His reputation was never about being brave. He just was not fearless. But in the last game of the season Dwight Howard could not avoid the truth. He could not lead a team anywhere, not on his own. The first technical was in the first half and a product of his frustration, a year in which everything went wrong. The second technical was an hour later. Afterwards, there was a moment when he seemed to have forgotten the first technical; his brain froze. Reminded that he had to leave the court Dwight Howard walked away from his team. There is a metaphor here about men who abandon things, about their shame. Dwight hardly seemed aware of his last impression. Or how separate he seemed, even then. Whereas once he was a hero-savior now he was a hero-child. He would forever be tarnished. There was little hesitation as he made his way off the court that April night. Ejected from an elimination game, he knew it would be the very last time he would have to endure such a walk. It would be the last time he would be part of anything with such grand expectations. It was the last page of the last chapter of his story here.
There are certain war analogies that reach into sports, the ones about strategy and the building of walls and front lines. Because the thing is, if you are a great player you live in the trenches. You dodge fire. Or you fire back while crouched on your belly. That is the point of your talent, your instinctual ability to adjust and adapt on the fly, to figure things out. Although Dwight Howard traded cities it is not clear what, if anything, he has figured out.
Dwight Howard is a very good player. As his early start to the new season has shown, his ability to rebound the ball has put him at the top of the list of great rebounders. He is averaging fourteen rebounds a game. But aside from rebounding what else does he do well? Is he on the list of greatest centers of all time? According to the Win Shares statistic, the answer is no. His Win Shares is lower than Jack Sikma and Bob Lanier. Players such as Shaq and Olajuwon, whose Win Shares are one of the highest, had better careers as the years wore on. They improved. Howard came into the league as a one dimensional offensive player. Ten years later we know this about him. He is not the sort of player you can trust to get a basket in a close game in the last minute. It makes you wonder if Howard’s greatness is one dimensional, if he is nothing more than a specialist.
There are certain things you know about players after watching them awhile. They are the author of their own book. Howard is undersized. He is defined by his ability to rebound and block shots and alter shots. When things get difficult he waves the white flag. He forced his way out of Orlando; the coach was fired. He left Los Angeles because the coach was not fired. His attraction to Houston was simple: he had gone two places and burned the house down. He wanted to save something new. But Houston did not need a paramedic, just someone to control the paint.
The greatest athletes in the history of sport have endured trauma. They sacrificed their bodies and took a bad beating. They had the privilege of knowing punishment and pain. But there is life after suffering. A few years ago Dwight had more votes than anyone in the All Star game. Not particularly introspective, he likes to attribute the loss of his popularity to media criticism. Perhaps no one has pointed out to him that you cannot burn bridges and then expect to cross them.
How does it happen that you miss someone’s career? With Dwight Howard it feels that way, like you went to sleep on the best part. Howard’s most important season was the year he went to the NBA Finals. The Finals has something to do with sealing your reputation. It is a tribal ceremony in which you know beauty or you know pain. You are rewarded or you are punished. So it was with that sort of truth staring him in the face at the end of game four when Howard was supposed to rise. He expectedly fell on his sword. It happens when you are asked to face your weakness. Howard had been brilliant the moment before his downfall. But at the free throw line it is a pretty basic evaluation. Do you have heart? Do you have nerve? Do you have will? Are you clutch? Dwight took the ball in his hands knowing if he made both free throws the game would end. His team would have tied the series. But Howard is always fighting against some invisible curse. He took a deep breath as he stood there. In much of the game he appeared powerful. Now he was alone. He blinked to calm his nerves. His psyche was what was on display, its wavering condition, as if it had been punched. He extended his arms and the ball sailed. Clank. Miss number one. Perhaps that was the beginning, the first of the blows. Perhaps he knew then what would happen next, what always happens when Howard was alone at the line. But he took another deep breath as the weight of the moment stared him straight in the eyes. Clank. Miss number two. One more failure of his own tepid heart. It was the pattern of his career. It would follow him down the road. What should have been a Magic win turned into a devastating loss. The Lakers won in overtime after a Derek Fisher three pointer tied the game in the waning seconds of regulation. At that very moment Dwight Howard was responsible. The blame was his: a basketball death orchestrated in slow motion. His career would never be the same.
If anything he is known for what is beautiful and what is not, for creating chaos out of sanity, for altering shots in games, for grabbing rebounds, for winning the Slam Dunk Contest, for sulking on the sidelines, for needing love, for Defensive Player of the Year awards, for blocking shots, for being playful, for clinging. He did what no professional player of his stature has ever done. He made two cities revile him. Bring up his name and people outside of Houston either shudder or roll their eyes. He is his own archetype: the million dollar baby. Over his career Howard’s approach has had a certain childish pattern best characterized by the way he burns through towns instead of sticking it out when things are difficult. Tough men want victory over their circumstances so they can say they have gone through something that hurts. Howard’s way is the easy way to have a career. Don’t challenge yourself. Don’t do what it is hard. But Howard’s way has not made him more popular or better liked or even a more polished player. Certainly it has not made him great.
But perhaps it has made him happier, this new existence in Houston. It has its upside, an absence of cruelty. Gone is the intensity. Gone is the blame. Gone is the city who could not love him. He never quite understood the Los Angeles of his dreams. Or perhaps they never understood him. He was not perfect nor did he want to be.
His relationship with love and loathing is odd. So he did what he had to do that night in April when he turned his back and walked the long walk out the door, out of Staples Center, eventually out of Los Angeles, away from Kobe Bryant’s sadism and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar’s intellect. The critics were right all along. He was not tough enough, not obsessive enough to rise above the myth. To say he was Wilt or Shaq or Kareem was to say he was indestructible. In fact he was delicate. In Orlando everything had been given to him. In Los Angeles everything had been taken away from him. He had to start from scratch. It was a world without oxygen, one in which he could only tread water. Kobe did not believe in mercy, basketball was a street fight. Dwight did not believe in malice, basketball was a performance. And then it was too late.
He arrived at the truth when everything was just about gone: it was how you played that mattered, nice does not count. With all of this in his head and heart the entire year felt like running up hill on a mountain made of rocks. Of course he fell. Of course he did. But sometimes when you crash, your body hurts, your mind hurts. You crash the hard way, the worst way possible. But you fall in exactly the right place to start a new life.