99 miles from LA…(plus 1,451 more to the Toyota Center)

My fellow Americans, our long national Dwightmare is over…our system of free agency works; our great collective bargaining agreement is a CBA of limits and not of license. Here the fear of the blank checkbook rules. But there is a higher power, by whatever name we honor him—Lebron—who ordains not only scoring but passing, not only offense but defense.”

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D12 is a Rocket. Doesn’t make him an a-hole. Or an underachiever. Or afraid of Los Angeles. Doesn’t mean he can’t handle playing Kobe to Kobe’s Shaq. Doesn’t mean he made a mistake, or wronged anyone.

Fans love to gripe about everything pro athletes enjoy. The money. The connections. The Twitter followers. Fans don’t love to acknowledge the realities of life as a pro athlete that suck. The lack of privacy, for instance. Say it’s Opening Day. You call in sick to work and go to the game with a buddy. Drink some brews. Get some sun. Good times.  No worries about anyone seeing you. No worries that strangers will snap your picture and post it all over the interwebs, and that before the national anthem is over, millions of people will know you’re playing hooky.

Say your wife is about to give birth to your first child. Many, if not most jobs, are cool with you prioritizing this once-in-a-lifetime miracle. In sports, where social and gender sensibilities evolve with tectonic slowness, a player missing a game—one game!—because of childbirth is still, sadly, a talking point.

Let’s say you graduate from college. You did well in your major. Upon graduating, you find out you’ve been drafted to work for a company in Cleveland/Salt Lake City/Orlando/Sacramento. Doesn’t matter that you’re qualified and interested in working in NY/LA/Chicago/Miami. You’re required to spend at least 4 years with the company that picked you (bear in mind: the average career in your field is only 5 years, and anyone nearing 30 is past their earnings prime). Voice any displeasure with this or angle for a way out, and you’ll be publicly eviscerated by millions. They’ll curse at your wife and kids. In public.

Howard was drafted out of high school by the Orlando Magic. During his time there, the Magic had their greatest era of success, beating Lebron’s Cavs and finishing 2 wins short of a title in 2009. But the Magic signed a lot of guys to a lot of lousy contracts, and the halcyon days dimmed, and rumors started that Howard didn’t like his coach, Stan Van Gundy, and one day Stan told the press Howard wanted him gone, and minutes later, unaware of this, Howard showed up and put his arm around the coach who’d told the world Howard had a knife to his back. Soon Stan was gone, and Howard had blood on his hands.

Not long after this, Howard underwent back surgery and was traded to the Lakers, leading non-Laker fans around the world to howl their disapproval to the moon.

The Lakers are like Angelina Jolie: when they want someone, they get them. The assumption was Howard would join with and then succeed Kobe Bryant as the new lead dog in town, as Kobe had succeeded Shaq, as Magic succeeded Kareem, as Dick Sargent succeeded Dick York on Bewitched.

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One problem: while he has the body of a god and the public relations skills of a dog—he just wants to be loved!—Dwight Howard is a human being. Like most people, he writes his own narrative, or as much of it as he can control. The Lakers assumed, because they’re “the Lakers,” that nothing else mattered.

The Lakers fired their 2nd-year coach 5 games into the season, replacing him with a new coach whose philosophy has little to no use for post play, despite Howard being a (wanna-be) post player. Kobe took shots at Dwight, publicly. The Lakers’ offense depended upon 38-year old Steve Nash and 34-year old Kobe—perhaps the greatest solipsist in NBA history—staying healthy and melding their games with Howard’s. Nash missed much of the season with a broken leg and Kobe’s knee gave out right at the end; no one knows when or in what shape he’ll return.

The Lakers act like being special 30 years ago matters today. They seemed offended at having to work to win Dwight over; clearly unaccustomed to this, they took a page out of the PR playbook one would associate with Rust Belt cities of days gone by and put billboards up around LA begging Dwight to stay (look: they used a hashtag! #prettyhipLA). Unfortunately, the billboards went up the very same day word leaked that Howard was going to Houston.

Can you imagine if the Clippers had unveiled a city-wide billboard campaign begging their star free-agent to stay on the same day stories leak that he’s leaving?

Sometimes Howard does bring negativity upon himself. He said he loved Orlando, but wouldn’t stay; he only had eyes for Brooklyn, but accepted a trade to LA. He was going to Houston, then he was “50/50” on staying with the Lakers, then he was going to Houston. He says one thing, then does the opposite.

It’s a good thing you and I and EVERYONE we know NEVER does that.

Sometimes Howard is the victim not of how he behaves, but how he’s portrayed. After entertaining offers from 5 teams, Howard, like most people in his position, planned to get out of town and head somewhere secluded to focus on this personally monumental decision. ESPN reported “Two options under consideration…according to league sources: a resort area in Colorado and a remote ranch in Montana.”

When I first read that, I laughed and thought, “Jesus, this dude can’t even decide where he’s gonna be indecisive.” But it’s not like Howard held a press conference to share that news. Some “source” leaked it, and a private matter became a part of his public history.

Why is Howard hated so much? Partly because he’s strange, and anything strange causes some people to lash out. As far as basketball archetypes, Dwight’s a bit of a missing link: he’s portrayed as a classic 7-footer, and so people expect him to play like the 7-footers they remember when they were kids, ignoring that:

A)   Howard is closer to 6’10” than 7’0”. In basketball, just as in the bedroom, 2 inches makes a big difference.
B)   The league has evolved in such a way that the classic 7-footer is, if not extinct, on the endangered species list. The NBA today is about quickness, versatility, shooting, and spacing.
C)   As big men go, Howard is historically brilliant when it comes to quickness, defensive versatility, and his ability to impact spacing on both ends of the floor. He’s one of the 3 best defensive big men I’ve ever seen, alongside Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo.
D)   Howard’s weaknesses—he can’t shoot free throws, nor any shot beyond 5 feet from the basket—are the types of weaknesses that easily offend people sitting at home watching from their couch. “Why, even I can make a free throw!” they gasp.
E)   The worst year of Howard’s career, last year, just happened to coincide with him RECOVERING FROM BACK SURGERY. I’m no pro athlete (though I sport a good changeup & a mean fadeaway jumper), but I had hernia surgery a year ago. The surgeon told me it’d be a month before I felt like myself. Well, it’s 12 months later, and I don’t feel 100%. I get scared whenever I feel pain or tightness in that area. There have been nights since the surgery when, for whatever reason, I cannot walk.
F)    Despite RECOVERING FROM BACK SURGERY, Howard led the league in rebounds, was second in FG%, and 5th in blocks.

Dwight Howard is the best center in the league. He remains, to my knowledge, the only player in the league to single-handedly outplay Lebron James in a playoff series. He took $30,000,000 less than he could have gotten from LA to go play for a better team.

He’s not a hero. He’s just a man. But the fact that your rock can hit his glass house and that he’d have to be three feet away to hit yours doesn’t make him a loser. Or an underachiever. Or afraid of the big stage. It makes him confusing. Mysterious. With all the standardization and corporateness in sports, is having a confusing, mysterious superstar really problematic?

Maybe Dwight’s a follower. But the only person who has to live with Dwight’s decision is Dwight.

Oh…and this poor baby:

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2 thoughts on “99 miles from LA…(plus 1,451 more to the Toyota Center)

  1. To D12’s defense, I’d leave Kobe, too. He’s like a baby that said its first word at 6 months, but at 9 years-old, forgot how to read. I smell a Lakers trade in his future… I might be the only one. But it’s starting to skunk.

    My issue: he brings with him a lot of noise that I don’t think the Rockets need right now, in this delicate era of them figuring out what’s working and what’s not. Is that noise deserved? Debatable, as outlined by the reasons above. I actually think my issues stem from The Rockets acting like “that girl,” begging for a date to Homecoming from the this year’s quarterback, knowing good and well that he might leave them in a year or two for a shinier model with bigger tits. I wouldn’t give him the Hakeem/Dikembe title just yet.

    I will say, everyone barely gave a shit about The Rockets, a.k.a. James Harden’s one-man show of wonders this last round. Look what a few months have done. I’m excited/dismayed/intrigued for this season.

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    • He does bring a lot of noise. But I think the Rockets learned last year what works (Harden/Parsons/the regular-season offense) and what doesn’t (Lin & Harden together/the post-season offense). And in the NBA, unless you’re the Knicks, Lakers, or Heat, just about every team has to be “that girl” at some point to land their man. I don’t have a problem with billionaires having to kowtow a little from time to time. The players only have the hammer once, maybe twice in their entire careers. If you got it, flaunt it.

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