AN AGONIZING110--106 road loss to the Phoenix Suns was forgotten—apparently, in all ofabout two minutes—asOrlando Magic center Dwight Howard zeroed in on his latestlocker room target last Friday at US Airways Center. "Do you knowJuntao?" he asked a reporter from China. The man looked bewildered and saidno. ¬∂ "How about Soo Yung?" asked Howard with a big smile. "SooYung? No?" The man shook his head. ¬∂ During the week that the Magic spentin China in the preseason, Howard had asked dozens of locals if they werefamiliar with his favorite characters from the movie Rush Hour. None of themwere, which left him perplexed; he figured that a Jackie Chan flick would be derigueur viewing for all Chinese citizens.
This is an article from the Dec. 10, 2007 issue
Howard merrilyslapped the confused reporter on the back and moved on to other diversions,such as shaking his booty to the music playing in his head, modeling hiscustom-made De Witt watch ("See, check out the second hand," he said,holding the timepiece, which showed fractions of a second, out for inspection)and ridiculing small forward Hedo Turkoglu's choice of a ski cap. "It'sjust not that cold, Turk," said Howard.
No one in the NBAis having more fun right now than the 6'11", 265-pound Howard, who turns 22on Saturday, five months after signing a five-year, $80 million contractextension. "To be young, rich and athletic," says Orlando backup guardCarlos Arroyo, "has to be a fine thing." When Howard entered the leagueout of Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy as the first pick in the 2004 draft,there were plentiful accounts of his strength and quickness—and just as manydoubts about his ability to reach the elite level. Not enough polish. Can't domuch facing the basket. May never develop even a short jump shot. Doesn't passwell out of double teams.
But Howard'sproduction this season can be measured in several ways: by his numbers (he wasaveraging 23.5 points, 14.6 rebounds and 2.79 blocked shots through Sunday); byhis team's record (Orlando is 15--4 despite playing 12 games on the road); andby the almost nightly visuals of him soaring above the rim, glancing down atthe mortals below with the serene expression he always wears and throwing downa slam. Howard had more dunks at week's end (84) than all but two teams in theleague and was 47 ahead of the second-most prolific dunker, the Los AngelesLakers' Andrew Bynum.
That flurry ofpoint-blank buckets does raise a question, though: Is Howard merely aridiculously prodigious dunking machine? Thankfully for the Magic, all thatjamming has been accompanied by an improved around-the-basket game—he can goover a defender or spin around one, finishing with either hand—that has helpedHoward increase his scoring average by almost six points from last season. Andhis real advantage on other big men is that he can beat them down the floor. OnSunday night against the Lakers, for example, he took a crafty lead pass fromTurkoglu to score on a transition dunk down the stretch, the key play in animpressive 104--97 win, the Magic's first in L.A. since 1996.
But Howard stilllooks tentative facing the basket and awkward at the foul line, where he wasshooting 60.7% through Sunday, better than Shaquille O'Neal but not good enoughto get the ball late in tight games, when opponents are likely to hack him.
Last summer Howardworked two hours a day, five days a week with freelance shooting coach CharlesRichardson, trying to extend his range to the college three-point line. So farhe is only reliable inside eight feet but he should soon move farther out onthe floor; in Magic assistant Patrick Ewing he has a tutor who was one of thegreatest perimeter-shooting big men in NBA history. "Dwight will eventuallyneed to get more range on his jumper, but he won't have to take it out as faras I did," says Ewing. "He'll get more easy baskets because he's sogood in transition and so athletic. And he has better shooters around him thanI did."
Howard'srebounding has also increased significantly (he averaged 12.3 last season), forwhich he has no explanation. But given his indefatigability—"I've neverseen a big man with his stamina," says Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy—and theMagic's dearth of board crashers, he has an excellent chance to become theyoungest rebounding king in league history.
MAYBE THE bestthing about Howard, though, is that he still has the same infectious joy he hadwhen he came into the league as an 18-year-old. He does spot-on impersonationsof Van Gundy and general manager Otis Smith, but he is proudest of his Shaq,which was sampled on the Amway Arena scoreboard before Orlando's Nov. 24 gameagainst O'Neal and the Miami Heat. (Shaq got a chuckle out of Howard'simpression of him at a press conference but found little humor in the Heat's120--99 loss.) With Howard as ringleader—"the silliest player on theleague's silliest team," says Smith—almost all the Magic mimic backupcenter Adonal Foyle's Caribbean-British accent. That includes Turkoglu, whoseFoyle comes with a Turkish twist.
Howard's routinesare mostly PG-13. Having been raised in a religious household, he still readshis Bible, leads team prayer sessions and swears that alcohol has not, and willnot, touch his lips, even if the Magic one day uncorks championship champagne."My teammates ask me that all the time," he says, "and I'm notgoing to drink it. And when they spray it, I'll keep my mouth closed."
His attitude aboutthe All-Star Weekend's slam-dunk contest speaks to his refreshing enthusiasm.Last February, Howard received a middling score after slapping a sticker ofhimself on the backboard with his left hand (at a height later measured at12'6") before dunking with his right. "The judges just didn't getit," he says in as somber a tone as he ever takes. But even though he feltjobbed in his first appearance, Howard couldn't be more excited about the 2008competition in New Orleans, which many of his fellow All-Stars will no doubtsnub. "If they'll have me," he says, "I'll be there."
Howard has beenworking on a kiss-the-rim dunk (his lips have survived practice rounds, but hehas bumped the back of his head hard on the iron) and one in which point guardJameer Nelson throws the ball over the backboard from behind the basket andHoward jams in some outrageous way that he says he'll "figure out on theway down." He is on a mission to prove that a big man can beacrobatic."I don't think people realize how hard it is," says Howard, "for aguy to get 265 pounds up in the air and do some stuff."
His mission withthe Magic—to lift a franchise that hasn't won a playoff series since 1996 (whenits center was O'Neal) to the league's elite—is more meaningful. The quickstart notwithstanding, it won't be easy. Van Gundy wants to play up-tempo tokeep defenses from loading up on Howard, but his quarterbacks, Nelson (who isgenerously listed at 6 feet) and Arroyo, have not shown that they can finish ormake decisions on the fly. Power forward Rashard Lewis, who was given asix-year, $110 million deal in July after a sign-and-trade with the Sonics(Seattle got a second-round pick and a $9 million trade exception), givesOrlando a much-needed three-point threat, but he has been an All-Star only oncein nine seasons. The Magic is weak at two guard (journeyman Keith Bogansstarts), and the players' ain't-we-got-fun attitude may not help. "Theyneed to get on each other a little bit more when somebody screws up," saysSmith. Turkoglu has a hard edge, but co-captains Howard and Nelson (Van Gundynamed them before the start of the season) are not, by nature, confrontationalsouls.
LAST FRIDAYeverything Howard and his team are—and everything they are not—was on displayat US Airways Center, where Howard went up against All-Star Amaré Stoudemire,who just three seasons ago was the league's jaw-droppingly athletic youngcenter of the moment. Howard is fond of warming up before games in sleeveless,skintight white Under Armour. "Dwight likes his body," Smith observedwryly, watching Howard loosen up. "Then again, if most guys had his body,they'd probably come out with even less on."
The Suns hadpredicated their game plan on stopping Howard—"The first thing we have tofigure out," coach Mike D'Antoni said in his morning coaches meeting,"is when to hit [double-team] him"—and getting off to the sort of goodstart that would usually demoralize a young visiting team. Which is exactlywhat happened. In the first quarter Howard seemed intent on covering theturnover spectrum (offensive foul, three-second violation that wiped away abasket, pass thrown behind a cutter, pass thrown too far in front of a cutter),and Phoenix built a 31--16 lead.
But over the next36 minutes Orlando outplayed the Suns. Howard vacuumed up every rebound in hisvicinity. He dunked on follow shots, dunked on spin moves, dunked when herolled to the basket after setting high screens for Nelson or Arroyo. Howard'sathleticism is most manifest in those situations—the passer need only throw theball, almost blindly, in the general direction of the basket, knowing thatHoward will swoop in and put it through. "If you make just a pretty goodpass," says Arroyo, "he's going to do something alien with it,something out of this world."
On onefourth-quarter play Howard pushed Phoenix guard Steve Nash away with his lefthand and dunked with his right; on another he brushed off forward Shawn Marionand sent the Matrix flying. At one point Suns guard Raja Bell, never one to shyaway from contact, asked assistant Alvin Gentry what approach to take whenHoward comes steaming down the lane on a screen-and-roll.
"Should I stepin and plug?" said Bell.
"I'd just getthe hell out of the way in that situation," answered Gentry.
"Just makingsure we were on the same page," said Bell.
Still, Orlando'sweaknesses were exposed down the stretch. The guards or Lewis misfired onperimeter shots after failing to get Howard a touch down low. Or maybe theydidn't pass to him for fear that Phoenix would put him on the line, where hewound up finishing with only four makes in 10attempts. With 6.9 seconds leftLewis missed a good-look three-pointer that would have given the Magic aone-point lead, and the Suns held on for the win.
But all everyonetalked about after the game was Howard's utter physicality, the fact that hisoutlandish numbers (30 points—16 of them on dunks—and 23 rebounds) came soeasily, the reality that the gifted Stoudemire (19 points, 10 rebounds) seemedto shrink in the younger man's presence. "He's a force down there,"Stoudemire said. "Howard's game is pretty much based on power, and I'm adifferent center. I'm a versatile center and a little farther-from-the-baskettype of player."
If that seems likea dig, well, it's not inaccurate. Howard must continue to find the balancebetween adding finesse and building on his forte, which, he acknowledges,"is dominating in the paint." And he must also balance being a good guyoff the court with being an assassin on it. "I don't know why I wouldn'tact like I'm having a good time because I am having a good time," saysHoward. "But I know when to turn it on."
There hasn't beenmuch magic in Orlando since Shaq led the team to the Finals in 1995. It will befascinating to see if another very big man who knows how to play the clown cando the same thing.
Get a new Inside the NBA column from Jack McCallum every Thursday.
ONLY AT SI.COM