Higher Calling Dwight Howard, the likely No. 2 pick in the NBA draft, is on a mission to do God's work by playing transcendent basketball

June 20, 2004

None of the bad things you've come to associate with high school
players who go straight to the NBA applies to Dwight Howard. He's
not in it for the money, he has no need for a posse of yes-men
assuring him that he's the real deal, and his judgment will not
be impaired by immaturity. On the contrary: After being taken
with one of the first two picks in the June 24 draft, the
18-year-old Howard may be an inspiring change of pace. Says his
father, Dwight Sr., a Georgia state trooper, "This has the
makings of a modern Biblical story."

Despite his tender years, the 6'10", 240-pound Howard is one of
the few sure things in what promises to be the least predictable
draft ever (chart, page 58), with top teams looking to deal and
a raft of teens and Europeans who could crack the lottery.
Despite persistent back problems, 6'10" UConn power forward
Emeka Okafor is the consensus No. 1 choice. Howard is likely to
go next; the Atlanta Hawks are among the teams that covet him,
and they may package their No. 6 pick for the Los Angeles
Clippers' No. 2. "You look at everything Howard can do, and you
say maybe, just maybe, you're looking at a top 50 alltime
player," says a veteran NBA scout whose team is not in the
lottery. "I don't know if you can say that about Okafor."

Howard is strong, fundamentally sound and blessed with a
playmaker's mentality that is rare among big men. His parents
preached discipline, dedication and a sense of purpose to him and
his siblings--5'10" TaShanda, a former center at Fort Valley
(Ga.) State, and Jahaziel, a 6'3" freshman at Southwest Atlanta
Christian Academy. Sheryl Howard endured five miscarriages, which
left her children feeling that they had somehow been chosen. "We
lost two sets of twins," says Dwight Sr. "I would question God
all the time, 'Why does this have to happen?'" But his doubts
gave way to an abiding faith: "We have come to realize that our
three kids are a living testament to the grace and wisdom of God,
and that God allowed them to be here to worship and glorify Him."

When Dwight Jr. looks at the NBA logo, he imagines a cross
superimposed over the slaloming outline of Jerry West. Howard
decided to turn pro now because NBA scouts persuaded him that he
was ready, but he had another reason. "The main purpose for me is
to preach the word of God in the NBA," he says. "When I say
preach, that doesn't mean standing on a podium before a game and
trying to tell everybody to follow Christ."

He aims to proselytize by his actions on the court: being an
aggressive defender, putting the needs of the team first and
humbly doing the dirty work. During the Jordan Capital Classic,
an April all-star game in College Park, Md., that served as his
farewell to high school, Howard was named MVP after racking up 18
points, 15 rebounds, six blocks and only one turnover. He did not
draw attention to himself with windmill dunks or no-look passes.
"People will see I'm not LeBron or Carmelo," he says. Instead,
Howard appears to be a younger, slimmer Tim Duncan--albeit with a
mouthful of braces.

On the morning of the game, as Howard ate scrambled eggs in the
team hotel near Reagan Washington National Airport, he was
approached by a couple of wise men: Howard Garfinkel, who runs
the renowned Five-Star high school basketball camp in Honesdale,
Pa., and longtime Philadelphia youth coach Sonny Hill. As Howard
signed a basketball that Hill would auction for charity, he
complained that he had been forced to shoot too often during the
scrimmages. "Two people besides my man were running toward me,"
said Howard, in a soft Georgia drawl. "The middle was wide open
but no one would cut."

"You know why they didn't cut?" Hill said. "Because guys who play
today don't know how to do it. They don't know how to move
without the ball."

But Howard knows. By facing up in the low post and rewarding
teammates who break backdoor to the basket, he could become the
centerpiece of an old-fashioned motion offense capable of picking
apart the collapsing defenses of today's NBA. Howard developed
his passing skills by playing point guard until he reached the
10th grade, when a five-inch growth spurt changed his
perspective. "That year he wrote a proclamation of the things he
was going to do," says his father. An NBA career was near the top
of the list.

By then Dwight Sr. was already a believer in his son's potential.
As the volunteer athletic director of Southwest Atlanta Christian
Academy, he had spent years raising funds for a new gymnasium
that would enable the coed school to compete in the Georgia state
basketball tournament. "I would tell people, 'You've got a
possible NBA pick coming through here in the future,'" he says.
He also warned--correctly--that the 624-seat gym would prove too
small by Dwight's senior year. Indeed, it couldn't fit everyone
during the team's run to its first state championship this
season, which Dwight clinched with a triple double (26 points, 23
rebounds, 10 blocks) in the final.

Dwight's parents were high school basketball players in
Swainsboro, Ga., where they grew up three doors apart and dated
as teenagers. Dwight Sr. gave up sports to earn money for his
education at Morehouse College. (His first job was as a
brickmason's helper.) After graduating from Morris Brown, Sheryl
soon found work teaching physical education at Southwest
Christian, a school of 362 students that Dwight Jr. has attended
since kindergarten. Outfitted in his uniform shirt with school
emblem, slacks and dress shoes, he would drive to school each
morning in a 1984 Ford Crown Victoria that cost his parents $900.
Every day began with prayer, and at home each night Dwight Jr.
was expected to do his chores--wash the dishes, take out the
trash, clean his room.

Howard is also a talented pitcher and his father says that
Georgia Tech (which Dwight ranked alongside North Carolina as his
college of choice, had he been so disposed) would have let him
play baseball as well as basketball. Perhaps the biggest concern
of NBA teams will be whether Howard can bridge the huge divide
between his secluded private school, where choir is his favorite
subject and his teachers have promised to pray for him, and the
sometimes decadent world of the NBA. "I know I'm going to have
some setbacks," Howard says. "I'm in a [sheltered] area, and I'm
used to everybody loving me. Now I'm going into a whirlwind where
everybody's out for money or their best interests."

Unlike most young pros, who pretend that they have the whole
world figured out, Howard freely admits that he will be
overwhelmed next season. (He plans to have an elder cousin live
with him full time.) Told that one NBA scout has complained that
"he always seems to play at three-quarters speed" against high
school opponents, Howard says, "Sometimes I'm afraid to open up
and show what I can do. It's part fear of messing up, and
sometimes it's fear of getting hurt, being afraid of injury." The
challenge of the pros will force him to push himself; since May
he has been rising at 4 a.m. to start his workouts. "I'm working
hard, but not as hard as I need to," he says. "They say you get a
lot of downtime in the NBA. Why not put in an extra two hours
each day to get better? It's not going to hurt. I want to say at
the end of my career that I was one of the hardest workers."

In the afternoon before his eponymous Capital Classic, Michael
Jordan addressed the high school stars as they sat in the
bleachers of the University of Maryland's practice gym. The first
to raise his hand was Howard, who asked Jordan about the
sacrifices that champions must make. "When other players are
sleeping, that's when you want to be out there working," Jordan
told him. "Work hard. Be the best. Demand a lot from yourself,
and then when you earn that respect, be demanding of others."

At times religious devotion can be perceived as contradictory to
a fighting spirit, and humility as an absence of confidence. But
listening to Jordan, Howard gained renewed faith in his belief
that pure motives and hard work conquer all. Jordan explained
that he gained respect for the daily work habits of Magic Johnson
and Larry Bird during the legendary Dream Team practices before
the 1992 Olympics but admitted that he lost respect for his good
friend Charles Barkley "because he didn't like to practice." He
said, too, that he would pay top dollar to see Kobe Bryant, Kevin
Garnett and Tim Duncan because they want to win more than
anything but was ambivalent about Allen Iverson, whom he felt
could do more to raise the level of his teammates' play.

After Jordan posed with Howard and shook his hand, Dwight thanked
him for all he'd done for the game. His idol then told Howard he
was capable of even greater things. "It almost brought me to
tears," recalls Howard, "that Michael Jordan would say that to
me."

SI.com
More analysis of the June 24 NBA draft at si.com/basketball.

COLOR PHOTO: DELANE B. ROUSE/ICON SMI TOWERING TEEN Though he deflected credit, the 6'10" Howard lifted his Atlanta school to the 2004 state championship. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CLAY PATRICK MCBRIDE COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN BALLOT STUFFER With 19 points in the East's win in the McDonald's game, Howard was named co-MVP. COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN COLOR PHOTO: LINDA SPILLERS HEIR UP THERE? A Q and A with MJ at Jordan's all-star classic made clear to Howard the value of hard work.

WHOLE LOTTO HELP

Here's Ian Thomsen's projection of the 2004 lottery picks, and a
listing of the players whom he expects to fill out the rest of
the first round (in the order they're likely to be chosen).

1. Magic Emeka Okafor, PF 6'10", 257, UConn, Jr.
Final Four star and NBA double double threat is the only sure
impact player in the draft

2. Clippers Dwight Howard, PF 6'10", 240, SW Atlanta
Christian Acad.
With a glut at power forward, L.A. could try to deal pick for a
point guard

3. Bulls Shaun Livingston, PG 6'7", 186, Peoria (Ill.)
Central High
His combination of size and feel for the game is too tempting
for Chicago to pass up

4. Bobcats Ben Gordon, PG 6'2", 192, UConn, Jr.
With inaugural selection, Charlotte goes for NCAA champ who can
score and create

5. Wizards Luol Deng, SF 6'8", 220, Duke, Fr.
Washington's dream comes true when top wing player in draft is
available

6. Hawks Devin Harris, PG (above) 6'3", 170, Wisconsin, Jr.
Atlanta will settle for much-needed pure playmaker if it can't
move up for Howard

7. Suns Andre Iguodala, SG/SF 6'6", 217, Arizona, So.
If Phoenix decides to hold on to pick, this highly skilled
athlete is a seamless fit

8. Raptors Josh Childress, SG/SF 6'7", 196, Stanford, Jr.
Can defend, rebound and penetrate; allows Toronto to consider
moving Vince Carter

9. 76ers Josh Smith, SF 6'8", 221, Oak Hill
Academy (Va.)
Aging Philly needs to get faster and stronger; Smith is
explosive athlete with big upside

10. Cavaliers Pavel Podkolzine, C 7'3", 303, Varese
A surprisingly agile 19-year-old Russian who can learn from
Zydrunas Ilgauskas

11. Warriors Robert Swift, C 7'0, 245, Bakersfield
High
Shot blocker and passer embodies G.M. Chris Mullin's notion of
how to play the game

12. Sonics Kirk Snyder, SG 6'7", 228, Nevada, Jr.
Seattle hopes this shooter can also be aggressive wing defender
it desperately needs

13. Trail Blazers Al Jefferson, PF 6'10", 263, Prentiss
(Miss.) High
Has the size to bang down low and already skilled at passing out
of the post

14. Jazz Sergei Monya, SG/SF 6'8", 220, CSKA Moscow
Fiery 21-year-old to play alongside former Russian teammate
Andrei Kirilenko up front

THE REST OF THE FIRST ROUND: Andris Biedrins (Latvia), PF/C,
6'11", 240 BK Skonto Riga; Rafael Araujo, C, 6'11", 280 BYU ,
Sr.; Luke Jackson, SG/SF, 6'7", 212, Oregon, Sr.; Jameer Nelson,
PG, 6'0", 199, Saint Joseph's, Sr.; Kris Humphries, SF/PF, 6'9
1/2", 238, Minnesota , Fr.; J.R. Smith, SG/SF, 6'7", 227, St.
Benedict's Prep (Newark); David Harrison, C, 7'0", 260, Colorado,
Jr.; Sebastian Telfair, PG, 5'11", 170, Lincoln High (Brooklyn);
Peter John Ramos (Puerto Rico), C, 7'3", 275, Criollos de Caguas;
Sasha Vujacic (Slovenia), PG/SG, 6'7", 195, Udine; Anderson
Varejao (Brazil), SF/PF, 6'10", 230, FC Barcelona; Viktor Khryapa
(Ukraine), SF, 6'9", 210, CSKA Moscow; Jackson Vroman, PF, 6'10",
230, Iowa State, Sr.; Peja Samardziski (Macedonia), C, 7'1", 250,
Partizan Belgrade; LaMarcus Aldridge, PF/C , 6'11", 235,
Seagoville (Texas) High

Howard appears to be a younger, slimmer Tim Duncan--albeit with a
mouthful of braces.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)