, Howard goes out of his way to be politic, dismissing questions about O'Neal, but his teammates aren't quite so reserved. An hour before tip-off, Howard, backup guard Tyronne Lue and point guard Rafer Alston are in the locker room talking about O'Neal's latest comments, which included this gem: "Every street he is driving down in Orlando, I have been on that street. Every nightclub, every restaurant, I have been there and done that."

"What was that about?' says Alston. "Him saying he's driven on all your streets, been to all your clubs?"

Howard shrugs. "Crazy, huh?"

In the corner, Lue, a former teammate of Shaq's in L.A., shakes his head. "C'mon, Diesel," Lue says loudly. "It's not your turn, it's man-child's turn."

Is it? An hour later, on the court before tip-off, O'Neal makes a point of greeting seemingly every Magic player, from reserve center Tony Battie to backup guard J.J. Redick, but he avoids Howard. Finally, Howard has to walk to the opposite end of the court and interrupt O'Neal's conversation with Alston to get in a quick, awkward hug. Then, on the first play, O'Neal emphatically rejects Howard's running hook -- which shouldn't have come as a surprise considering O'Neal spent a good five minutes during pregame practicing doing just that, as well as instructing Suns backup centers Robin Lopez and Louis Amundson on how to block it.

Every time the two centers post up, the contrast is obvious. Side-by-side, they don't even look like they're playing the same position, so great is the size advantage of the 7-foot-1, 325-pound O'Neal. And when O'Neal gets the ball low enough, Howard just clears out as Shaq goes up for dunks intended to break the backboard, or at least Howard's spirit.

And for a bit, it appears O'Neal might be successful. Howard gets into early foul trouble, he misses his first four free throws, he looks tentative. Finally, in the second half he gets a hook to go in, then on defense he smothers a Leandro Barbosa layup with two hands and, as usual, his numbers start to pile up; by the end of the Magic's 111-99 win, the centers will have played to a statistical draw.

Then, with 3:59 left in the third quarter, it happens; intentionally or not, the torch is passed. Or perhaps it is not passed so much as yanked from O'Neal's grasp. With the game close, Howard gets the ball on the left block and spins, turning his shoulder to the middle. Shaq takes the glancing contact and then -- in a sight so novel as to be almost disconcerting -- he falls backward, the mighty oak felled by a breeze. ("Yeah, I flopped," he admits after the game. "Just trying to play people like they play me.")

Howard appears stunned. Hearing no whistle, he gathers himself and rises for a towering, convulsing two-hand dunk. The crowd roars, the Superman song plays and, under the basket, a large, proud man whose time has passed picks himself up off the floor and scowls. Retreating from him, the gap widening by the moment, jogs a young man with broad shoulders and a springy step who is trying to conceal a smile. And in this moment it is hard to remember which giant is supposed to be the impostor.

Seeing Howard's countenance, it also brings to mind what he said, all those years ago, when his father would ask him why he couldn't be serious on the court. "But Dad." Howard would say. "Basketball brings me joy. Why shouldn't I be having fun?"

It is, you have to admit, a pretty good question.