"You driving with us?"
Dwight Howard surprises me with that question as I'm in the parking lot of Blue Ridge Elementary in Houston, along with some of his personal staff. It's around 7:30 p.m. on a pleasant 80-degree day in late March. And he has just spoken to about 50 students as part of his new Breathe Again campaign.
The plan is to meet Howard at a restaurant for a sit-down interview. Walking with him and his longtime friend, Josh Powell, a former NBA player who's now a player development coach for the Rockets, I'm led to a black Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG tucked away from the other cars. "You can hop in the front," says Powell, who sits behind me in Howard's new ride.
As we're pulling out of the school, Howard asks me, "You like barbecue?" He recommends a spot for dinner, Rudy's Country Store and Bar-B-Q in Richmond, Texas, about seven miles from his house.
Richmond is spacious, marked by long, straight streets and farmland nearby. Howard explains that the country setting fits his laid-back personality more than Los Angeles. "I'm not really into nightlife," he say "People always talked about me and the so-called 'bright lights' in L.A., but that's not what I'm really about."
Howard speeds up quickly on the open road and notes that he likes to drive fast, while raving about his car's electronic stability control system, which helps keep him on the right path. He also points out the customized lighting across the dashboard, which is currently red for the Rockets.
One hour with the big man who could arguably make the biggest impact in the Western Conference playoffs soon became two, two became four and four became a whole night, stretching into the wee hours of the morning at his mansion in a gated community in Richmond. All unexpected, and it showed Howard—very hospitable, talented and transparent—illustrating a wiser and more thoughtful side of him after the issues he dealt with in Orlando and Los Angeles.
Earlier in the evening, Howard arrives at Blue Ridge Elementary to surprise the group of students. He's wearing long sweat shorts, Adidas sneakers, a Breathe Again T-shirt, and wristbands with scriptures on one and #JamesStrong on another for a young Rockets fan, James Fisher, who recently passed away from brain cancer.
There to impart a message about anti-bullying, he starts by reading a book to the students, and he can pass for a substitute teacher. Howard, who does voice impressions of everyone from friends to Stan Van Gundy and Charles Barkley, is an animated storyteller. He asks the kids questions related to the book to keep them engaged, and compliments them with "Good job!"
It feels as if Howard has led a class a thousand times, and he even stays 20 minutes past the event's closing time of 7 p.m. to answer the kids' questions about him. He tells them, "When I grow up, I want to be the president." During the extra time, he also keeps them entertained with different chanting and clapping games.
"You only get one time around the track in life," Howard says afterward. "And I don't want the people who ran with me to feel like it was boring, so they're going to enjoy it, too."
Later on at dinner, the 11-year NBA veteran explains the significance of his Breathe Again campaign, which is part of his D12 Foundation. He has done school events so far in Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles and Portland, and he plans to span them nationwide and create flash mobs in different cities to act out different scenes to solve life problems. There's even a pitch being organized to work with the White House.
"I saw the things that happened in Ferguson, and I really wanted to get out there and help out," he says. "I was just upset with how everything was transpiring in our society, just that hate for a group of people just kept growing—whether it was cops or whites hating blacks. I'm like, 'Man, I'm this person that's always trying to bring people closer together, so why not do something to help other people?'
"My message is you can do whatever you want to do. Why should any negative words affect who you are? I'm just trying to change people mentally and get them in a place where they believe in themselves."
Howard goes on to say that the campaign is "about me also breathing again, me coming up with ways that I can make myself better."
"I've done some bad things or things that are not necessarily morally right," he continues, "but I did them and I recognize that I did them. I've moved forward in my life and tried to make myself better each and every day with how I play basketball, how I interact with my family and my friends, how I am to myself. For me, it's just a new life."
Howard reveals that he's had to cut ties with a couple of cousins and close friends because they got caught up in the lifestyle and handled some of his money poorly. "It was tough to let them go," he says. One friend who remains from middle school, James Kirkland, has been serving as Howard's personal assistant for the past several years. "He helped me get my college degree, so even after he's retired, I can still have something to fall back on," Kirkland says.
Howard mentions that he's still working through relationships with his family members. He admits that he hasn't been the most wholesome father, having four children—two sons and two daughters, ages seven, four, four and one—with several different women. But he says he's very involved in each of their lives, while maintaining their privacy.
"I know how harsh the Internet and social media can get, and I don't want to put my kids through that," he says. "I don't want them to have to go to school, and kids are like, 'Your dad did this. He sucks.' I don't want them to have to feel that same kind of hate that I have received. But I spend as much time as I can with them, and I truly love and care for them."
Howard has also reassessed his NBA relationships, and admits that during his time in Orlando he treated his teammates unfairly and didn't deal with reporters appropriately.
"At the time, I was super upset about the team and I wanted to get players that I felt could help us win," he says. "And me coming out and saying, 'We need better players and we can't win with what we have,' I kind of made a lot of the guys who were on the team upset. When I look back on it, I could've handled that a lot better, instead of throwing them under the bus. How could I have gotten those guys better to where we would've had a chance to win?"
In Los Angeles, Howard admits that he got caught up in what looked good, but Houston provided more substance for him on and off the court. He also says he should've waited longer to return from back surgery, which he had in April 2012, instead of playing on opening night that season. But he says he so badly wanted to play. "There were times where I got hit and it kind of put my body in shock," he says.
Despite the mistakes, what rankles Howard the most is the perception that he takes the game lightly.
"People might see me smile and say, 'He's not taking this seriously,' but sometimes that's my only escape from what's going on," he says. "If I was so serious the whole time, I might have a nervous breakdown and do something crazy. So me smiling and me getting out of that whole zone is preparing me for that next moment, that next game. I just hate that whole perception of 'I don't play hard' and all that kind of stuff."
Howard is not immune to the critics, confessing that he feels emotional pain at games when he overhears condescending fans, and he goes over and talks to some of them.
"When I see adults with their kids talking bad about me, sometimes I just tell him, 'Hey, man, how would you feel if a fan was talking to you or your son or your daughter like that?'" he says. "It hurts me sometimes when I come to the game and I see a little five-year-old who doesn't know anything about me say, 'You suck, my dad told me.' I'm like, 'This isn't the right way.'"
There is a sensitive displeasure in Howard's voice, yet a tone of passionate determination. When an Adidas commercial featuring soccer star Lionel Messi comes on in our dining area, Howard speaks to the television like it's his mother, wondering when it's going to be him marketed prominently again by the company.
Howard understands his past and perception have hurt his public image, but he feels that he deserves change, much like his former Eastern Conference rival LeBron James.
"I know exactly how LeBron felt [in 2010]," he says. "I could feel his pain when he got up there on stage and said he's taking his talents to South Beach. I just knew he was heartbroken because he was like, 'Man, I've been here my whole life. I don't want to disappoint all these people.' It's such a hard thing to really get over with because for a guy like me, I enjoy the fans, I enjoy engaging with them and stuff like that. And when I left Orlando, it was just super emotional and tough."
Home for Howard is now in the Houston area, where he envisions finishing his NBA career. He has gotten into "chopped and screwed," the local style of remixed hip-hop music with a slower tempo. In the parking lot of Rudy's after dinner, Howard blasts a song from his car and Powell dances to it, with his friend providing commentary. "That's one thing we do all day, dancing and having a good time," Powell says.
Then there are Howard's more exuberant activities, like riding around his neighborhood with his friends in his Can-Am Spyder three-wheeled bikes. He also likes going to the gun range—"It's what you do in Texas," he says—and he has about 10 different kinds in his collection encompassing more than 50 total, including shotguns, semiautomatics and handguns, such as one of his favorites, a gold-looking Desert Eagle pistol. He also collects, just for show, miniguns and bazookas.
But there's no better way to describe Howard's eccentricity and connection to Texas than through his pet snakes at home. All 20 of them. I tell him at dinner, not expecting a serious response, "I've got to see them before I leave Houston."
"We can make that happen tonight," Howard says.
First, though, he must make his way out of the restaurant, a slow process that includes taking one photo with a fan, and fist bumps and short conversations with several employees at Rudy's—he's a regular. Howard points to about a 15-foot-long container where drinks are stored. He compares the length to that of a container filled with candy in his house, and that he's been avoiding it lately because of a promise he and his Rockets teammates have made to each other.
"All of us have different things we've got to sacrifice," he says. "It's just something that will show us how committed we are to each other, to winning a championship. So mine is candy. I especially love Skittles—usually during a game, I'll have two or three bags—so for me to have to give that up, it's like the hardest thing to do. And it's presented to me every day. But I do have a Skittles pinball machine."
The first thing that catches your attention when you walk through the roughly 15-foot entrance of Howard's house is his big, colorful $70,000 fish and snake tank straight in the back of his open living room. It features one of his snakes, a red-tailed boa constrictor, Mickey—named after Mickey Mouse, as he first named his female red-tailed boa, Minnie, because she has red around her lips.
Howard, who wanted a snake in Orlando but felt he was too young to care for one at the time, describes them like they're his actual children.
"Minnie has this pretty face and these pretty eyes," he says. "And now they have these beautiful babies. They're just all bunched up right now like they love each other [he smiles and hugs himself]. It's so cool to see. I even had a baby monitor for Minnie [when she was pregnant]. You had to watch everything that she did."
While Mickey is about five years old and already fully grown at around 10 feet, Minnie is about four years old and around six feet long, with potentially another three more to go. Both can cost up to $300. The fish are South American cichlids, including Oscars and blood parrots. Howard bends down and puts his head close to the tank, and some of the fish stare at him. He embraces the intimate moment and even talks to them. He feels like they know him. Howard, the real Dr. Dolittle.
Howard's love for animals started when he was kid, as he would watch Animal Planet and National Geographic every day. He says he would even run a zoo if he had the time. Though his tastes in animals do run to a more conventional German Shepherd mix named Doder, he once owned a sugar glider.
"It's like a miniature squirrel with wings, so they can jump and glide a little bit," he says. "They love body heat. I can put him on my shoulder and he'll go in my shirt and pocket and sit there all day until I call him out. Once they bond with you, it's just like the best pet. They want to be next to you."
In addition to wanting a prairie dog next, Howard, who's traveled the world to places like Africa and Australia, recently adopted a tiger in India. And that's just the start. He's looking to partner up with the Black Jaguar White Tiger Foundation to take care of endangered tigers, jaguars and other animals in the cities he lives in, Atlanta, Houston and Orlando.
"He has the ability to tell you what different animals do," says Rhonda Marie, the director of his D12 Foundation. "He can explain, 'Oh, no, this is what a panther or a tiger or a lion would do in that scenario,' or 'This particular animal is faster than this.' He knows actual facts about the animals."
While in his house, Howard introduces me to Brian Farley, an amateur herpetologist who serves as his personal snake attendant—cleaning the cages, feeding mice to the snakes and handling them to maintain necessary human interaction—when he's not the department manager at a local Petco. Farley takes Mickey out of his tank and asks if I want to hold him. Soon, Mickey is weighing down on my neck, all relaxed around me. "Once they fall asleep," Howard says, "they won't move for most of the day."
Howard then leads some of his house guests into his bedroom, where another three snake tanks flank a pair of workout machines and several video game systems. One of the tanks is for Minnie, another for her 17 babies she likely produced with Mickey (this month, he'll choose three of them to keep for feasibility reasons) and a third for his first snake, George, a yellow reticulated python that can cost up to $600.
Howard regularly lets George out of his tank, which he did on this night, putting him on his bed and wrapping him around his arm. One time, Howard discovered George in one of his cars. Another time, Howard woke up in the middle of the night to find George licking his face and wrapping around his arm. Howard didn't mind the slithery attention, falling right back to sleep with George clinging to him.
These days, George is about a year old and around four feet long. But in two to three years, he could be as long as 20 feet fully grown and weigh hundreds of pounds. Once that happens, though, the snake will need at least three people to handle him as a safety precaution. Howard, in fact, needed a state permit to own him.
The snakes aren't the only surprise of the night, as Howard later sits at a piano in his living room and carries a tune quite well before heading upstairs to take us inside his gun collection. Along the way, there are paintings depicting Superman—his nickname—actual NBA balls highlighting career milestones, his Adidas sneakers through the years and portraits of him in high school sporting that trademark wide smile.
There are also magazine covers framed of Howard gracing SLAM and Sports Illustrated in a Lakers uniform, with the words "No Mercy" and "Now This Is Going To Be Fun," respectively. While he clearly doesn't turn his back on having fun, a former Magic teammate of his who's now on the Rockets notices a different mentality this time around in the playoffs.
"On the court, I've noticed that he's definitely changed," Trevor Ariza says. "He's more serious about the task at hand. He's had a taste of going deep in the playoffs, and losing in the Finals definitely left a sour taste in his mouth."
Howard says a return to the Finals for the first time since his lone trip in 2009 looms large in his mind.
"Every day," he says. "Even when I watch the Finals, I sit back and I cry because I'm like, 'Man, I want to get that feeling back.' There are times where I can't even eat after watching somebody else hold up the trophy because I'm sick."
As Howard looks ahead to the postseason, he knows that he has to curtail his emotions over controversial fouls and degrading remarks from players, which, this season, led to heated confrontations with Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Kevin Garnett. Howard recently sat down with Garnett, as well as other peers from around the league and his current teammates, to ask how opposing teams purposely aim to get in his head.
"The thing that I learned from KG is that his job and everybody else's job will be to get me mentally out of my game," he says. "I have no issues with KG and he has no issues with me, and I understand what he did in the moment and every time we've played them. I've played with guys and they would say, 'The game plan was to frustrate you, hit you, get you mentally weak. If they see you broken, then the whole team is going to be broken.' So I realized that no matter what's going on, just stay positive, smile and laugh that off."
Upon returning to the Rockets lineup after missing two straight months, Howard is being more cautious about his minutes increase. He wants to play in the NBA until he's around 40 years old, and believes James Harden—whom he's close with and calls "The Step Daddy" for his trademark step-back shooting—can help extend his career by helping him avoid some of the pounding he traditionally has received in the paint. In other words, he's looking for more pick-and-rolls and lobs at the rim.
When Howard does look to post, the focus is on quicker one- or two-dribble moves closer to the basket. In the past, he would tend to set up for an entry pass further out and then hold the ball too long, banking on his youth and athleticism to blow by his opponent. These days, Howard looks for paint position early in transition, for example, so he can avoid a steady diet of double teams.
Defensively, Howard has been his usual dominant self. Here are two key indicators, according to Rockets general manager Daryl Morey: This season, opponents have scored 10 fewer points per 100 possessions when Howard has been on the court—the best mark of any center in the NBA with a minimum of 1,000 minutes played. And when he's been in the paint this season on an opponent's drive, that player has shot under 40 percent on those possessions—the best mark in the league with a minimum of 100 drives.
It's pregame in early April at the Toyota Center against the Sacramento Kings, and when reporters are granted access inside the Rockets locker room, Howard is the only player inside. He's lounging back on his chair while chatting and laughing with a team PR spokesperson, who initially had concerns about Howard's previous reputation upon his arrival in 2013.
But there's been nothing but rave reviews in Houston about Howard, who also mixes in light banter with the local media.
"I've heard some guys aren't around, but he's always around, he's always positive," says first-year teammate Corey Brewer. "When you have a superstar like that, we feed off that."
"When we're in the games, he stands at the scorer's table before we go in, huddles us up and tells us something encouraging to keep us focused and keeps us connected into the game," teammate and longtime friend Josh Smith says. "He's just a big kid, full of joy."
Changed, misperceived, whatever you want to call him, know this: Like his massive snakes, spending time around the larger-than-life Howard is a much more impressive experience than advertised.
"At this point in my career, it's to give back a lot of things that I've lost and I do have to breathe again," he says. "We can all change and become better, and that's where I'm at."
The last time I see Howard is in a hallway of the arena, as he's leaving to catch the team bus for a flight. We exchange pleasantries, and he makes sure to remind me why my trip to Houston was like no other.
"I've got a baby snake to give to you," he says.