By any measure, Dwight Howard has had an eventful season, and not necessarily for the best. After innumerable trade demands, rumors of destinations-of-choice, ardent denials (eventually backed up by opting for another year in Orlando) and throwing coach Stan Van Gundy under the bus, the perennial Defensive Player of the Year and MVP candidate topped it off by, after all that, demanding a trade.
In other words, Dwight Howard is right back where he started from: trying to escape the team that drafted him, the only NBA home he has ever known. It may not be “The Decision,” since Howard isn’t from Orlando originally, but on the other hand, Howard isn’t a free agent like LeBron James was. Not yet. He could have been if he wanted to be, but instead Howard wanted to be the one traded. He didn’t want to make that choice.
That’s because Howard wants desperately to be liked. You can see it in his off-court persona, the jokester who loves to mug for the camera and portray himself as fun-loving, colorful and impossibly easy to get along with.
While advertising only ever contains a grain of truth, the concern that Howard’s nice-guy image would stand in the way of his ever developing a nasty streak on the court was, in a sense, based on this understanding of Howard. He’s a nice guy, or at least wants to play one for the cameras.
Howard vowed to learn from “The Decision,” LeBron’s great miscalculation that succeeded in tarnishing his image. The thing is, LeBron also wants to be liked. He was once the NBA’s great smiling fellow, Magic Johnson for a new generation in more ways than one.
Unlike Howard, whose position practically demanded he learn the art of cruelty, LeBron’s game meshed perfectly with this version of himself and this vision of basketball. You could even argue that “The Decision,” crass as it was, meant to turn a heartbreaking announcement and blatant cash grab into something sugarcoated and kind. The power of irony was apparently lost on James and his handlers.
Howard, though, is acting out in far more raw, unchoreographed ways, suggesting that he saw LeBron’s error as pissing people off—not what he did to get there.
The trap these two have found themselves in is that once an athlete presents himself as a “nice guy,” it’s almost impossible to make an unpopular or contentious decision without it being perceived as a personal betrayal, or at least a shameless reversal of brand. James tried to make “The Decision” fan-friendly and failed. Howard, on the other hand, has sought to preempt outrage by simply doing what he thinks will, at that moment, get folks off his back.
And yet he lashed out at Van Gundy, who seemed more amused than anything else, and ultimately asked to be traded. So here we are, right where the season began, except with Howard under contract for another year, his brand in shambles and his insistence on defending it at all costs making it seem like basketball is, in some ways, secondary for him. He made a mess of the Magic and, in some ways, the entire league rather than admit he could be selfish and heartless and just deal with it.
Some may see his back injury as karma. I see it as a welcome relief and, for Howard, a reprieve. At least this way, he can’t do any more damage to himself. He may get the chance to realize that sometimes, being honest with yourself and others, while it may sting short-term, is the easiest way to navigate a difficult situation. People understand that. They can also get with genuine guilt. What they can’t tolerate, though, is ego masquerading as outward concern.