Last week, Dwight Howard posted video on his Twitter account of him being continuously punched in the gut.
It was a training exercise preparing for Howard’s first season as the Charlotte Hornets’ starting center. It could also be viewed as a metaphor.
Thirteen seasons into an NBA career that points him to the Hall of Fame, Howard feels a little picked upon. He’s on his third team in as many seasons. His hometown team, the Atlanta Hawks, traded him one season after signing him, and were willing to take back Miles Plumlee’s awful contract to make that deal happen.
Howard sounds ticked off. About two weeks before the start of training camp Sept. 26, he arrived in Charlotte looking to change perception. If that means he’s an older, wiser version of the guy who has passed through four other franchises, all the better.
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“This is going to be better than my first couple of years in the league, I think,” Howard said, following an assembly at Starmount Academy, where Howard pledged a $100,000 contribution toward the operation of a Boys and Girls Club at that Charlotte elementary school.
I’m glad he’s setting the bar high. He was last an All-Star in the winter of 2014. However, he was productive enough last season, at the age of 31, to still average 13.5 points and 12.7 rebounds (fifth in the league).
The Hornets need defense, particularly rim protection. Howard can still deliver that more naturally than the team’s other center option, Cody Zeller. Howard can post up and work with Kemba Walker and Nic Batum in pick-and-roll offense.
His new coach is also his old coach. The Hornets’ Steve Clifford was an assistant with the Orlando Magic (the team that drafted Howard No. 1 overall in 2004) and with the Los Angeles Lakers when Howard was there. Howard maintains a huge benefit in this trade is his history with Clifford.
“Cliff has been around me from Day One,” Howard said Thursday. “He knows the sort of person I am.”
I first met Howard when he a high school senior at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. The thing I remember most from that interview is him walking in wearing a letterman’s jacket, with shoulders so wide it blocked the sun out of a window.
Back then, he was an absurd athlete for his size. Clifford says Howard can’t be that athletic anymore, but his sophistication when it comes to pro basketball is generally under-appreciated.
In particular, Clifford said last week, Howard anticipates what’s about to happen in a basketball game at a very high level.
“I understand so much about the game, and he’s right: I can see things before they happen,” Howard said when told of Clifford’s description.
Then Howard sidetracked into how he feels he’s been misrepresented by media pundits.
“There have been writers who get national attention who have said things about me that stick in people’s minds and in their hearts,” Howard said.
“I’ve allowed things that have been said about me to have an effect on me.”
That wasn’t an isolated comment. Changing perception seems very much on his mind.
“This opportunity for myself to really get back everything that I would say has been taken away. I’m not too much worried about the naysayers, the rankings and stuff, but just the hearts of the people,” Howard said. “I’m in a much better place mentally, physically and spiritually than I have been in a couple of years.”
Great. Howard is entering the best locker room I’ve covered in nearly 30 years on the NBA beat. There are leaders in there – Kemba Walker, Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – who set the tone, both in work habits and in being genuinely vested in teammates’ success.
I hope Howard realizes quickly how lucky he is to be dropped in that atmosphere - with serious, professional people and a coach he says understands him.
Just remember that the first time Clifford cusses him in practice or plays Zeller in the fourth quarter because of Howard’s shaky foul-shooting.
If it’s so important for Howard to restore his reputation and legacy, he’ll get every opportunity. That starts with attitude.
So it was appropriate Thursday that Howard’s first big public appearance in Charlotte was connected to the Boys and Girls Clubs.
“We want to give these kids some hope that they can be successful in life, with so much stuff going on in our society,” Howard said of his contribution.
Good intentions and good works, for sure. It was a heck of a first step in winning over Charlotte.