Much like life in the shoes of a politician, pro athletes of a certain level of notoriety are held up by fan and media alike for seemingly any perceived infraction of moral behavior.
The career of Howard thus far almost suggests that he’s unaware of this athlete-audience tension. It’s as if he thinks his Superman sticker makes him impervious to the vitriol of the teeming masses. An exception to the rule.
How else to explain his behavior of the past? Howard has let his grumpiness with his franchises leak into the media at a rate that is staggering, comical.
We even say the word “Dwightmare” as often as we do “The Decision,” maybe more, when we discuss the P.R. failings of this generation’s free-agent superstars.
But now that he’s in Houston, Howard has a chance to wipe his slate clean. He has a chance to laugh off the waffling and moaning that have made him a favorite whipping boy for fans over the past two seasons.
And laughing it off is exactly the answer. Howard’s proclivity for the cheap chuckle merely needs to be enriched some. Even a hint of self-deprecation—even a smidge of him turning his humor inward, and pointing it at himself—could very well save him in his embattlement with the press.
For Howard to fess up to his incorrigibility of the past would go miles in the minds of many fans too.
But will he commit such an act of P.R. penance?
So far, indications are mixed.
Howard’s easy relationship with co-captain and fellow superstar James Harden is encouraging. It hints at the possibility of a more modest Dwight, as he was unable to get on amicably with Kobe Bryant in his time spent with the Los Angeles Lakers. Sharing the spotlight with Harden is a start toward a better public image, even if he’s only done it through one preseason so far.
Much less hopeful were Howard’s recent comments about his first NBA team, the Orlando Magic. In reference to Magic small forward Tobias Harris wearing the number 12, (also Dwight’s number), Howard expressed disappointment at the team for letting Harris do so.
The implication behind Howard's words is a desire for a premature retiring of his number. Clearly, this an outrageous suggestion of Howard's, and a transparently arrogant one to boot.
The statement makes it seem that Howard is incapable of learning the not-so-subtle landscape of the P.R. game. It makes one wonder if he’ll ever be able to keep his fragile ego concealed enough to prevent his reputation from forever cementing into one of public effigy.
Hearing these words, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that Dwight is essentially doomed when it comes to the media. If he hasn’t learned how to appease reporters by now, will he ever?
But of course, that story was first broken by—and thus coaxed out of Howard by—the Orlando Sentinel. This cannot be ignored; the P.R. game is often as rooted in team favoritism as anything, and it certainly makes sense for a reporter in Orlando to play into the bitterness and demonizing in the heart of his city’s fanbase. Howard should have seen such a ploy coming, and responded by brushing it off and speaking favorably of his old team and of Harris, for good measure.
Howard can’t win with the Orlando media, but his time in Houston is still untainted. As far as Rockets fans are concerned, Howard is still the miracle under the Christmas tree.
He’ll face a Texas-sized P.R. test sooner rather than later, though, and any serious take on whether he has or can take the next psychological step in his superstar maturation will have to wait until he passes through such a challenge.
The test will come in the shape of a moment that puts Howard at the crossroad that’s undone him time and time again—the one between saying something vain and self-indulgent and simply spouting the company line, designed precisely to defend players from scrutiny.
And when this test comes on an issue that’s specific to the Rockets 2013-14 campaign, (perhaps when he has played poorly in a big loss, or perhaps when unfavorable rumors about locker room dynamics inevitably start to simmer), it will determine whether Howard’s done burning bridges or not.