Scott Fowler

In Dwight Howard’s imagination, Charlotte just beat Golden State

Dwight Howard has always had a vivid imagination, and it roared to life once again Monday afternoon as he sat down for his first Media Day press conference as a Charlotte Hornet.

Rather than take the moment just for what it was – a late September afternoon on the day before Howard has his first official practice with his new teammates – he imagined what he wanted it to be.

In Howard’s mind, the calendar read June 2018. The setting was the NBA Finals. And Howard was arriving to a postgame press conference after the Hornets had just beaten Golden State. He folded his 6-foot-11, 265-pound frame into a chair and began.

“Talk about the win against Golden State,” Howard asked himself, changing his voice into that of a press conference moderator.

“We played a good game,” Howard replied to himself, looking down at his imaginary stat sheet. “Kemba (Walker) did a good job. Coach has always been great. Jeremy (Lamb) hit some tough shots. Frank (Kaminsky) hit a big three in the fourth quarter that put us over the top. And Cody (Zeller) got a big rebound over Steph (Curry).”

Then Howard smiled his big smile, breaking the spell. The rest of the time he veered between the serious – he vowed of President Donald Trump that “only thing I can do is forgive him and love him” – and the silly.

It was vintage Howard. He won the press conference in the first 30 seconds. Now the question is whether he will win anything else substantial as a Charlotte Hornet.

Not ‘lost,’ just learning

Howard is playing for his fifth NBA team in seven years. In 2008, as writer Lee Jenkins pointed out in an excellent Sports Illustrated cover story on Howard this month, Howard had more endorsement deals than LeBron James. (Howard, who has never been married, also talked at some length in that story about his love for the five children he has had by five different women.)

He has been in a gradual but long descent down the NBA ladder for the past few seasons for Howard, to the point that his hometown Atlanta Hawks only kept him for a single season before trading him to Charlotte. Howard’s “Superman” nickname, once used mostly in awe, was frequently mocked.

The Hawks wanted to be rid of Howard so badly that they basically allowed the player once considered an NBA Rolls Royce to be repossessed by the Hornets – almost all Charlotte had to do was take over the payments on the three-year, $70.5-million contract Howard had signed the year before. I thought it could be a great deal for Charlotte then and still do now.

When a reporter on Monday referred to that season as a “lost year” for Howard, the center corrected him.

“It’s never lost,” Howard said. “It’s always a learning lesson. … The past couple of years? I just say ‘Good.’ They needed to happen. ... I’m not upset about anything that happened in the past. But this opportunity is very dear to me, very special. I get an opportunity to be who I am and lead a team. That’s something that I’ve asked for, I wanted. And so here it is.”

In his 14th season, Howard is no longer as athletic as he was when Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford had him in Orlando, where Clifford was an assistant. But Clifford is sure Howard can be an elite defender and rebounder and that he will also help the team with his underrated basketball IQ.

Said the coach: “The biggest thing people don’t understand about Dwight Howard is how intelligent he is. He does things at both ends of the floor that allow your team to play better. ... People have this impression of him that it’s all just athleticism, and that’s not true at all.”

‘You can’t get nothing’

Howard has never won an NBA championship. He came closest in Orlando, where the Magic lost to the L.A. Lakers in the 2009 NBA Finals. How did that feel?

“It’s like as a kid the first time you go to McDonald’s,” Howard said. “You get a chance to go in, get inside, see all the food in there, ice cream, Big Macs, the large fries, the Happy Meals – and then your Mama says, ‘Nope. You can’t get nothing yet.’ And you gotta leave.”

The trade for Howard in June reverberated throughout the Hornets organization. Batum, in France at the time, woke up to a phone so overloaded with text messages that he was at first convinced he was the one who had been traded. Said Walker: “I was pretty ecstatic. I’ve never played with a guy who dominated the paint like he can.”

Howard has been getting advice from Hornets owner Michael Jordan, who wants him to be a determined player but also keep the smile while he’s playing. That’s wise advice, for an angry Howard is usually a “I’m Getting Another Technical Foul Now” Howard.

“Michael Jordan has that voice that makes you want to jump over a building,” Howard said. “ ‘Dwight, you can do it’ – that sounds so much different coming from somebody else.”

Can Howard really do it? He’s 31 now. His body has a whole lot of miles on it. An eight-time NBA all-star, he’s convinced he can resurrect his reputation in Charlotte. And make people smile at the same time.

“I’m here to spread love,” Howard said. “That’s all I want to do. Spread love, see people smiling, and enjoy life.”

That – and win a championship trophy. Since Howard seemed willing to entertain basically any question Monday, another reporter asked him if he would want to go to the White House in 2018 if the Hornets really did win the NBA Finals.

“Would I go to the D-wight House?” Howard said, purposely mispronouncing the phrase. “My house?”

Then he got serious.

“I think by the time we finally win the championship, which hopefully will be next summer, the world will be in a lot better place,” Howard said. “The president will be in a better place. And we’ll have an opportunity to go to the White House. We don’t know. Life happens.”

Yes, life happens. With the addition of Howard, we don’t actually know yet whether the life of the Charlotte Hornets franchise got any better.

But it sure got more interesting.