Dwight Howard literally gave the jersey off his back to Connor Spencer.
It was no coincidence.
The relationship between player and fan was nine years and thousands of miles in the making and gesture fulfilled a seven-month-old promise.
Howard gave his game-worn jersey to Connor on Monday night as he exited the court after being ejected in the third quarter of the Hawks’ game in Boston. Video of the moment went viral. Another young fan dressed in a Celtics jersey jumped up and down, thinking she was about to receive a gift from Howard. Instead, Howard turned and presented it to Connor before he departed.
Howard was criticized by many for a perceived slight. It stung.
“It was going to one person,” said Connor’s stepfather, Kris Bador. “It went from hand to hand. Connor pointed at him. Dwight nodded and walked away.”
The story behind the jersey presentation begins in 2008. Basketball is a part of life for the Bador family. When Connor was 8, the family made the four-hour trip from Barre, Vt., to Boston for a Celtics-Magic game. Connor had a sign that read: “Paul Pierce is the real Superman, and that’s the Truth.”
Howard saw the sign, a play on the nicknames for both Howard and Pierce, before the game, visited with the youngster and posed for a photo. It would not be their only meeting.
Two years later, Conner 10th birthday present was a trip to Orlando to attend a Howard basketball camp. He brought along a copy of the photo of the two of them — complete with his own autograph — to present to Howard.
Years would pass. Howard would play for the Lakers and Rockets and make just one yearly trip to Boston. The Bador family schedule never allowed for a trip to the city for those games.
Last summer, father and son attend the Las Vegas Summer League. The yearly tournament features NBA draft picks and young players. While watching a game, Howard, the Hawks’ newest player, walked into the arena to watch his new team. When Connor and his father approached, it only took the word ‘Vermont’ to spark a six-year-old memory. They talked for 45 minutes.
During the conversation, Connor asked for a jersey. Howard promised with a condition. Get to a game in Boston and wear red — even you are a lifelong Celtics fan. The Hawks made just one regular-season trip to Boston this season and when the family realized it, they checked their schedule. Connor had a day off before the Vermont state basketball playoffs started. They were able to secure front-row seats.
“As soon as Dwight was coming out (to warm up) with his headphones, he looked and he just started laughing,” Bador said.
Howard introduced the now 17-year-old Connor to Kent Bazemore, another left-handed shooter. Howard was on the receiving end of plenty of boos from the crowd of more than 18,000 that night. He received a technical for shoving Al Horford and minutes later another for hanging on the rim. Although the NBA subsequently found that he should not have been ejected by rule, Howard was sent to an early shower.
He remembered his promise.
“Before the game he said, ‘Dwight, remember we are going to be here after the game for the jersey,’” Howard said. “Unfortunately I got kicked out. As I got ready to walk out, I caught him out of the corner of my eye. So I was taking it off, the young lady tried to grab it out of my hand, tried to snatch it from me. I had to yank it back and give it him.”
That was the moment Howard caught grief for. He said Thursday that the young women reached out to him via Instagram to let him know she was not insulted and did not like the way he was being portrayed.
“She sent me pictures of the jersey that she has that I signed for her a couple of years ago when I played for Orlando,” Howard said. “She also took a picture of her and Connor. She didn’t like that people were trying to portray me as this bad guy for dissing here. That was never my intent. It was pretty frustrating that a situation like that escalated.”
Connor was approached by many people after the game, some wanted to buy the jersey and others wanting their own photo opp. His phone received many messages from friends who had watched on television. He was even recognized at a rest stop on I-93 an hour and a half into the long voyage home to central Vermont. Bador said his son was shocked and visibly shaking after the moment of a lifetime.
“As a coach, as a parent, those are the types of professional athletes that you want your kids surrounded by,” Bador said. “In my heart I really believe he cares about fans and kids.”
Howard says he has a good memory, especially when it comes to meeting fans. He also remembers how he was once treated.
“Before I came into the league I had an opportunity to meet a couple of NBA players,” Howard said. “The way the way they acted toward me kind of upset me. I said if I had the opportunity I would make sure I would be different than those people were. I know that as much as I do on the floor, it’s going to be great but the things I do away from the game will mean more and impact more people than just basketball. I’m very big on remembering people and their faces. When I have an opportunity to give them some of me, I try to do that.”
Howard still bristles at the national reaction to the encounter with the Celtics fan. He is at ease that she reached out to him.
“It’s great to hear and that the kind of impact that I want to have on people’s lives,” Howard said of his interactions with Connor. “It’s not about what people want to say on TV because they are always going to have their opinion. But I know who I am as a person. I know what I stand for. These people are not my judges. I know I did the right thing. I was just upset the way people took it. I was happy that the girl reached out to me. I was getting a lot of hate messages about it. She wanted to reach out and say she was a big fan and she’s always going to support me despite what people are saying.”
The Badors did not have a chance to see Howard after the game. Chances are there will be another family trip to Boston in the future.
“It was one of those nights that makes sports so good,” Bador said.