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The Happy Dunker

April 20, 2009
April 20, 2009

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April 20, 2009

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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?

AS SHADOWS go,this is a big one. Enormous, really. Himalayan. And it won't stop following himaround. When the NBA playoffs begin this week, they'll practically take thecourt together: Dwight Howard and his gigantic, Twitter-happy, bad-mouthingshadow. And the only way the bounding, dunking Howard will ever be rid of thething is if he keeps bounding and dunking deep into June. Until then, he'llcontinue to be haunted by the words of another center whose dominance he oneday hopes to replicate. ¶ "Dwight Howard? Who's that? I don't know thatname." ¶ It is a cool morning in San Francisco, and the Suns are in town toplay the Warriors. Phoenix has just finished its shootaround at a downtownathletic club and, standing on the sideline, buttons of sweat covering hisenormous shaved skull, Shaquille O'Neal is staring at a reporter,unblinking.

This is an article from the April 20, 2009 issue

"Youknow," the reporter says. "Big guy, All-Star, Orlando Magic."

"Nope,"O'Neal says. "Haven't heard of him." He turns to guard JasonRichardson, seated nearby. "J, you know this guy? What's his name?"

"Howard."

"Nope,"says Richardson.

"HeyAmar'e," O'Neal continues, turning to power forward Amar'e Stoudemire."You heard of this guy, Howard?"

"No,"replies Stoudemire.

Satisfied, O'Nealturns back to the reporter. "No, don't know him. We don't talk aboutimpostors."

Over the seasonO'Neal would say plenty more about Howard, including, "Everything he'sdone, 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 winsthree, four championships, then we can talk about him." Still, that oneword stands out. Impostor.

It's not justthat the 23-year-old Howard has adopted the same superhero stylings andaffectations as O'Neal. It's also what Howard has the potential to become—aplayer just as intimidating as Shaq ever was. And this is not something Shaqtakes 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. Itis a role he inherited, at least symbolically, from Wilt Chamberlain, he of the100 points and thousands of women, and one that only two players have held inthe last 40 years. This is a title that goes beyond Best Big Man, one whichHoward can arguably already lay claim to. To be the BBD is to be larger thanlife in every respect, to strive to be a black hole of attention on and off thecourt while remaining unapologetic and fierce. No one messes with the Biggest,Baddest Dude. Ever.

But to spend aday with Howard—hell, to spend 10 minutes with him—is to realize that despitehis imposing stature and freakish athleticism, he may be among the least badassbig men in NBA history. For starters, he has this unfortunate habit of smilingall the time, even when he's dunking on someone. Clearly, this violates one ofthe cardinal rules of intimidating big men, namely Thou Shalt Posture andGrimace Upon Vanquishing Thy Foes. This means you have three choices: flexingconcrete biceps (like Alonzo Mourning), grasping your crotch with authority (√†la Shawn Kemp) or letting loose a banshee scream (see Kevin Garnett). Smiling,however, is not an option.

Howard? This is aguy who sings Beyoncé at the free throw line to ward off distractions, whoquotes not Scarface but Finding Nemo. He fools around during practice, duringpress conferences and during shootaround, where Magic coach Stan Van Gundy hashad to institute a no-flatulence rule because, as forward Rashard Lewis says,"Dwight really likes to cut the cheese." During the photo shoot forthis story, Walter Iooss Jr. had such a difficult time getting a serious poseout of Howard that he eventually told the young star to just do whatever cameto mind. Unshackled, Howard launched into 20 minutes of antic posturing(including fake gangster looks and a Will Ferrell imitation), eventuallyproducing so many fey poses that were SI so inclined, it could now put out acoffee-table book titled Dwight Howard: Dandy-at-Large.

This is not justa 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 aman in that line of work, the elder Howard used to shout, "Stop smiling outthere. Why can't you take the game seriously?" Likewise, when the Magicdrafted Howard with the No. 1 pick in 2004, straight out of Southwest AtlantaChristian Academy, the team saw his goofball persona as something an18-year-old kid would eventually outgrow. And five years later? "I used towant him to think of it like going into battle, being real serious," saysgeneral manager Otis Smith. "Now I've come to the realization that that'sjust who he is."

And who is thatexactly? Plenty of front-office folks believe that Howard is a future pillar ofthe league who, with his rare combination of size, power and dedication, coulddominate the paint for the next decade. After all, Howard is the reigningAll-NBA first-team center who won a gold medal in Beijing and at week's end hadclinched the titles for rebounding (13.9 per game) and blocks (2.9)—a doubleonly four others have ever achieved. He's also the first player to garner morethan 3 million All-Star votes, his popularity blossoming after his win in the2008 slam dunk contest.

But Howard hasnever taken Orlando past the second round of the playoffs, and his easygoingpersonality has some wondering how far he is capable of leading a team. Duringthe slam dunk finals in February, he allowed 5'9" New York Knicks guardNate Robinson to jump over him, effectively ceding his crown and emasculatinghimself in one tidy three-second span. Of course, Howard says the competitionwas all in fun, and true, the fans loved it, but would Michael Jordan or KobeBryant ever let an opponent do that? "F--- no," says Bryant."Especially not to lose no goddam dunk contest."

So which will itbe for Howard: intimidator or goofball? Or must there be a delineation—canHoward prove, in these playoffs, that the Biggest, Baddest Dude can also be theBiggest, Bubbliest Kid?

IT IS a Marchafternoon, and Howard is showing a visitor around his house in suburbanOrlando. This is not a brief process. At 11,000 square feet, with an extensivegame room and outdoor patio, a swimming pool with miniature palm trees and awaterfall, and an elaborate but seldom used nursery—for one-year-old sonBraylon, whose mother is a former Magic dancer—Howard's abode is so expansivethat, as he says, "I barely see some of these rooms."

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

When Howard movedin, the home was mostly furnished, but the touches he has added bring to mindwhat might happen if you allowed a 13-year-old boy to decorate a mansion. Sothere is, in addition to the game room, a Wii room, a PlayStation area, anextended family of flat-screen TVs and a pantry that is stocked almost entirelywith candy—boxes upon boxes of Skittles and Starburst and M&M's, all neatlystacked, as they would be at a Walgreen's. True, there is a wine cellar, butsince Howard doesn't drink, the glass-encased space feels like a diorama; allthat is missing is the stuffed wine aficionado, frozen in mid-sniff. There isalso a closet in the hallway that Howard says contains his "weapons of massdestruction," though, like any good son of a state trooper, he is quick tosay that the firearms are all registered. Asked why he could need these weaponsin the estatery north of Orlando, he gestures toward the woods beyond hisbackyard 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 SpringsState Park—though one has to wonder which creature would be more scared uponrunning into the other: a small black bear or the towering, block-chestedHoward.

The blocky chestis a matter of some pride, by the way. Before he goes out on the town with hisboys, Howard will sometimes drop down for 30 push-ups. His boys, friends fromhigh school, do too. And soon all of them are grunting and flexing and throwingin some sit-ups for good measure while Howard does his best ArnoldSchwarzenegger voice, yelling, Everybody get down, do it now! "Then we puton our tight shirts and go out," says Howard, "and we're all swoleup."

Only Howard isalready plenty swole up, and in this regard at least, he certainly looks thepart 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 amblesaround in a tight, futuristic-looking tank top, shoulders like twin armoires.Explains Howard, "I used to be the skinniest person in the world, so nowthat I've been lifting, yeah, I want to take my shirt off." Magic trainerJoe Rogowski say 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 butalso one of the strongest in the league. Before this season, "just forfun," Rogowski put Magic players through combine-style drills. Howardbenched 225 pounds 25 times, or what an average NFL lineman might do. He alsomaxed out the grip strength machine at 90 pounds per square inch with bothhands; most Magic players scored in the 50s and 60s. Says Rogowski, "That'slike a dog's bite."

Howard alsopossesses unusual athleticism for a man his size. With a running start he has avertical leap of 37 inches, and he has touched a spot two feet, 6½ inches abovethe basket. As testament to the amount of time he can linger above the rim, twoof the dunks he considered using in the contest this year were a doublewindmill 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 wouldhave tried it"). He is also surprisingly fast. When Rogowski timed playersin a three-quarter court sprint, Howard finished third on the team, in 3.14seconds, behind only guards Courtney Lee and Mickael Pietrus and a nose aheadof point guard Jameer Nelson.

Of course, allthe physical talent in the world is worthless if you can't apply it, and thatis the continuing challenge for Howard. Early in his career, he was essentiallya 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—atweek's end almost one in four of his shot attempts were slams and he led theleague with 196—he has also developed a post-up game, highlighted by runninghooks with either hand. (Many people don't know that Howard is actuallylefthanded; he developed his right hand after breaking his left wrist in eighthgrade.)

Though he wasaveraging 20.7 points a game through Sunday, Howard struggles when he venturesoutside the paint; assistant coach Patrick Ewing says working on Howard's jumpshot has been "like starting from scratch." His form isn't much betterat the free throw line (he is shooting 59.4% this season), where the Shaqcomparison is painfully apt (though, strangely, O'Neal never claims Howardcopies him in this regard). Van Gundy estimates Howard is still only"halfway to where he can be" offensively. Likewise, one EasternConference scout ranks him behind Houston Rockets center Yao Ming when it comesto dominant post players. "You can throw the ball into Yao 20 times in agame and play a game through him because he's a phenomenal passer out of doubleteams," says the scout. "You can't do that through Dwight. He canfinish at the rim, but you can't just run turnouts and post-ups for him 20times."

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

On D thatpotential is already being realized. Howard is on the short list for DefensivePlayer 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, includingleading 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 upand plucking them off some high shelf to which only he has access. While VanGundy will talk at length about what Howard needs to improve onoffensively—specifically his decision-making in the post and adding a baselineturnaround—he believes that Howard is almost fully formed on defense: quick onrotations, intelligent in the paint and capable of changing the game "whenthe effort is there." The scout agrees. "Really, he could block 10shots 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, focusand intensity.

STRANGE AS it maysound, 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 heis," says Van Gundy, who coached O'Neal in Miami and has feuded publiclywith him since. "You have to learn to deal with that, but basically whatShaq says about Dwight is true also. I think that one of the things that allyoung players have to understand is that you're ultimately judged on winning inthis 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 Shaqhas said, so"—and here Van Gundy pauses, obviously not savoring theconclusion 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 22.6points, 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. "Heclicked on, and when he does, he has the ability to affect the game in waysmost guys can't. But he doesn't always do it."

It's somethingthat flummoxes even Howard. "The biggest thing for me is, I have to learnhow to play hard on a consistent basis," he says. "I do it for five orsix games, and then I might take one game off. Not that I take a game off, butI 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 nightin Philly, and I was so excited to play, I was amped up. But as soon as thegame started, for some reason my energy was gone. The whole game I wasfrustrated; I had a couple of fouls. I wanted to get myself going, but Icouldn't ever do it."

Thus there is anorganization-wide effort in Orlando—call it Operation Get Dwight Going. VanGundy employs a multipronged approach, critiquing Howard to the media (becausehe 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 paperoutlining his role. Most are short and to the point; the one for backup centerMarcin Gortat is in about 36-point type and reads, DEFENSE. REBOUND. RUN. ForHoward, however, the sign is crammed with words (47 in all, in about 16-pointtype). There is a ROLE heading (including DOMINATOR and RUNNER), a GREATNESSheading (including INTELLIGENCE) and a WORK ON/IMPROVE heading (beginningMATURITY—MORE SERIOUS AND PLAY THROUGH ADVERSITY).

Smith is sofocused on turning Howard into a leader that he's taken some counterintuitivesteps—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 thoughtit 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 protectDwight until the point where he can handle what I call a dominantpersonality."

And when willthat happen? Smith guesses "when he's 25 or so," noting that "hedoesn't have a Garnett-type mentality." So while Nelson would qualify as ateam leader, he and Howard are so close and so closely allied that when guardKeith Bogans was with the Magic, he referred to them as "sisters." Asfor 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 meansthat with Nelson lost for the season to a shoulder injury, Orlando heads intothe playoffs, for better or worse, with a goofy 23-year-old at the helm.

And though thisfun-loving side of Howard frustrates basketball types—"some of us don'tcare for it," admits Smith—it is also part of his popularity. Is it such abad thing for an NBA player to clearly be enjoying the game, not just cashing apaycheck? 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 suchan exemplary manner, with slacks and ties and crisp button-down shirts, thatOrlando p.r. folks encourage him to get fully dressed before every postgameinterview so the folks at home can see how good he looks. If the cameras alsocatch him pantsing a teammate or singing Rihanna during warmups, is thatnecessarily so bad?

BECAUSE WHAT if,despite all the goofing off, Howard really did care?

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

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

We're notaccustomed to this: the superhero athlete with feelings, who doesn't mindbaring his soul, or openly questioning his decisions. Like with the dunkcontest this year. On the one hand, when Robinson asked if he could use Howardas a prop two days before the contest, Howard said yes because he likesRobinson (they have the same agent, Aaron Goodwin), and after all, what's theworst that could happen? Then Saturday came and Robinson told Howard how theprop part would work: He was going to leapfrog him. Howard couldn't back outbecause, as he says, "I'd given him my word." Even up to the moment ofdunkage itself, as Robinson approached at full speed, Howard had secondthoughts. "I thought about turning around and blocking it, like 'I'm notgoing to let you jump over me'"—says Howard, and here, one can imagineSmith and Van Gundy cheering at the instinct—"but then I was like, Just goahead, man, it's all for fun." And it was, sort of. Still, Howard knowsthat, "if I wouldn't have let him jump over me, I would have won."

And here wereturn to the question of intimidation. The reason Howard let Robinson leapover him is the same reason he won't flex or grimace or beat his chest tocelebrate downing another man on a basketball court. "People want to see amean streak, but that's just not me," he says. "I'll be mean and dunkthe ball, but I'm going to laugh, because it's fun! I can't be the guy on thecourt huffing and puffing and trying to blow everybody down. My teammates knowthat 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 coachingstaff, play around with the fans, that's just me. That's always beenme."

HERE'S WHATpeople may not realize: Howard never set out to be the Best Big Man, let alonethe Biggest, Baddest Dude. Growing up, he played point guard and idolized MagicJohnson, watching the VHS tape Magic Fundamentals so many times he can recitethe stilted dialogue by heart. Even after Howard enjoyed a freak five-inchgrowth spurt during his sophomore year, he harbored dreams of becoming theworld's first 6'11" point guard. He practiced threes, made no-look passesand was his team's second option to bring the ball up against pressure. Howardeven created his own character every time he played NBA Live: a big man whoruns the offense.

But still, he isa big man, and a self-aware one, so it's surprising he didn't see Shaq'sumbrage coming. Here he was, a young powerful center playing in Orlando, and hewas adopting the same nickname as ... another powerful center who had beenpicked No. 1 by the Magic. Howard says the whole issue is a bit of amisunderstanding. That he just became obsessed with a certain pop song—SouljaBoy's Crank That—that happens to feature a chorus and a dance move involvingSuperman. Then one thing led to another and Howard was dunking with a cape onand next thing he knew, everyone was calling him Superman. Which might bebelievable 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 agraphic of him in a cape on the videoboard. And, oh, yeah, let's not forgetthat he actually came out of a phone booth at this year's dunk contest wearingSuperman regalia. So, yeah, we'd have to say it's intentional at thispoint.

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

Add to that theother affectations Howard has "borrowed" from Shaq, often with lesspanache than O'Neal—including looking at his hand in disbelief as he runsupcourt after making an impressive shot, the same way Shaq looks at his hand indisbelief—and Shaw says, "I think that's probably what ticks him off alittle bit, the idea that I am still here, and here he is stealing mystuff."

NOW IT is March 3and the two men are meeting on the court in Orlando, where the crowd is readyto embrace its current superhero at the expense of its previous one. They booO'Neal lustily during introductions, and hold signs that read WILL THE REALSUPERMAN 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 roomtalking about O'Neal's latest comments, which included this gem: "Everystreet he is driving down in Orlando, I have been on that street. Everynightclub, every restaurant, I have been there and done that."

"What wasthat about?' says Alston. "Him saying he's driven on all your streets, beento 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'sturn."

Is it? An hourlater, on the court before tip-off, O'Neal makes a point of greeting seeminglyevery 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 endof 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'srunning hook—which shouldn't have come as a surprise considering O'Neal spent agood five minutes during pregame practicing doing just that, as well asinstructing Suns backup centers Robin Lopez and Louis Amundson on how to blockit.

Every time thetwo centers post up, the contrast is obvious. Side-by-side, they don't evenlook like they're playing the same position, so great is the size advantage ofthe 7'1", 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 thebackboard, or at least Howard's spirit.

And for a bit, itappears O'Neal might be successful. Howard gets into early foul trouble, hemisses his first four free throws, he looks tentative. Finally, in the secondhalf he gets a hook to go in, then on defense he smothers a Leandro Barbosalayup with two hands and, as usual, his numbers start to pile up; by the end ofthe Magic's 111--99 win, the centers will have played to a statisticaldraw.

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

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

Seeing Howard'scountenance, it also brings to mind what he said, all those years ago, when hisfather would ask him why he couldn't be serious on the court. "ButDad." Howard would say. "Basketball brings me joy. Why shouldn't I behaving fun?"

It is, you haveto admit, a pretty good question.

"I used to want him to think of it like going intoa battle, being real serious," Smith says. "Now I've come to therealization that that's just WHO HE IS."
"C'mon Diesel," Lue says of Shaq's criticisms."It's not your turn, IT'S MAN-CHILD'S TURN."
"I used to CRY ALL THE TIME if we lost,"Howard says. "If we lost to Kevin Garnett, I would be boohooing."
Says Howard, "My teammates know I take basketballvery serious, but I'm going to HAVE MY FUN regardless."

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PHOTOPhotograph by Bob RosatoSTAT STUFFER Howard, while gradually expanding his offensive arsenal, is still the league's most prolific throw-down artist.PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.SOFA, SO GOOD Howard loves to recline on the antique couch in the foyer of the $8 million home he bought last fall.PHOTOGREG NELSONEPICENTERS When the Suns came to Orlando in March, Howard's only response to O'Neal's barbs came on the court.PHOTOGREG NELSONMEASURING STICK Howard's post skills aren't yet as polished as those of Yao, the big man some scouts prefer.PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHFLEX APPEAL Howard's form-fitting attire gives him a chance to show off his physique before games.