HOUSTON -- He returns to Los Angeles a different man, with the understanding that some fans will taunt and jeer him for ditching Los Angeles for Houston.
Dwight Howard says he has a bigger purpose in life now. Yeah, he'll still carry around a bright yellow Adventure Time backpack, mess around that he's Superman and even joke with you that he still watches cartoons.
Yet, Howard says he is more concerned about society, building his foundation for social change and winning an NBA championship than ever before. This happens when you get older. He says he worries about the world when he sees protests in New York, Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore regarding the police-related deaths of African-American men.
He expresses sadness when tragedy hits close to home, as it did with the jail sentence of a childhood friend for manslaughter.
When the Houston Rockets visit the Los Angeles Clippers for Games 3 and 4 in their Western Conference semifinal series, Howard will flash his bright smile on occasion. However, he will bring with him the more serious tone of a man who entered the NBA at 19 and now, at 29, has grown-up thoughts and ideas.
"I would say I've grown with the understanding when I first got in [the league] everything was play, play, play," he said. "All I wanted to do was have fun and people kinda thought I didn't take the game serious because of that.
"As I got older, I still had that attitude of fun but knowing when to turn it on and off, not for myself, but for my teammates because when I'm engaged and I'm focused, my teams are focused and engaged."
This season has been difficult for Howard, who missed 41 regular-season games because of various injuries, including 25 for swelling in his right knee from late January to late March. The Rockets went 8-3 after his return on March 25, providing a boost for the team, which earned the Western Conference's No. 2 seed. In the postseason, the Rockets have seen Howard dominate as he leads in rebounds (13.6 per game) and blocked shots (3.43) in the postseason.
"He's been a beast," said James Harden, who was outstanding for the Rockets this season, finishing second in MVP voting.
"I'm definitely proud of him," teammate and close friend Josh Smith said. "He's been fighting through a lot of trials and tribulations and to get to this point, back to playing as dominant as I know he's capable of playing.
"It's good to see and being a part of it."
This has been a change from where Howard was. He saw the world crumbling around him and he wanted to save it.
In his final season with the Orlando Magic he started the D12 Foundation to do charity work for the underprivileged. Howard admits it lacked focus and he didn't know what he wanted to do with it. But Howard read about the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, two unarmed African-American men who were killed by police officers. There were protests in Ferguson, Mo. and New York.
He talked with several church leaders and close friends to express his disappointment in what was happening across the country. He wanted to do something positive, so he re-energized and started a campaign called "Breathe Again," where he would speak to kids regardless of race about moving in positive directions.
"It really disappointed me to see our nation as a whole just to have this hatred toward each other," Howard said.
"I'm a positive people person who loves. It was very hard to see those things that were going on in our society."
That's why it pained Howard when high school teammate Javaris Crittenton pleaded guilty to manslaughter, admitting in an Atlanta courtroom on April 29 that he was a gang member and to his role in the 2011 shooting death of Julian Jones, a mother of four. He was sentenced to 23 years in prison. Howard was close to Crittenton and the impact of Crittenton's sentencing affected Howard.
"You have all these different situations and the situation with Javaris really hurt me personally," Howard said. "We grew up together, played on the same AAU team, went to the same school and to see just life being taken away in general, I felt for the families' lives in that situation.
"And then [Crittenton's] mom, his sister and all the lives that will be affected because of him going to jail, it just hurts. It's just like now I want to do whatever I can so the younger generation doesn't have to go through that."
So if you see Howard smile on the court against the Clippers, be mindful he's having fun, but he also wants to win and has serious things on his mind.
In nearly every statement he makes, Howard talks about getting back to the NBA Finals. He joked with reporters they forgot he reached the NBA Finals with the Magic in 2009.
Howard's quest to return to the NBA Finals is strong. He still works out with Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon. They talk about spacing, how to use your legs, fighting through screens, rebounding and more.
"There is no question about his work ethic," Olajuwon said. "He works harder than anybody I know. He works hard [and] he wants to win, but because, I guess he likes to have fun, smile, people think he's not serious."
Fans can boo or jeer or not take him seriously. But that doesn't matter to Howard, because in his mind, that won't stop him from his bigger goal. The kid is still in there, but the kid wants more.
"Change the lives toward positivity," Howard said. "Even in my life I saw how fans, even how little kids, who don't know anything about basketball or anything like that, hate me for no reason.
"I would see kids at games saying whatever an adult next to them said. It hurt my heart to see so much negative coming from people. We hate for no reason."