Basketball fans will love Dwight Howard again, he’s too entertaining.
July 8, 2010. LeBron James, the dominant force in the NBA goes on ESPN to take his talents to South Beach. James would become the villain of the Association for the next few years until the “Chosen One” finally won a title with Miami in 2012.
Fast forward to April 5, 2012. Dwight Howard places his arm around his embattled coach, Stan Van Gundy, and shows America that he’s not the good guy that the league marketed him to be. After a poorly executed exit from Orlando by Dwight Howard, the all-star center can look to LeBron’s resurgence as a route back to stardom.
This week, Dwight Howard returned to the Amway Center in Central Florida. LeBron could have told him how difficult it is to go from the most adored star in a city to the most hated. He could have told Howard what it felt like to see Zydrunas Ilgauskas cheered while 20,000 people hurl insults at you. Howard’s return went a lot like James’ did. He was booed by fans and hacked by his former team, but was ultimately brilliant in his return. He finished with 39 points and 16 rebounds.
Then again, this should be a familiar situation to Magic fans. The previous Orlando superstar to be nicknamed “Superman” burned his bridges a little differently. Howard agreed to close his opt-out clause for the upcoming year, but refused to sign an extension. Considered a selfish move in hindsight, the new Superman held the Magic captive for another six months. Then, on that fateful day in April, he sealed his fate in the most ironic of circumstances.
In a post-practice presser, the Van Gundy told the assembled press that he had heard from the front office that his start player had already made an effort to get him fired. The media was asking further questions on the matter when a blissfully unaware Howard entered stage left. The 6’11” Howard proceeded to deny that he had ever asked for his 5’8” coach to be fired. Van Gundy slithered out sight, leaving Howard looking like a two faced coach killer as he sarcastically asked the media who their source was. The league’s defensive player of the year was on the defensive trying to save his reputation.
By the time the former dunk champion and all-pro left for the City of Angels, his political capital had been squandered. Gone was the wide grinning lovable giant, and in came the league’s new villain. He didn’t do it on national television, and he didn’t do it as the hometown boy. He did, however, do it more as Shaquille O’Neal did. Shaq wanted a different coach in place, according to SI writer Jack McCallum, just as Howard did. He had outgrown the city and the ownership, just like Dwight did. They felt they didn’t have the pieces to compete, so they moved their talents elsewhere.
But there’s good news for #12. Just as the two aforementioned first overall picks earned the disapproval of the nation, Dwight too will be able to earn back the trust of the people. Shaq went to Los Angeles and became a four time NBA Champion. By the time he retired, he was the lovable goof ball with an old attitude problem that was long gone. LeBron went to Miami and won a championship, and is now the face of the NBA once again. A marketing blitz by the league and Nike combined with the once in a generation talent has made him a darling again.
No one thought the King of Akron could possibly turn his reputation around, especially with statistical measures like the “Q Score.” In recent years, LeBron’s Q Score, a measure of popularity for public figures, has improved. A similar number of people view the Heat star positively, but fewer people view him negatively than many expected at this time.
Credit another MVP caliber season, a first NBA Finals MVP performance, and a league that was hell-bent on protecting its image and those of its stars for those impressive Q Scores. Nike campaigns asking fans to step into his shoes and non-stop coverage of the Heat’s Big Three on ESPN helped reindeer himself to the masses. Most people, especially Clevelanders like me, believed that LeBron could never become the King of the Association again when he chose to be the villain. Heck, I’ve come so far that I want him back in a Cavaliers uniform. He is back, and his draw is more powerful than ever before.
So give it some time, Dwight. You will be the exciting, good natured hero again, just like the superstars before you. All the Lakers’ new center needs to do to be a hero again is win and let the league turn his reputation around.