In the spring, Dwight Howard was on the cusp. He had been anticipating this moment for months. Imagination, though, can be a curse. Things rarely go as you expect. But this much was true: Kobe was finally gone and everyone was watching. Finally Dwight could shepherd the way, lead from the front, carry a team. His ego had always been inflated. He believed he was greater than he was. But now- now it was time to prove it to a skeptical basketball world that was unsure of his talent. Or his heart. It brought to mind the NBA Finals in 2000 when Shaq fouled out and Kobe took the game over. Dwight was expected to rise to similar heights of perfection. But the truth is Dwight is not Kobe. He does not possess the same sort of willful tenacity or confidence or frankly, Kobe’s guts. Dwight has a tendency to drown beneath pressure, sucked beneath the tidal wave of expectation he flails in the water until he is overcome. And so it was again. Against the Spurs, Dwight Howard shrunk. He lost his composure. He never understood that to gain trust, to witness freedom, to embrace peace, to earn respect, you must willingly give something up. You must compromise. Okay. Here is what we know: only two free agents in the last fifteen years, players in the prime of their careers, traded cities and won championships. They happen to be two of the greatest talents in NBA history: Shaquille O’Neal and Lebron James. In a way Shaq and Lebron are the same sort of player, an identical archetype, mirror images rather than mirror opposites. They share strength and size and speed. They are the most dominant players of their respective generations. They can score, pass and rebound. There is no answer for them in the post. They intimidate their opponent. They won regular season MVP awards, consecutive titles. Shaq scored twenty eight thousand points in his career. Lebron has already passed twenty thousand points in his career. They left the teams that drafted them and won championships at the next stop and were the best player on their new team. In some ways, they are freaks of nature. In other ways their talent is unrequited.
Dwight is clinging to his imagination. He expects he will do it differently somehow. Different than Shaq and Lebron. The emotional truth remains: he has never won an MVP award. His dominance is one dimensional. He is not the best player on his own team. So it is possible, even likely, that Dwight never wins in Houston. It is hard to win a title. Add to that, this Houston team has vulnerabilities. They do not guard the three point line. Opposing point guards ruin them. As a team they turn the ball over which Howard won’t help; in his last game against Portland he turned the ball over six times. He averages three and a half turnovers a game. With the exception of rebounding, Houston is near the bottom in almost all defensive measurements. They surrender more than 103 points a game. They are far from being the best team in the Western Conference. They are not even the second best. Or the third. While all of that may be true and Dwight may never win in Houston it is better than where he used to be. In Los Angeles his talent did not make him special. The city is used to the talented. They are used to the sublime. But Los Angeles is not a hero culture. It is an achievement culture. There is little tolerance for mediocrity or laziness. The standards of excellence were difficult for Howard to meet because for most of his life he was a pleasure seeker without any real consequences, no price to be paid. His development was arrested and then by chance he came west. When Dwight was in Los Angeles he was on the rebound. He had been in love, had his heart broken, now here he was, a friend with benefits. But there was something about Dwight that was dreary beneath the surface even as he pretended to be content. He wanted to be an adult child. But he was not obedient. He would not let go of his ego, his elevated sense of self, how great he thought he was. He complained about shots. He complained about coaching. He complained about stats. He complained about his injury. He complained about Kobe. He complained about critics. He complained about fans. So far gone was he that he could not recognize his own failure. He was a fallen prince. Defeat is born out of apathy and out of greed and out of pride. Of all the images Dwight Howard had this was his newest one, the one that would invariably stick: the man who could never be happy. For this reason, Dwight says the same thing over and over to change the conversation about him, to refract his image. He says he is happy. He passes the eye test. He is healthy. He is actively pursuing loose balls and rebounds. He is moving effortlessly around the court. He is not conflicted about his touches as he did constantly when he was in Los Angeles. He is not concerned about his perception, about wanting to be a star. So far, so good, a 4-1 start. He is averaging seventeen points and fourteen rebounds. He is playing the power forward position but not as many minutes. He is not passing the ball, he averages one assist a game.
Dwight Howard is the rare man who is not afraid to cry. It is the truth about him more than any other truth about him, the narrow line that exists between his past and his present, between his emotional temperament and his years as a child. Because he is desperate to cling to the habits of what he did before any of us knew of his name, the perception of him rests upon his insecurity. The Howard that Los Angeles knew was a disappointment and at the same time was inevitable. Rarely do men change. So it is not a coincidence that the only Laker players Dwight still stays in touch with are the youngest ones: Jodie Meeks, Jordan Hill, Robert Sacre. Dwight Howard is young too, a little naive, and immature. His position has always been- give me the ball. And yet in Houston he gets the ball as a third option. He averages ten shots a game, six less than James Harden, one less than Chandler Parsons. So in effect he is their third choice just as he was in Los Angeles. Still he proclaims he is happy. So maybe it was not a basketball decision after all, maybe it was Los Angeles he was divorcing. All of it. The fever of the fans. The sadistic insanity of Kobe. The expectations to achieve like Shaq. The unilateral concentration on winning and losing, on being beloved or, as Dwight found out too often, being crucified. In a city of six million he was isolated. In the end no one loved Dwight for Dwight. If nothing else life is about adaptation. Whatever happens in Houston this year Dwight will get redemption. Life is circular in that way, things ease, people forget lies, time moves on. Dwight spent two years trying to navigate minefields by not telling the truth. Perhaps what he wants will never happen. He won’t win a ring. The truth is it takes a certain sort of player to win titles. Men who are tough like rocks, who in the face of adversity never quit and never, ever break. But in sports chances are fleeting. You are up to the plate once and you strike out. Twice and you strike out. The third time there is no one to blame, it will be no one’s fault but Dwight’s.