Some disasters are stunning. Some falls make no sense. Last year Dwight Howard failed to resurrect his career. There are two ways to deal with disaster, though. You accept the truth- it was your fault. Or, you believe in the conspiracy, that someone pushed you.
It was not supposed to be so antagonistic. Talent wins in the NBA and Dwight was a gifted big man with incredible shoulders and size. He was another dominant inside presence to add to the history books. From the beginning, Howard embraced the probability of all he represented. But as the days wore on and he was judged against the achievements of others he found it difficult to fulfill the requirements. He could not be Shaq. He could not score like Kareem.
Sometimes the grass is not greener. Dwight Howard was a divorced man in a new marriage who longed for his old wife. He missed what he had in Orlando. He was the biggest name with the most fame and the loudest praise. But the Lakers do not operate on the concept of entitlement. You earn everything. When he could not meet their standards he made sure everyone suffered with him.
It began almost a year ago, on opening night.
As a rule, the first game does not reveal much. They are glimpses through the window- you see silhouettes or you see chaos. What developed from the first night last year was chaos. Chaos is a different breed of child, it lacks obedience. It marches wildly and you cannot reign in its willfulness or its selfishness or control the edges until its destruction is near complete. By then it is too late and after that nothing makes much sense.
The game against the Mavericks on October 30th was the anticipated debut of Dwight Howard in a Laker uniform. The conclusion was supposed to be predictable, if not routine. It was not supposed to be surreal. The Lakers always beat the Mavericks. They have played them over 100 times and the Mavericks have only won 32. Add in Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, well you get the point. There was no reason to expect anything but success, no amount of imagination could create a different ending.
But often expectations are held together like lies are held together. To start with, Dwight Howard’s inner struggle made it impossible to look away. He was attached to praise, it was his oxygen. He was resistant to blame, he kept reminding people he had an injury. Still his game had a very nostalgic feel to it. It was a tree with very few branches, very few leaves. Little had been developed or expanded. It was without adaptations. In the time the league had changed, Howard as a basketball player had not. So he entered the game against the Mavericks that October night with the anticipation of starting over and putting his past year of insecurity and dependency behind him. His presence on the court was miraculous considering his back surgery. He was still struggling to recover and still struggling in a city that was not quite sure what to do with him. Heroes here smile less, compete more. They are driven and ruthless and they are champions. The value of success far outweighs the value of character.
After the opening tip there were clues. Intention often does not match behavior. The desire to score does not result in success as Dwight Howard has learned throughout his career. He is often clumsy and awkward when challenged to do more than dunk. As he propelled his body into a stationary Shawn Marion he watched as one domino followed another. Marion predictably fell backwards. Howard fouled out the game. The team was in trouble. The Lakers lost by eight to the Mavericks. Had Howard made his free throws before the contact with Marion occurred, the rhythm of the game might have changed but the thing about Howard is his transparency. His face shifts after every miss at the line. The crowd notices his performance anxiety. He notices they notice which influences how he thinks of himself; once more this struggle with self. With each miss, and there were eleven of them, angry groans were a continuing chorus. It became louder and louder and by the time he fouled out he had no more strength left. He was as beaten as a man could be. It was a sad relief at that point for him not to have to go to the line again and be punished by his own ineptness.
So this was the chaos of opening night, this disaster which was never muted. One loss turned into the next night’s loss. And then a Friday night loss to the Clippers. After the next few games the coach, Mike Brown, was fired. Dwight Howard would continue as he was. He would resist teamwork, resist trust, cling to his own exalted vision of himself and his game, cling to paranoia. His free throw shooting would remain unchanged the entire year; it was awful. He missed 366 free throws during the year which were more missed free throws than all the other Laker players combined.
In a way, basketball mythology is about guts and if you have any. There is a truth here about men and selfishness, and men and desire, and men and commitment. The point is to belong to the team and to belong to one another and to belong to your own game. Why Dwight Howard failed so spectacularly is a cautionary tale for those who believe there is something transcendent about the talented, about what they have been told. But it does not matter what you have been told. It does not matter who follows you. It does not matter who wants your signature on a piece of paper. You are what we see you are.
Far too often this is a world where men have been thrown together. They have nothing in common, not even the game they play and it all looks like a broken puzzle. You see five different men doing five different things as if they cannot stand one another. And then you know this movie. You have seen it before starring Dwight Howard so you have an idea how it will end 82 games from now.