The Rockets and Washington Wizards had a rain delay on Saturday night. Yes, a rain delay. The roof at the Verizon Center in D.C. had a fairly serious leak during a rainstorm. As a result, both teams were forced to wait out the weather. During that time, Dwight Howard did something rather remarkable for a player today. He did one-on-one drills with a little kid. He posted him up. He blocked his shots. He dunked on him. The boy was absolutely thrilled and the crowd was entertained. As on Wizards announcer said, "That's just Dwight being Dwight."
This is the same Dwight Howard whose indecision in Orlando led to quite the backlash from fans. In Los Angeles, he ran into another buzz saw, this one named Kobe Bryant. The ultra-serious Laker guard did not take kindly to Howard's goofing off. In fact, he perceived it as weakness and, as a result, so did fans, former athletes and sports writers. The narrative became that Bryant, the winner, couldn't tolerate a loser like Howard.
Soon he would leave L.A. and join the Rockets. Howard became a pariah, a guy who would never win because he couldn't stand the heat that came with the bright spotlight of Hollywood.
Yet here he was in Washington with a very good Rockets team, winning. He is third in the league in rebounding, fourth in field goal percentage and eighth in blocked shots. He is second on the team in scoring and is the only member of the team to play in every game this year.
Despite all that, fans around the league still seem to really hate him and it is at least in part for his joyous, childlike demeanor on the floor. Howard makes no bones about his desire to enjoy his life. He said as much in interviews leading up to the season. James Harden called he and Howard "goofy" and Jeremy Lin referred to Howard as "hilarious."
But, he's also really really good.
There is a seriousness that tends to pervade locker rooms. Certain legendary athletes were notorious for their churlishness. They didn't like seeing anyone smile or taking joy in what they did. This was viewed as a lack of competitive fire.
But outside the locker room, fans have a different take. Obviously, they want players to win. They want them to be intense and competitive, but they also want them to have fun. We see ourselves in athletes, maybe not the 36-inch vertical or the six-pack abs, but certainly in the love of the game. We probably don't care one way or another if the athlete in question is a jerk off the floor as long as he's winning on it, but given the option, we all want a guy we can root for as a player and a person.
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Howard is that guy. Not only is he arguably the best center in the NBA and, by all accounts, a fantastic, unselfish teammate, but he is funny and gregarious and wonderfully entertaining. It's ironic that two of his biggest critics, it would seem, are Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal, both members of the in-studio NBA on TNT squad. They have both been critical -- O'Neal in particular -- of Howard's lack of what they perceive to be demanding intensity on the floor.
It's ironic because few could match the silliness that was Sir Charles and Shaq in their playing days. They were fierce competitors, to be sure, but they were also the guys who would happily entertain a crowd.
Speaking of silly, the entire argument of course is ridiculous. Magic Johnson was one of the most happy-go-lucky guys you would ever hope to see with a basketball, a stark contrast to the seemingly always angry Larry Bird. Yet both were champions and they were two of the best ever to lace up a pair of high-tops.
Ultimately, it's a player's talent that makes him great, mixed with the desire to win and be better. Howard has all those characteristics. So what if he happens to smile while doing it? We should all be so lucky.