On a mission from God

It would seem like the bedroom of any other high school hoops star. Basketball shoes strewn about the room. A game jersey left where it was dropped. Posters of Michael Jordan and Julius Erving, two gods of the hardcourt, on the wall.

Seemingly, a typical room of a typical hoops junky.

If not for the hand-crafted wooden cross over the bed.

If not for the framed copy of the Ten Commandments that hangs beside it.

If not for the crude drawing of the NBA logo with a cross affixed over the heart of Jerry West's silhouette, the exclamation to Dwight Howard's own personal commandments, handwritten on notebook paper.

Howard, indeed, is not a typical teenager. He's this year's LeBron James, a 6-foot-10 power forward with the game that could make him the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, but with an evangelistic spirit that he hopes will "raise the name of God within the league and throughout the world."

The NBA arena, as is his want, will be his pulpit after he declared for the draft on Wednesday.

NBA scouts are believers in his game. But will NBA fans buy his message?

"I want to be able to speak to non-Christians so that I can get them saved or change their lives around," Howard said before last week's Roundball Classic in Chicago. He then flaunted his God-given skill, scoring 16 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in the first of a series of all-star games that the nation's top high school players use to showcase their court skills.

Howard, named both the Naismith and McDonald's national high school player of the year, is used to talking about his faith. He has attended Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy since kindergarten and his high school basketball coach, Courtney Brooks, is also a Bible teacher who quotes scripture before every game. His favorite song is a gospel hymn, "Praise is What I Do." And when someone asks for his autograph, Howard writes "God bless" alongside his signature, so that he can "let people know that everything that they've gotten is because of God."

While it has often been speculated that highly paid endorsers like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods have been hushed about their personal opinions by the multinational companies that pay them handsomely to pitch products, Howard said he has no intentions of giving up his goal of spreading the Gospel.

And if it's God's will, he says, then the riches will follow.

"I think I can make as much money or even more than LeBron. But it will be up to God for that to happen," Howard said. "If he wants me to market myself, then I'll do it. I'm not trying to give glory for myself. I'm trying to give glory for Him."

It may take divine intervention for this year's preps-to-pros phenom to make anywhere near the kind of off-the-court money that LeBron makes as a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers. That may have as much to do with the fact that James continues to command the media spotlight and among sports' richest endorsement deals, totaling an estimated $135 million. But perhaps more to the point, sports marketing experts are divided over whether Howard's message of faith will be a hard sell for companies looking for a player to pitch their products, no matter the wholesomeness of his religious convictions.

"This is the first time an athlete will be able to overcome what (former San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson) couldn't do," said Sonny Vaccaro, the Reebok executive who has been running the Roundball Classic for the past 40 years. "David was a leader in the crusade of being religious and being a great athlete, but Dwight's plan could work because we're in an era of niche marketing. He's taking a stand saying, 'I'm going to do this and some company is going to buy into it,' and that fact is that these companies have millions and billions of dollars to brand Dwight as their hero.

"If he's as good as I think he will be, he'll be the perfect role model for this segment of the population."

Others aren't so sure.

"Dwight's religious appeal is amplified by the fact that the majority of this country can relate to what he practices, but it would be a mistake to use his celebrity as a bullhorn for his personal beliefs," said Scott Becher, president of Sports & Sponsorships, a sports marketing firm.

"There are some people who are disgusted at a guy like (St. Louis Rams quarterback) Kurt Warner, who after winning the Super Bowl gives glory to Jesus Christ," said Mike Rohrbach, the long-time chaplain for the Seattle SuperSonics who also directs Run to Win Outreach, a youth sports ministry. "They think, 'I don't need to hear about religion when I'm watching the game.' "

Certainly, Howard will hardly be the lone evangelist in the league, as religion and sports seem to go hand and hand for a growing number of players. Each NBA team has a volunteer chaplain who leads non-denominational services before games, and players commonly reference "God," "Christ" or the "Lord" during postgame press conferences.

About 50 percent of the league's players attend at least one service during the season and seemingly every team has a player who considers himself a devout Christian, said former ABA and NBA guard Claude Terry, executive vice president of the Pro Basketball Fellowship, which oversees the NBA teams' chaplains.

"I would hope that Dwight's beliefs wouldn't hurt his chances to market products," Terry said. "I would think that marketers would want to embrace someone with such values. At the same time, I can understand that we live in an age where people are supposed to be tolerant of the choices others make and it could be interpreted that he is imposing his beliefs on them."

In an era in which even a player's image that was as squeaky clean as Kobe Bryant's could be tarnished in mere moments and companies aligned with that player could be faced with the fallout, Howard's profession of Christian ethics could help ease the fears of company officials who have grown weary of their risky alliance with athletes.

"Companies will welcome the good guys," said Dwight Howard Sr., a Georgia state trooper who moonlights as the athletic director for his son's school. "There will be a market for guys who stand by their religious principles."

The topic of religion has heated up off the court in recent weeks. "The Passion of the Christ," a Mel Gibson movie about the final hours of Jesus' life, has generated controversy and almost $300 million at the box office since its Feb. 25 release. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, is hearing the case brought by a California man who challenges that the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional. The use of the phrase often recited by schoolchildren has tied up courts for more than a decade.

Though more than 75 percent of Americans (160 million) call themselves Christians, high-profile athletes who have professed their faith often have struggled to land endorsement deals. Warner was one of the exceptions, signing more than $1 million in endorsement deals for two consecutive years in 1999 and 2000.

"The choice to talk about faith both helps and hurts in the endorsement world," said Rob Lefko, vice president of marketing for Priority Sports, who negotiated deals for Warner. "There are speaking circuits and companies run by Christian individuals or groups who find that athlete more attractive. And there are also companies who are hoping to appeal to the broadest possible group of people who think the stance on religion is exclusionary."

Howard said he realizes that religion hasn't always been seen as a selling point, having observed one of his role models, Robinson, struggle with airing his religious convictions publicly. Despite playing a major role in two NBA championships in a five-year period, Robinson did not score a slew of national commercials. A host of reasons could have contributed, including a lack of flash on the court, the size of the San Antonio market, as well as his clear religious preference.

"The more mainstream a product is, the more officials at most Fortune 500 companies have an increased sensitivity toward athletes using religion in their off-the-court message," said David Schwab, director of strategic marketing and media for Octagon, which represents many athletes who have been openly religious, including Robinson, former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser and recently retired tennis player Michael Chang.

"It's clearly about the green when you are talking endorsements," said Carey Casey, president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. "There is a system that has been followed in the past by athletes when they sign with companies to tone down some of their individuality. Dwight might need to abide by those rules if he wants to maximize his earning potential, but that doesn't mean he still can't dream about talking freely about his faith and signing big deals."

Howard's marketability might also be hindered by two factors -- relative lack of national exposure and lack of what marketers call "Street Cred," the ability to appeal to urban youth who spend their disposable income on athletic shoes and apparel.

Before James was drafted, two of his high school team's games were televised by ESPN, he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, and he was on his way to becoming a household name. Howard played a game on ESPN, but he's still far from being known on a national level.

As far as his appeal to the urban culture, Howard is not exactly a great fit. Unlike James, who drives a luxury SUV, Howard is intent on keeping his 1984 Crown Victoria his father bought him for $900. Howard's favorite movie? "Finding Nemo." And he freely quotes lines from his favorite characters, Marlin and Dori.

"I know I haven't grown up on the streets and I don't have that bad-guy image like Allen Iverson," Howard said. "My message is different, and I still feel that I can touch a lot of different people."

Vaccaro, for one, believes that Howard can do just that.

"The cold reality is that there is only so much room for the lionized one and LeBron's the man," Vaccaro said. "But Dwight will be fine making his dollar in his niche and people will be very supportive of him and his beliefs."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com