Howard trades smiles with young patient

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Dwight Howard is a 270-pound mountain of a man, with cartoonish shoulder muscles and a V-shaped body frame that resembles that of a Greek god.

The Orlando Magic's All-Star center is so freakishly gifted that he could become just the sixth player to lead the NBA in rebounding and blocked shots in the same season.

But as Howard showed last week at Florida Hospital in Orlando, clearly his powers extend well beyond wrestling Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and Yao Ming in the low post.

"Let's put it this way: Jamal came downstairs in a wheelchair,'' said Tonya Willis, the mother of Jamal Mills, "but after playing with Dwight he walked on his own all the way back to the room.''

Jamal, an 11-year-old fifth grader who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis before his first birthday, was back in the hospital last week for what his mother termed "a tune-up.''

Tuesday night was an especially difficult one for Jamal, who struggled through the effects of pneumonia. But on Wednesday, a meeting with "Dr. Giggles,'' seemed to brighten his spirits.

Howard, all 6-foot-11 of him, stepped off the elevator wearing a blue Santa Claus hat and had a stethoscope wrapped around his neck. He instantly lightened the mood by slapping high-fives and asking the patients, "Whassup, big homies?''

Magic teammates J.J. Redick and Keith Bogans were also on hand for the hospital visit, but as usual, the 23-going-on-15-year-old Howard was the star of the show. Howard playfully put the stethoscope against a couple of kids' heads, "so I could find out what they were thinking.''

Jamal, instantly in awe of the towering Howard, asked no one in particular if his 4-foot-1 frame would ever grow as massive as the NBA's reigning slam dunk champion. "It will if you eat your vegetables,'' Howard said, purposely deepening his voice.

"I'm a doctor and they all call me Dr. Giggles,'' Howard said playfully. "My job was to make sure all the kids ended up with smiles on their faces before I left. I actually got my Ph.D. in being a comedian and making people laugh. That's my second job and I enjoy it.''

Howard certainly enjoyed the hospital visit, but not nearly as much as young Jamal did. Jamal's shoulders slouched and his spirits sagged in the moments before the event started and he was shadowed everywhere he went by the IV cart hooked to his hand.

Jamal's family moved from Fort Lauderdale to Orlando earlier this year so Jamal could be closer to the Disney Children's facility at Florida Hospital. Lonely because he was the new kid in school and smaller than most his age, Jamal has struggled with his self-esteem in recent months, his mother said.

Howard was mostly a mountain of mush when Jamal walked him out of the hospital with his IV pole in tow and gave the NBA star a hug.

"He's been feeling insecure and has been asking me why he's always so sick, why he can't gain weight and why he's not tall yet,'' Tonya recalled. "I don't want him to look at himself as this sickly person with a bad attitude. But after being with Dwight he perked right up. We just didn't know basketball stars and people on TV could be so down to earth.''

Redick, the Magic's starting shooting guard and a fan favorite in Orlando, was particularly mindful of what the families were going through during their hospital stays. Redick's younger brother, David, needed surgery last winter to remove a noncancerous tumor on his spine. Redick talked with many parents about the struggles their families were going through.

"You have kids who are put in these very unfortunate situations and their attitudes are great, their outlook and spirit for life are inspirational,'' Redick said. "When I go to these events I like trying to get a feel for how the families are doing. I tell them I know it's no fun being in the hospital, but thanks for fighting.''

Bogans, the Magic's best reserve all season, ignored the splint protecting his fractured left thumb and taught patient Ryan Glenn, 3, how to tap fists together. "That's how we do it on the court. You can be like us,'' Bogans said with a smile.

Bogans said all the consternation over him missing six games recently with the bum thumb was put in perspective by seeing the sick children at Florida Hospital.

"Seeing their smiles when you give them gifts and take time for them, their reactions mean everything to me,'' Bogans said. "Those kids, what they are going through, puts everything in perspective. Basketball really doesn't mean much compared to what they are going through. But basketball actually means a lot to those kids when you talk to them.''

As for Jamal, he was doing a lot better after going a few rounds against Howard in a Wii boxing video game. Jamal won the first fight, but Howard won the second go-round by continually throwing body blows. Jamal was eager for Howard to teach him his tactics.

A sheepish Howard admitted later that his competitive juices got the best of him: "I let [Jamal] win once, but then I knocked him out. I'm just too competitive. If my own mom stepped on the court right now I'd have to shoot her an elbow.''

Howard was mostly a mountain of mush when Jamal walked him out of the hospital with his IV pole in tow and gave the NBA star a hug. Howard exchanged phone numbers with Tonya Willis, promising the family some free tickets to a Magic game once Jamal recovers.

But the true power of Howard's impact came later that night, when Jamal was about to go to sleep. After hours of reliving his video game exploits against Howard, Jamal had a message for his mother.

"Jamal told me that I didn't have to spend the night with him and that I could go home and get some rest. I was like, 'Wow! That's a first,''' Tonya said. "He told me he felt safe there now. He was just so happy that someone like Dwight was so interested in him. He made Jamal feel like a leader.

"What Dwight did for my son was real. It was from the heart.''

Even by Howard's mighty standards, that's plenty powerful.

John Denton is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He covers the Orlando Magic for Florida Today.