HOUSTON — The workout had run for two excruciating hours, and Dwight Howard was spent. Breathless, drenched, done. Kevin McHale, his new coach, had one more request.
"Hey, we’ve gotta do our sprints now. Ten, up and down."
Exhausted, but eager to please, Howard pushed aside his momentary disbelief on that September day. "OK," he said. "I’m in."
But before Howard could launch his sculpted 6'11" frame from the baseline, an impish McHale waved him off.
"Nah," said the Houston Rockets coach. "I was just checking if you were willing to do it."
The two men chuckled.
There was meaning in the moment, a subtle message conveyed from the demanding, no-nonsense coach to his fun-loving, occasionally nonsense-prone young star: We can work hard and have fun, too. More importantly: I get you.
This is no small thing, given Howard’s wayward trajectory over the past two years—the messy exits in Orlando and Los Angeles, the grinding battles with Magic coach Stan Van Gundy and Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, the rapid erosion of his standing as one of the NBA’s most likeable and popular stars.
Free agency offered the 27-year-old Howard more than a chance for a fresh start this past summer. It gave him the chance to pick his next coach, someone he could entrust with the next critical stage of his career. In McHale, Howard got both a mentor and a role model: a hard-nosed, Hall of Fame big man who would demand his best and understand the challenges he faced.
"I feel like me and Kevin just have a special relationship already, from just the first time we’ve talked until now," Howard said in an interview with Bleacher Report. "He said he watched almost all my games. It was just a shock. You got Kevin McHale, one of the greatest players to play the game, our coach, dissecting my game and all my tapes."
The enthusiasm in Howard’s voice was as palpable as the soaring expectations surrounding the Rockets.
In the space of 12 months, the Rockets have transformed from a middling, nondescript team into a potential powerhouse, thanks to the arrival of James Harden last fall and Howard in July.
Their prospects for contending in a stacked Western Conference will depend largely on the budding partnership between the two All-Stars. It will depend too on an intriguing supporting cast featuring Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin. But the bond between Howard and McHale could be just as critical.
"Now I have a coach who actually played my position," Howard said. "He can understand when I need the ball when I need to be in certain positions. Maybe some of those other coaches couldn’t see it that way. But he does."
In Orlando, Howard chafed under Van Gundy’s direction, even as the Magic made deep postseason runs. Their relationship hit its infamous nadir in 2012, when Van Gundy publicly accused Howard of trying to get him fired, which was followed by the fantastically awkward scene of Howard interrupting the interview and embracing Van Gundy, insisting that all was fine between them.
Van Gundy was indeed fired a month later. Three months after that, the Magic acceded to Howard’s trade request and sent him to Los Angeles, where he was expected to flourish alongside Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol. But the pieces never truly fit, and their chemistry was undermined by injuries to all four stars.
Physically, Howard was never himself, debilitated by back surgery and a shoulder injury. Emotionally, he appeared to have checked out. He had little regard for D’Antoni and, in fact, had lobbied Laker officials to hire Phil Jackson after they fired Mike Brown last November.
But free agency afforded Howard a rare authority. Five teams came calling—the Lakers, Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks. Howard greeted each delegation with a three-page list of questions.
Where do I fit into your offense? How do you interact with your stars? Your veterans? Your younger players? Take me through specific game situations.
"I was really concerned with the next part of my career," Howard said, "like what kind of coach is going to help me get to where I want to get to?"
Two coaches, he said, stood out from the pack: McHale and the Warriors’ Mark Jackson.
Both are respected former stars. Both exude an air of authority. Both are known as firm-handed, accountability-preaching straight-talkers.
"I told him, 'I'm going to push you really hard, and I'm going to be honest with you,' " McHale said, recalling the interview. " 'If you’re screwing up, I'm going to tell you you're screwing up. And if you're doing well, I'm going to tell you you're doing well. And I think we can help you. But I'm not going to treat you any different than I would treat anybody else that is on the team.' "
McHale was not oblivious to Howard’s strained relationships in Orlando and Los Angeles. He has, naturally, seen the Van Gundy video.
"Believe me, if I thought Dwight was going to get me fired, it wouldn’t be a press conference," McHale said. "I would walk up to Dwight and say, 'I heard this—is it true or not?' "
McHale added, "There’s an honesty and just a straightforwardness that has to be there. And that cuts through everything. Deep down everybody wants to be coached."
Despite his checkered recent history, Howard insists that is what he wants as well. Looking back, he credits Van Gundy for bringing out his defensive dominance and unflinchingly calls him "one of the best coaches I’ve had."
"If we could do it again, I think it’d be better," Howard said. "But I’m real happy with the opportunity to spend these next years with Kevin McHale."
This may be a product of hindsight, or the reflection that accompanies failure, or simply the natural maturation of a superstar who entered the league at 19 and now has the benefit of nine seasons to inform him.
In that respect, Howard is no different than many NBA stars, who arrive young and self-centered and full of bravado. By the time they learn to tame their egos and maximize their talents, they have usually chewed through a few coaches. Sometimes it takes a while to find the right teammates and the right environment, too.
Michael Jordan won six titles under Phil Jackson, but only after cycling through Kevin Loughery, Stan Albeck and Doug Collins. Shaquille O’Neal went through four coaches in Orlando and L.A. before winning three titles under Jackson. Paul Pierce had some of his best seasons statistically under Rick Pitino and Jim O’Brien, but he did not win a title until his fourth season under Doc Rivers—and with the help of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, each of whom had been through a few coaches themselves.
McHale is Howard’s fourth NBA coach and is now positioned to capitalize on whatever perspective and maturity that has accrued. It surely helps, too, that Howard knows how much goodwill he has squandered the last two years, and how much reputation rebuilding lies ahead.
Everyone in the Rockets organization offers a similar refrain about Howard: "He’s in a really good place right now."
"I think that he was ready to give the best no matter what," McHale said. "A lot of the stuff that happened bothered him. We’ve talked about it. A lot of the stuff has bothered him. He’s at heart a very good young man, a good kid, he really is. He likes to have fun and play, which I have no problem with at all."
So yes, that might mean finding Howard on the practice court, shooting free throws with his eyes closed, as he did earlier this week in a contest with Harden. But it was just as likely to find Howard working on post moves with Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon.
There is a balance here, one that Howard said he understands and that McHale, who has a wry sense of humor himself, clearly embraces.
"They have personalities that mesh," said general manager Daryl Morey.
McHale has promised to give Howard a healthy mix of post-ups and pick-and-roll chances, and he is keeping an open mind about other ways to deploy him. As McHale spoke, Howard was shooting 17-footers.
"I don’t mind him shooting that shot," McHale said.
There is nothing left for Howard to rebel against, no free-agent drama left to play out. He chose this team, this city, this roster, this co-star and this coach. He left $30 million on the table in Los Angeles to be here, and he’s committed for five years.
"I was blessed to be able to start fresh," Howard said.
It is early yet in the McHale-Howard relationship—too soon even for Howard, a notorious mimic, to have perfected a McHale impression. But you can bet that’s coming, too.
"I’ve been trying to pick it up," a smiling Howard said. "I’m working on it."