All Dwight Howard has to do to make people outside of Houston like him again is win two NBA championships, be named the MVP of both the regular season and the finals each season and win an Olympic gold medal. No big deal.
Actually, that might be a little extreme.
He doesn't have to match LeBron James' ridiculous list of achievements since the league's best player left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, but he does have to follow the blueprint that he drew up.
Howard was becoming unpopular after his drawn-out decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers, but a similarly lengthy process leading to the Houston Rockets was the nail in the proverbial coffin. Now he's firmly on the LeBron path, and there's only one way to get back on track.
Keep following it.
"Here's a guy who's a great basketball player. He did something that was for him, and he did it in front of the whole world. I realized then that our issues, our problems, our flaws are out there for the world to see. You can't run from it. We have to learn from our mistakes and move forward."
That's what Howard said to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski about the similarities between himself and LeBron.
Now while their situations were a little bit different, both did have to make controversial public departures from their previous teams.
LeBron's is a bit more famous. Or should I say infamous?
That decision (appropriately referred to as "The Decision") saw him spurn his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for the allures of South Beach and the ability to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat.
Afterwards, his jersey was burned in the street and the blood of Cleveland natives was almost universally replaced with unabashed vitriol. He was viewed as the NBA's new villain and mercilessly booed in just about every situation for the first year-plus of his tenure with Miami.
Now it's D12's turn.
Howard had a messy exit from the Orlando Magic then dragged out his decision so long that it became the Dwightmare. Ultimately, he chose the Los Angeles Lakers and had a miserable season before repeating the process with the Rockets serving as the final destination.
Hopefully things go a little better for him than other people who have been involved in things labeled "final destination."
It's not hard to draw the parallels here, and Howard has to keep hoping that's the case. He can't afford to stop following in LeBron's footsteps now that he's started.
Embrace the Hate
It's easy to let the boo birds get the best of you. It's too simple to let depression sink in and start affecting your play. It's entirely possible to let the hate ruin your career.
Few players can not only accept the unrelenting negativity but also embrace it to the point that they succeed. And it's something that LeBron was able to do.
Here's a quote from the MVP, as taken from an article by ESPN's Scoop Jackson back in 2011:
I've grown accustomed to it. I enjoy it...I've kind of accepted this villain role everyone has placed on me. I'm OK with it. I accept it...It's just when I go into an opposing building, there's nothing but venom being thrown at us. So you embrace that atmosphere that we always go into on the road. I definitely do.
Jackson also shared a couple of choice statements from The Sports Brothers in Miami (790 AM the Ticket). First there's Jeff Fox:
[LeBron] is now the guy in the black hat, Lee Van Cleef in the old Clint Eastwood movies. He looks like a new man with the weight of the world lifted off of his shoulders. And now he's making all the critics or haters pay! That's why his best games are on the road. He can shut up a hostile crowd. He's found his comfort zone.
And then there's Ed Freeman:
At first, I didn't believe that [being the villain] sat well with him. He wanted to be liked, loved and accepted. Like most athletes. But once the Heat hit the road and he felt the hate, AND they started winning, he accepted it wholeheartedly. Magic Johnson said it best back on Christmas Day: 'Stop booing him. It doesn't do anything to him but motivate [him].' LeBron should ride this villain role for the rest of the year.
That's exactly the type of mentality that Dwight must take on. It's not enough for him to play well.
He has to thrive in the midst of the negativity. By taking on the full burden of it and not letting it faze him in the slightest, he's proving it pointless, and that's the best way to make it go away.
In Wojnarowski's article, Howard said that he feels like "an even bigger villain."
Keep feeling that way.
Just Win, Baby
Obviously this is the most crucial part of the blueprint, and it's one that Al Davis would have loved.
It's blindingly simple, but it's also excruciatingly difficult. Winning a title in the NBA isn't particularly easy, especially when a team is still searching for that third member of a championship core.
Chandler Parsons might eventually get there, but that's beside the point right now. No matter who is on the roster, D12 simply must start winning games.
There's only one ultimate panacea in the NBA: success.
No matter what lies in the past, public perception can be turned around with a title or two. Maybe not all the way, but it can at least return to very manageable levels.
And again, it's hard to look past LeBron as the shining example.
In just two years, he's completely turned around his image. After bowing out against the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, LeBron uttered a quote that was largely misinterpreted and used against him for for quite some time.
It was the latest in a string of public-relations nightmares for LeBron, and the hatred was never at a higher level. Not only was he failing to come up big when it mattered, but he'd ditched his old team and he was taking shots at the "normal" people.
Kind of. But many people don't like to let facts get in the way of a good story.
Then LeBron started winning. And the "haters" started disappearing.
He started winning. He earned a few rings.
Not one. Not two. Not three. Not four. Not five.
Will Dwight Howard ever be popular again?
Sorry, I got a little carried away there. He only won two titles, but that's still two more replicas of the Larry O'Brien Trophy than he had on his mantle before entering the 2011-12 season.
For Howard to turn around his image and become the popular player he once was, boasting an omnipresent, ear-to-ear grin without a hint of irony, he has to follow in LeBron's massive footprints. And they're ones that lead right up to the top of the NBA.
Fortunately, D12 has some pretty big feet.