Cutting Dwight Howard some slack

Dwight HowardGetty Images

Should we give a goofball the chance to grow up and develop some gravitas?

A friend asked me recently if I knew of a basketball player named Dwight Howard. This friend’s cluelessness on matters of sports has long been a source of amusement between us, but he also offers a window into the world of popular opinion beyond the NBA’s force field. A top executive at the kids’ cable network where he works had encouraged him to see how they could make use of Howard. My friend has met Howard a few times in the past year or so. He finds him friendly, polite to more or less everyone, goofy in an inoffensive way and, above all, eager to be funny.

“But he’s not funny,” my friend said dispassionately. “It doesn't work.”

When nonfans speak about sports, they do so in declarative sentences. The commentary is devoid of emotion, acid, indignation and all the other additives sports fans inject into their feelings about this guy or that team. There’s no wholesale judgment or burning desire to ascribe a player’s lack of funniness to some larger character flaw or human failing. Dude isn't funny, and it doesn't really work, but it’s still useful to put a goofy 6-foot-10 giant on the air because it lends a show some novelty, and a fair number of kids are still drawn to big-name athletes, and we’ll leave it at that.

But rabid fans aren't a leave-it-at-that kind of crowd, and there’s no such thing as detachment. The NBA is their favorite show, and they want to be vested in the characters, define which ones are compelling and which ones annoy the hell out of them. For the past several years, Howard has fallen into that latter group. If not with 10-year-old children, then certainly with many of his teammates, the die-hards and the media.

Howard has rightfully earned his membership. In Orlando, Fla. -- a low-degree-of-difficulty market -- he was clumsy handling his business. Right about the time Howard signed his first big deal, his shtick started to wear thin. One former Magic teammate described Howard as someone with two distinct modes -- big kid desperate for attention or adolescent pout. Over the years, Howard has made few friends among media personnel, who watch his postgame antics: the endless dawdling while they wait and wait by his locker, the chirping to no one in particular while he dances around, the yapping to nobody special while teammates roll their eyes and depart in their street clothes long before Howard has even dried off.

The drama at the end of his tenure in Orlando drove up his unfavorables. There’s consensus around the league that Howard wanted Stan Van Gundy out, although there’s a bit more debate about whether Van Gundy and Otis Smith wanted Howard traded, and to what extent CEO Alex Martins vetoed that proposal. Whatever the case, the torturous Van Gundy news conference was the tipping point for Howard.

When a player establishes a pattern of behavior over a sustained period of time, his reputation coagulates. We’re certain we know exactly who he is, and no one cuts him a break because it’s just too much fun. After all, he put himself in the schmuck box, and we’re under no obligation to let him out. We become overly possessive of a guy’s narrative, as if he has no say in the story going forward. We’re entitled to say what we want about him until the end of time. A statute of limitations is granted only upon the presentation of a ring, and, even then, the guy often has to undergo a massive rehabilitation.

The problem with this thinking is that it ignores a simple truth: A lot of callow people ultimately grow up. For most, it happens outside the glare of the public eye. You bump along, absorb a few of life’s blows and become more sensible about the tasks that come with being an adult. Those who are long on self-doubt become more confident, and those who see themselves as invincible learn a thing or two about their limitations.

None of this comes naturally to athletes at the highest level. Most pro ballplayers work like crazy, but, dating back to the moment they showed exceptional potential, most of their material needs have been met -- to say nothing of the gross amount of attention and approbation they've received along the way. When you've been given a ton of stuff, you become insulated, which makes those potholes on the road seem like craters.

The first half of Howard’s pro career has followed this path. But, one thing we've learned from the smartest talent evaluators in pro sports the past couple of decades is that it’s ill-advised to project future performance based on past performance without taking age into account. Self-awareness is a trait people pick up later in life.

The Tobias Harris/No. 12 snippet notwithstanding, Howard has shown some promise in the past four months. His move from Los Angeles to Houston was handled cleanly. He took meetings at the beginning of the week in an orderly fashion, then spent a couple of days in seclusion to weigh the most important professional decision of his life. As teams were crossed off his list, they were notified, and, on Friday, he announced his decision to sign with Houston.

None of this deterred the gangs who roam the alleys of social media, who continued to roast Howard. The chattering class insists that anything short of a title will render Howard a fool, although players such as Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony rarely get called out for being poolside by mid-May. Meanwhile, Shaquille O’Neal knocked him for melting under the bright lights of Los Angeles, as if an aversion to Southern California is a mortal shortcoming and not a matter of taste (Woody Allen is celebrated for his L.A. Hate, but Howard’s apprehension about working there is inexcusable?).

Of course, all of this goes away if Howard wins a title in Houston, but that implies that a championship is the most important measure of character, when it’s really just a measure of professional achievement. Whether he ever hoists a trophy, it’s possible Howard will continue to be juvenile well into his twilight years. Some athletes mature (see: Webber, Chris), and some don’t. Howard has given no certain indication that he’ll ever be Mr. Gravitas, but he should be given some breathing room -- not because we owe him a thing. This isn't about a fresh start.

It’s about affording someone the opportunity to excise his frustrations and become better at who he is and what he does.