The first week of the Dwight Howard Homecoming clearly and cleverly has laid down the baseline for what his Hawks career could be, if handled by the right author.
The essential elements of the perfect story are all there: Native big man leaves home still a child in many ways as the NBA’s first pick straight out of tiny Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. He runs the maze of fame, lofty expectation, hubris and pettiness all around only to come back home again at 30 to find himself.
Such a tale surely is dipped in a syrupy glaze of possibility.
There Howard stood Wednesday, upon signing a three-year, $70.5 million contract with the Hawks, in the same south Atlanta gym where he shot as a child, holding a new team’s jersey with a new number.
No longer No. 12, he would now answer to No. 8, he said.
The No. 8 contains biblical symbolism, that when distilled, means one basic thing. “It’s a new beginning,” Howard said.
Howard also was born on the eighth of December. And he was, in a manner, an eighth child of Sheryl and Dwight Howard Sr. For after his older sister was born, the Howards suffered a half dozen miscarriages before Dwight arrived.
When his parents teared up at his introductory news conference/pep rally Wednesday — spawning an emotional response from Howard himself — they were replaying that family history in their heads. “When he was born it was like a breath of fresh air, after going through years of darkness,” Dwight Sr. said. “All of a sudden God opened up a door, and he came.”
There Howard was again Friday, at a high school gym in his old neighborhood south of town, communing with the 200 or so children at the 12th annual Howard & Howard Basketball Camp. The eight-time NBA All-Star and three-time defensive player of the year, wearing his Cookie Monster-adorned T-shirt, was at ease in such a setting. Haven’t many over the years, not always kindly, compared Howard with one very over-grown kid?
On his wrist, Howard wore a band given him by a friend, invoking Isaiah 54:17 and answering those selfsame critics: “No weapon that is fashioned against you shall prosper, and you shall confute every tongue that rises against you in judgment.”
What Howard set in motion this week was a theme of restoration pure and simple.
But there are so many complications.
And so many tongues to confute.
Wasn’t it another Isiah — surname Thomas, middle name Lord — who four months ago on NBA TV was offering some very pointed judgment of Howard’s career?
“Twelve years into his career in terms of where he started, we should be talking about him in terms of one of the most dominant big men to ever play. Now, why isn’t he? He hasn’t developed his game. Right now the name is bigger than the game,” Isiah Thomas, the Hall of Fame guard, said from the analyst’s chair.
What Howard has come home seeking — a comfortable place to be revived, like returning to Georgia to soak in the waters of Warm Springs — seems straightforward enough.
But it’s complicated.
Even the simplest question — how many children do you have — is tricky with him. The internet is awash with estimations of how many the single Howard has had with various women.
His answer: “Five. (The internet speculation) is something I can’t control because there are always going to be rumors here and there. I have five wonderful kids and no matter how they got here, whether that was without marriage or anything like that, one thing I do pride myself on is being a great father to my kids and taking care of my kids.”
The Howard name is woven throughout the communities of Atlanta. Uncle Paul is the district attorney for Fulton County. His father was going to Morehouse when he met his mother while a student at Morris Brown. A man who just appears larger than his physical size (nowhere near that of his 6-11 son), Dwight Sr. was a Georgia state patrolman for 16 years, and the athletic director at Dwight’s small Christian high school for nearly twice that long.
The sense of local service is strong with the family. The visitor to the Howards’ basketball camp passes the sketch of a faith-based youth and athletic complex taking shape not far from the family’s Fairburn home, called Hope on the Hill Family Life Center. In addition to Dwight’s own foundation, he last year began a “Just Breathe” campaign aimed at promoting understanding and unity.
How his son represents himself and his name in this Hawks incarnation is greatly important to the Howard paterfamilias. It is nothing less than a legacy-shaping event, Dwight Sr. believes.
“I always gave him this example — look at David Robinson,” Senior said, invoking San Antonio’s Hall of Fame big. “When David Robinson walked out of the league he had his head up and everyone was like, David, don’t go. Some players walk out, others they push out. As a parent, you want to see your son walk out with dignity. I think this is the right place and the right time to do that.”
At none of his previous stops has Howard had that luxury. His eight seasons in Orlando, which peaked with a 2009 conference championship over LeBron James during his first go-round with Cleveland, ended in the kind of rancor that gets him booed every time he goes back.
From L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke after Howard’s single forgettable season with the Lakers: “Take a hike, Dwight, and don’t let your cape hit you on the way out.”
Headline on Brian T. Smith’s Houston Chronicle column after it was certain Howard would not return for a fourth season: “Dark Cloud Departs Along with Dwight Howard.”
In the now, the Hawks require Howard to play with the cold-bloodedness of the dozen snakes, all large constrictors, he keeps as pets.
They need him to take up space in the paint like the current favorite of his car collection — a monstrous six-wheel Mercedes Brabus B63S 6×6 700, of which there are only a handful in the U.S. (Howard ordered his from Dubai).
And maybe even make a free throw once in a rare while.
Howard is a guaranteed double-double, who the Hawks acquired to beef up their rebounding and protect the rim. As he aged and his numbers incrementally declined, he also found himself on teams with ball-hoarders like Kobe Bryant and James Hardin. There is the hope that in Mike Budenholzer’s diversified offense, Howard will play a larger role.
But, of course, there are complications.
Will his health hold up, specifically a back that was surgically repaired in 2012 (he also missed 52 games in his first two seasons in Houston with a variety of ailments, mostly knee)?
“My back hasn’t been an issue, and I don’t think I’ll ever have an issue out of my back for the rest of my career,” he said without pause.
And will he play nice with others, altering this image that has grown around Howard that he is a difficult teammate and a hot-and-cold competitor?
When Howard speaks of himself now, a changed man, the words are simple and clean, like the peal of church bells.
“All the things that happened the past couple of years really just made me stronger, made me have some thicker skin.
“All the things that have happened put me in a place of humility to where I needed God, to understand I needed him to really survive.”
When told that, according to mytopsportsbook, the odds of the Hawks winning the NBA championship actually worsened from 35-to-1 to 50-to-1 after he was signed — and Al Horford went to Boston — Howard hardened his face and got very blunt and direct.
“It angers me because it makes you feel like it’s impossible. But I know what if all of us are on the same page and I’m in the best shape and I’m dominating every night, we’re going to have a great opportunity,” he said.
Turning words to deeds will be just so very complicated.