Dwight Howard's journey of discovery
In the past two weeks Dwight Howard has apologized to the city of Orlando for how he handled his business last season, admitted he has maintained a close relationship with the coach he once wanted fired, described his former teammates as "guys nobody else wanted," then seemed surprised when they were offended by that, apologized again if they were, then said he meant to say they were just underrated.
He also has said that playing in Los Angeles with Kobe Bryant will make him a better person and player, that he is committed to do whatever it takes to win a championship here but is focused only on this season, that he wants to change the world by never letting things people say change who he was as a person and a player, but that he recognized during All-Star weekend that he needed to change and mature.
Take a minute to digest all that. It's a lot for two weeks. It's a lot for one 27-year-old man.
But this is Howard's swirling reality. These are the thoughts that are in his head all day and all night. They are the questions he is asked on a daily basis and the feedback he gets from his chattering mob of 4 million Twitter followers.
It is loud and constant. More often than not, it is negative and cruel.
Because Howard created so much of this himself with his decisions and actions over the past two seasons, sympathy is hard to come by.
To many fans in Orlando who will greet him Tuesday night for the first time since he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in August, he is a childish villain who spurned them for the bright lights of the big city.
To many fans in Los Angeles, he is the guy who showed up expecting to be wooed without first winning a thing here.
But reread the list of what Howard has said in the past two weeks. Doesn't it sound like any young person trying to find himself?
People say things they don't mean; they mean things they don't say. They try on personas and voices and lifestyles. Some things feel right. Others feel right but are obviously wrong.
People latch onto quotes on the dry-erase board. They cling to mentors. They reel and writhe with all of it, hoping that someday it'll all be clear and a path forward will open up ahead.
This is Dwight Howard, a superstar still in development.
He admitted as much Saturday afternoon.
"I wanted to come here and not talk to anybody and act completely different," Howard said of his approach to starting over in L.A. "I got tired of the perception. I know people only see the smile and think that I'm all about games."
In his first few months in Los Angeles, Howard always seemed pleasant enough. He never did stop smiling.
There was a strain, though. You could tell he wasn't fully comfortable. He wanted to be liked: That was obvious. But you felt him talking to himself, reminding himself that in order to grow he had to stop caring about whether people liked him.
And then on the basketball court, there just wasn't much to like at all as the Lakers and Howard struggled to a 17-25 start.
"I told him, 'Dwight, you want to go to a big market, these folks are going to be hard on you,'" Smith told ESPNLosAngeles.com. "His whole view of the situation [in Orlando] was that he didn't want to be looked at as the bad guy because he wanted to leave.
"But I was like, 'Dwight, you're one of the most dominant big men in the game. Even LeBron got criticized for the decision he made. People burned his jersey. They called him all kind of names. That's going to happen to you. And you need to learn how to accept it.
"But the biggest thing you have to get ready for is the media. In a smaller market they cover you up a little bit. These folks are going to be putting everything out there. You need to be ready for it."
But as much as Howard tried to steel himself, deep down he's not the guy who puts on armor. He's the guy who yuks it up with fans hours after a game, trying to connect, hoping to be liked.
It's why he worked so well in Orlando. It's why he had a hard time saying he wanted to leave.
"Man, listen, you know my heart, my soul and everything I have is in Orlando," Howard told RealGM reporter Jarrod Rudolph last March, just hours before the trade deadline when he made the staggering decision to eliminate the early termination option on his contract.
"I just can't leave it behind."
In the months since he was traded, Howard has tried to embrace Los Angeles and everything it has to offer.
This is what he said he wanted, a stage. A place to win championships. A city big enough for him to grow into, then leap over like he did so easily on the 12-foot rim at the 2009 slam dunk contest.
But saying you want something and being ready for it are two different things.
There was no phone booth to use to change into a Superman costume. There was an operating room where he had back surgery, then a recovery room, then months of trying to regain all that athleticism.
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And he had no support system in L.A. He didn't come here with two other superstars who happened to be his friends, as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did when they teamed up in Miami before the 2010 season. He came on his own to a team that already had a superstar.
Recently, Howard admitted that playing alongside Bryant would be a good experience for him in the long run. He said he's learned from him, and tough love is what he needed.
"Kobe is very beneficial to his career," Smith said. "Kobe's an assassin. He understands what the tradition is with that organization, and he tries to get everybody mentally set for what the expectations are for that team.
"I think it's good for Dwight. I think it's going to help him grow as an individual and as an athlete."
Growing. In the end, that's what all this is really about. Leaving behind one stage of life and learning to embrace the next one. Moving away from the people and city that raised you, trying to make it in the big city.
Because of the animosity it has engendered, Howard's situation is often compared to what James and Cleveland went through in summer 2010.
"I don't think it's a secret that he told all of us that he was getting traded before the season started. He told us in the locker room, 'Hey, I'm getting traded to New Jersey,'" former Magic guard J.J. Redick told me recently.
That's when the backlash in Orlando started, Redick said.
"People take things personally. I'm sure the fans took that personally, as though life in Orlando is not good enough or whatever," he said. "And then to me, the last straw was just kind of how the season unraveled in late March, obviously following the Stan [Van Gundy] press conference [where he admitted Howard had asked management to fire him] and then Dwight getting hurt. Then kind of the stuff that transpired after it. ... It's still going on, apparently, if I'm reading my Twitter timeline."
But there are important differences between Howard's breakup with Orlando and James' with Cleveland.
James was from Cleveland and the people there believed that meant something to him. Or enough at least, that he wouldn't leave. When he did, it felt like a betrayal, like he'd looked inside himself and decided he wasn't one of them.
Howard simply came of age as a basketball player in Orlando. When he left, it felt like a disappointment. Like he'd looked inside himself and decided somewhere else was better.
So yes, it will be uncomfortable for Howard on Tuesday night when he comes back to Orlando. It will be loud and ugly and emotional.
"I've thought about it. I think it's going to be crazy," Howard said. "I don't know how I'm going to handle it."
But it won't be as bad as when Clevelanders burned James' jerseys after he announced he was leaving for South Beach. That was about Cleveland as much as it was about James.
This is just about Howard.
He left because he was looking for something: a place that would push him, a city that would love him, a stage worthy of his gifts.
Or maybe just to find out who he really is and what he really wants, after all.