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Dwight Howard kept everyone waiting. Expectant reporters and camera operators sat patiently inside the Toyota Center on Rockets Media Day, September 27, 2013, while Howard stood within eyeshot. Moments earlier, he and his new teammates had moved quickly from makeshift photo booth to green screen set taking a variety of promo photos. By the time Howard's six-foot-ten-inch frame reached the hallway outside the media room, the process had bogged down.
But instead of glowing light boxes and professional photographers with expensive camera equipment, it was an iPhone and a pair of giggling employees from the catering company who held Howard's attention. He grinned wide and happily posed for every shot they wanted. "Thanks for the great lunch," he said before entering the press room and his next stint in front of the cameras.
Everything about Howard is larger than life, from his size to his outgoing personality to his enormous, pearly-white smile. But when he finally sat down to answer the questions at a jam-packed media center, he was the opposite of gregarious. He spoke barely above a whisper as he laid out the Rockets' plans for the upcoming season.
"We all have the same goal, which is to win a championship," he said. "We understand it's not going to be easy, but we have an opportunity to do something special if we stay together."
That is the demeanor of Howard and these Rockets. They joke, they laugh and they smile, but when the lights are on, it's all business. "We're goofy," James Harden said of Howard and himself. "We're young. We have to have fun. But when it's time to get serious, when it's time to win, we'll be focused."
Such is the dichotomy of this Rockets team. On one hand, they're a fun-loving, bouncy bunch of kids (Howard is the eldest of the probable rotation players at 27) who are having fun playing together, even if that has thus far consisted only of summer pickup games and a handful of preseason outings. On the other, they are hypercompetitive, with the revved-up intensity of youth spurred on by the knowledge that they have, as Howard put it, "an opportunity to do something special."
They also have a long way to go and a lot to prove. "We're definitely not going to come in as the favorite, nor should we," General Manager Daryl Morey said. "We've proven nothing."
But their unique combination of skill, personality and youth mixed with an up-tempo offense makes them not only one of the most intriguing squads in the NBA, but potentially one of the most popular, something the Rockets and Houston haven't experienced, well, ever.
In 1994, Sports Illustrated ran a cover during the Rockets-Knicks NBA Finals series with the headline "Uglyball," referring to the slow pace of the series and the low-scoring style of both teams. The Rockets may have had the best player in the NBA that year in Hakeem Olajuwon, but they weren't the smiling, up-tempo Lakers of the '80s and they didn't have a high-flying, charismatic competitor like Michael Jordan.
Similarly, the city of Houston wasn't exactly enjoying a golden age. Downtown was crumbling, crime rates were high, it was hot as hell, traffic was brutal and urban sprawl made it worse. The New York Post even called Houston a "Hellhole" in front-page bold type.
The Rockets came away with the title (and one more the following season), but it didn't translate into long-term popularity for the team or the city. On the eve of the 20-year anniversary of that championship season, some things remain eerily similar for the team and its hometown. The Rockets have the same owner, arguably the best center in the league, a hard-nosed former player from the Midwest as a coach and serious title aspirations. Houston is still humid, traffic is still awful and sprawl remains an issue.
But no one would try to argue that this is the same team or the same city. Fortunes have changed dramatically for both in the intervening years. The Rockets are rapidly becoming — judging from the throng of national media crammed into the Toyota Center press room — popular darlings and Houston has been showered with praise over the past few years for everything from our economy to our food scene.
So far, the credit for the team's newfound popularity is owed only to their potential...and to their personalities. Howard's boisterous goofiness, Harden's woolly beard, Chandler Parsons's pop-star looks — Howard's running list of nicknames for teammates that changes daily includes Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke for Parsons — and Jeremy Lin's "Linsanity" (the 28-game streak in New York or the documentary of the same name) create a mix that might put other teams and egos at odds. Maybe it's the youth; maybe it's the particular blend of temperaments; maybe the grind of the season has yet to wear on them. But it is clear these guys genuinely like one another, and they believe that will be an advantage.
"It really makes the team better on the floor when you have that great chemistry off the floor," Howard said, comparing the current Rockets to a team in Orlando he led to the Eastern Conference Finals. Harden agreed. "Whether it is hanging out off the court or playing pickup on the court, it's going to [make the] game a lot easier," he said.