In an unofficial farewell before heading to Charlotte, Dwight Howard seemed disappointed, yet overridden with a sense of spiritual optimism.
Surrounded by family and friends in his hometown, Howard accepted the Spirit of the League Champion award from the Urban League of Greater Atlanta at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Friday.
Howard’s off-the-court work has never been questioned. Through the D12 Foundation, he’s used a hands-on approach in numerous admirable projects. The foundation focuses on three key points: early childhood education and literacy, education of girls in East Africa, and empowering youth and developing leadership.
On the court, Howard’s career has shifted into uncertainty. After Howard’s up-and-down first season with the Hawks, general manager Travis Schlenk sent him to the Hornets for an underwhelming return, perhaps signaling the worth of the eight-time All-Star in the ever-changing NBA.
In what could’ve been an awkward appearance, Howard remained positive. He followed through on his commitment to appear and speak at the event despite being traded two days prior.
Talking in the short news conference and interview at the Urban League luncheon with 11 Alive’s Shiba Russell, Howard referenced the trade, while choosing to stay away from basketball-specific questions.
“I don’t really want to get into basketball because today is about these kids and what they’re trying to do,” Howard said. “I’ll be leaving to play basketball. But my house is here, my family is here. This will always be home no matter what city I’m in, this place will always be home.”
His stint here ended up being short, but Howard always seemed happy in Atlanta. Compared with Los Angeles and Houston — where he didn’t have the support system off the court to embrace him when his time on the court may have been difficult — Howard always had his hometown behind him.
“My time here was amazing,” Howard said. “I got a chance to get closer to my family. I went straight from high school to the NBA, so at 18, I had to go from this small little school in Ben Hill, Georgia off to Orlando, Florida. It was a different world for me, but coming back home and seeing a lot of my friends and family and playing for my hometown team, which has always been a dream of mine, was a blessing.”
Howard’s support and love in his hometown showcased itself at the Urban League luncheon. While talking, the hundreds of people in attendance cheered on their hometown success story’s words. The spiritual background of Howard was displayed prominently.
‘I’m just looking forward to this opportunity,” Howard said. “I don’t look at any situation of being traded or any situation in life as a loss. I always take that as a learning lesson. I’m just happy to be where I am now coming from where I came from. You can’t question it. Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it’s not what we want. But at the end of the day, we never know what God wants from us, or what path he’s going to give us. Life is hard, but we do have an instruction manual, and that’s the Bible.”
Hidden in Howard’s optimism were moments of disappointment and sadness to be leaving his hometown after just one season.
“I’m going to miss being at home playing in front of my hometown and a lot of my friends and family,” Howard said. “I had just got a beautiful place in Suwanee. That’s the sad part. I finally started reconnecting with a lot of people I grew up with, but life has its seasons. And my season here in Atlanta as a basketball player might be over, but what I plan to do here in the community, that will never end.”
When Howard signed with the Hawks, he referenced wanting to retire in his hometown. Russell asked him about his plan now.
“Well I can still retire in Atlanta,” a laughing Howard said. “Not playing basketball … but I can still retire. I have a retirement home already.”
Howard referenced “new beginnings” when he returned to Atlanta to play for the Hawks. He decided to change his number to eight symbolically in relation to that. Biblically, the No. 8 means resurrection and regeneration. Now headed to the Hornets, Howard revealed he’d be returning to his original No. 12. He also talked about an unknown detail on why he moved to the No. 8.
“I’m going to go back to my old number,” Howard said. “I thought coming here and changing my number was great. There was a lot of significant reasons why I chose that number. One of the biggest reasons was the fact that my mom, she lost seven kids, and I was the eighth child. I was not supposed to be here. I was premature by two months, but I still was a big baby. That was one of the biggest reasons why, and also, that number meant new beginnings. It’s a new chapter of my life. Even though on the basketball side with leaving Atlanta, it’s still a new chapter.”
Now moving on to his fourth new team in six years, Howard will face another challenge in his storied career. He will be joining a team with very little playoff experience, likely leaving Howard as the veteran in need of displaying leadership to his teammates. Hornets owner Michael Jordan apparently played a major role in wanting and acquiring Howard.
“I’m very excited, it’s a blessing,” Howard said of moving forward with Charlotte. “I’ve been playing for 13 years. I’ve done things that nobody said I was going to be able to do. The fact that Michael Jordan called me and said I wanted you meant a lot to me.”
“We’re talking about the greatest basketball player to ever play calling your phone and saying, ‘Hey, I wanted you, I believe in you.’ That was somebody that motivated me to do what I’m doing. I want to be able to have that same type of effect to where I call a kid and he’s so excited that he just wants to jump through the roof and run through the wall. That’s how I was after having the conversation with Mike. I had just got finished doing a 2 1/2-hour workout, and once I was finished talking to him, I wanted to jump back in the gym.”
Howard is expected to be introduced in Charlotte on Monday.