Superman is in the building. And he’s beaming that super-sized grin. It’s been 13 years since a cherubic charmer bounded into the NBA as the Orlando Magic’s number one draft pick and proceeded to give everyone a giggle.
Never mind the All-Star appearances, the Olympic gold, a trip to the Finals and the eye-popping slam dunks, it was Dwight Howard’s smile that sticks in the mind. One that said ‘I’m having fun out here and there’s nothing you can do to stop me’.
None of the whispers that accompanied previous complicated stops with the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers have been audible. Howard is simply fitting in and proceeding with the job of being one piece within the Hawks puzzle rather than an unsolvable enigma.
Perhaps a factor of returning to the town where 2004’s Mr. Georgia Basketball was born, raised and schooled. Is there, I ask, a comfort level with travelling full circle back to The ATL?
“It’s different, just being at home,” he tells GiveMeSport. “Driving up to this arena every day is crazy. I remember when they were building this place when I was a kid. So I just take it as an honour and a blessing, from walking through these halls for 12 years so now actually being on the side where I’m on the team. It’s a bit different. But I’m happy and I’m grateful.”
He made strong connections in Orlando. Eight seasons there ensured that - a period during which he was a regular All Star, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year while taking turns at leading the entire Association in rebounds and blocks.
One day, you imagine, his jersey will hang from the rafters at the Amway Center, no matter the complex he said-he said contretemps with then-coach Stan van Gundy that brought a parting of the ways.
In Houston and LA, they never really knew him. There were highlights, sure. But also frustrations. Bad fits all round.
In Atlanta, where it is to varying degrees Paul Millsap’s or Dennis Schroder’s team, life is simpler. Yet there is also an emotional infusion, he advises, from playing just a few kilometres away from where his hoop dreams first came into vision.
“Just coming from here: knowing the security guards, all the people working the front desk and all that stuff. It’s kind of like being in high school where you know everybody and everyone’s pulling for you. No matter what they’re happy for you.”
The record will show that Howard’s average of 13.5 points is his lowest since his rookie year but he is also playing fewer minutes than ever before and pulling down 13 rebounds per and shooting a career-high 64 percent from the field.
In Mike Budenholzer’s system, he is not the focus but quietly effective as the recycling man, taking other’s garbage and converting it into something of value as a prime offensive rebounder.
Much more effective in the post as a defender rather than a scorer, he is the highest-rated player in the NBA as the Pick and Roll facilitator per Synergy Sports analysis, perfect for the Hawks load-sharing scheme.
That’s come from effort as much as personnel, he claims.
“It doesn’t matter who we play. The focus is on us. We watch film on the other teams but our focus is on our intensity and our effort. That’s what we mainly focus on, what we need to do.
“We will watch film on other teams but the focus is on what the Hawks can do, what I can do personally, what can Paul or Baze (Kent Bazemore) or Tim (Hardway) do, what we can do as individuals.”
At times, you wonder if Howard misses the carefree spirit he once embodied on the floor, the guys dressed in a superhero costume to win the Slam Dunk Contest, the All-Star status.
Even as a veteran, he remains a natural gregarious showman. However, the alley-oops that rocked buildings from coast to coast aren’t as frequent in Atlanta as they were elsewhere.
That’s down to familiarity, he says. Some teams insert that into their daily routine, others are not highlight driven. “They were so used to playing with Al Horford who wasn’t a guy who caught a lot of lobs,” he says of the Hawks previous totem.
“The timing is different. How to put the right touch on the ball, it’s different. It’s a learning process. But the guys are doing a pretty good job, studying film. The guys are really learning how to make those passes. You can tell the guys who are used to making the wraparound passes, the bounce passes to the bigs.”
Could they not create something especially for him? To recreate the Dwight of old, the one who leapt from the southside of Atlanta and over tall buildings, the kid with the grin who worked his magic and let us all in on the joke.
“If I was 19, we could maybe have an alley-oops practice,” he laughs. “But we gotta save these legs for the playoffs.”
No longer cherubic, but still infused with Southern charm.
The NBA’s Hometown Heroes
LeBron James (Cleveland)
The multiple MVP is actually from nearby Akron but there’s no doubting the local pride LeBron feels for Cleveland after accomplishing his dream of bringing home a first NBA Championship last June.
Cory Joseph (Toronto)
The Raptors have had few Canadians on their roster over the years but Joseph’s return, following a title win with San Antonio, has made him a fan favourite.
Joakim Noah (New York)
The France international grew up in NYC and joined Derrick Rose in a double switch from Chicago last summer. Injuries have held him back from living just as large in the Big Apple.
Dwyane Wade (Chicago)
D-Wade finally came back to the Windy City last summer to join the new-look Bulls. Past his Miami prime but still effective, the perennial All-Star has relished a fresh start.