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Can a Fun-Loving Dwight Howard Win Back the Hearts He's Lost?

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Can a Fun-Loving Dwight Howard Win Back the Hearts He's Lost?
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

The Dwightmare is over, but have we yet learned to love Dwight Howard again?

Howard left the Orlando Magic in a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers after rumored trade requests led to some flailing in the media, and a whole lot of smearing. Things weren't any better in L.A., where Howard and Kobe Bryant were infamously at odds and the supposed superteam, including Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, failed to win a single playoff game. It was a bad couple of years for the perennial All-Star, who lost droves of fans across the country through the rough stretch.

But in the Houston Rockets’ locker room, Howard has them in stitches.

It’s March 13, and the team is preparing for a battle with the hard-nosed Chicago Bulls—and they’re coming off of a tough 106-98 road loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s a tough road for Houston, one of the best teams in basketball, but you wouldn’t know that if you were in this room. Levity resounds.

Hip-hop plays from Howard’s smartphone as he undresses, down to his Marvel-themed boxer briefs, and dances about the space, goading teammates to join him. Howard’s energy is infectious, and laughter bounces around the lockers.

Another media member makes a joke: “I’m not going over there; he’s going to fart on me.”

(Howard, for those not in the know, is notoriously flatulent in the locker room.)

Teammate Patrick Beverley hears him. “I can’t believe he just said that,” Beverley says with a grin. “Dwight, did you hear that?”

“No, what did he say?” Howard asks.

“He said he’s not going to go over there, because if he does, you’ll fart on him.”

Howard erupts with laughter. He does a dance known as twerking, and then shoots a fart our way. Smiles abound.

“Never a dull moment,” a Rockets employee says, passing me by.

I’m no veteran of NBA locker rooms, but I’ve never seen this much fun in one for anything short of clinching a playoff berth. But every day’s a party for Dwight Howard.

The All-Star center even signs multitudes of autographs, and takes pictures with fans, during warm-ups. This is not a common sight for an NBA superstar, most of whom keep a calculated distance between themselves and their audience—and surely they're usually wise to do so.

But Howard’s not like that. He embraces approaches and warmth from a myriad of the stadium’s people, going so far as to cultivate relationships with obscure media members. He recognizes a Chicago reporter, and asks him: “Are you still doing comedy?”

After another rough Rockets loss, 111-87 to the Bulls—in which Howard was outplayed by longtime adversary Joakim Noah—Howard takes a minute to compose himself before fielding media questions. He’s achieved a weariness of public relations quagmires in the shape of Stan Van Gundy and, of course, Kobe Bryant.

Howard’s taken the care to keep a much lower profile this season, and this is obvious as he shields himself for a moment, scrolling through text messages as reporters wait.

Good on Howard, because when he turns around one of them has a bit of bait, asking Howard if he has any comment on the most recent Kobe-sized drama in California.

“I’m not a part of the Lakers organization,” he says. “That’s their problem.” Howard’s stony smile betrayed nothing.

(Howard has made light of his Lakers fan haters, earlier this season; once by chanting "Howard sucks" along with them, pictured below.)

He came back with a strong road performance against the Miami Heat—a game the Rockets lost 113-104 as Ray Allen’s hot hand took over down the stretch—putting up 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting, with 14 rebounds, five assists and two blocks. He outdid Chris Bosh the whole game.

And aren’t these so many of the things we most look for in our athletes? Resilience, affability and an energy for fresh starts? What will it take for Dwight's good side to be noticed again and win back the favor of the common fan? Success deep into the playoffs certainly wouldn't hurt, but the newly assembled Rockets making it past the second round of the sharp-toothed Western Conference seems only semi-probable at this point.

Disastrous as his last two seasons might have been, there’s still a lot to admire about Howard. Here’s to hoping we can all just forget about how one of the best big men of the modern NBA lost too much time to foolishness and start enjoying him again.

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