First came James Harden, comfortable, happy. When he entered the little room, Harden spotted another guy with a massive beard and shouted, “Beard man!” and clasped his hand. He oozed confidence.
Then, a short time later, came Dwight Howard, also joking but not quite as happy, not quite as loose, not quite as comfortable in his own skin.
Even in Houston.
Even with this fresh start.
Harden and Howard had arrived for one-on-one interviews that will air in the next few weeks on FOX Sports 1. Harden handled the questions with aplomb, joking about his beard, acknowledging that only time will tell whether he or Howard emerge as the Rockets’ leader and pronouncing himself the best two-guard in the game. Which, of course, would put him ahead of Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade.
Dwight Howard was another story, and in the short time he and I talked, you could see the reasons he did not thrive as a Laker as well as the reasons he feels embattled and put upon. Many stars have been criticized and faced public-relations fiascos. Few fail to conceal their contempt for that fact as much as Howard.
His normally quiet responses went down a notch or two. His eye contact disappeared. On the easy questions — how does it feel to be in Houston, why he can be a leader of this team — he was nonplussed. On the harder stuff — like responding to those who say he is cancerous and an underachiever — he was downright put out.
I can’t blame him. But it’s also hard to find blame with the Lakers fans who now view him with contempt, or to find fault with Steve Nash publicly saying Howard never wanted to be a Laker, or to easily dismiss the views of the on-background-only NBA players, former players, general managers and front-office personnel who believe Howard’s massive talent will always be thwarted by what they see as his attitude problem.
From Howard’s perspective, it is an awful thing to be ridiculed, over and over, and it is human nature to latch onto those criticisms that are dead wrong and make them the focus of your world view. That’s true whether or not inaccurate criticisms make up 5 percent of what’s said about you or 95 percent. No one wants to believe the bad stuff, not about themselves. But sometimes, as certainly is the case with Dwight, there can be wisdom and important points of truth in the critics’ vitriol.
Instead of even an inkling of insight, there is in Howard a resolute anger that snaps to attention when things get tough. In Orlando at the end? Yes. In Los Angeles throughout that difficult regular season? No doubt. As the Lakers were being drummed out of the playoffs in the first round and Howard seemed to literally give up as he fouled out and sulked away? Absolutely. And certainly in our one-on-one interview.
I get it. It doesn’t matter whether he’s a good interview or a bad one with me, or some of the other journalists who speak to him and ask him questions no one tends to ask us in return. No one cares about us. No one should. If I or any of my colleagues sat down with a stranger as they asked about my life, and one-third of the questions were about my mistakes or perceived shortcomings, I wouldn’t like it, either.
But it’s equally true that Dwight Howard isn’t, well, most of us. He’s famous. He’s in the public eye. His ability to handle criticism (from fans, media), ridicule (from other players), pointed examples of what he’s done wrong (from coaches and teammates) and difficulties under the glare that comes with the world watching (hello, 82-game regular season) will ultimately help determine how well he does in his chosen profession. This has always been true.
Before Dwight, LeBron James was the punching bag or the guy who got called out for his mistakes, depending on your perspective. Kobe Bryant, who said this weekend he doesn’t “give a s—” about Howard’s departure, overcame a scandal and accusations exponentially worse than whether or not he was a good teammate.
The list of stars, in the NBA and beyond, who have had to deal with bad press, bad reputations, doubts about their ability to capitalize on their talents and the other cumbersome facts of life as a star professional athlete is long. There are distinguished names on it and names not as distinguished as they should be. Where Howard’s name ends up remains to be seen.
But in Houston, on that first day as a Rocket, looking clean and fresh in his new uniform, his baggage was still present. It’s too bad. No matter who you root for or what criticism you’ve leveled at Howard — and I’ve leveled my share — it would be great to watch him make good on all his talent.
It would make for great basketball. Dwight Howard as a top-three or top-two player would be great for the game. Houston, especially if Howard’s healthy and beneficial to his team, will be a joy to watch. And redemption stories are fabulous theater and nice reminders that we all live lives with peaks and valleys.
But self-awareness is a key ingredient when you’re to blame for past struggles, as Howard surely is. If those struggles can’t teach you something about yourself and your world, well, damn, you’re probably in trouble.
Right now it’s early, and time will tell, but Dwight Howard carried into that room in Houston the same problems he brought to the table in Orlando and Los Angeles: a lack of self-awareness, an inability to hear some of the obvious about his situation, a sullenness and withdrawn vibe the moment he was asked to account for even a small role he may have played in some issue or failure, and the lack of perspective necessary to think he can move to Houston or anywhere else and have his past left wholly behind, never to be mentioned again.
It’s meaningless if his qualms and shortcomings only apply to his dealings with the media, and maybe that’s it. You don’t need to get along with writers and television and radio people to make it in sports. Ask Gregg Popovich or Bill Belichck.
But in the past, Howard’s issues with the press have extended to his coaches, to his co-stars, to his teammates, to his fans, to his fellow players. If going to Houston has taught him nothing about those groups or about himself, then those in the league who believe Dwight Howard is the most talented cancer in sports may turn out to be right.