Dwight Howard: Hawks' belief in him has improved his confidence

Howard bothered by being called a 'cancer' in locker room (3:08)

In a sit-down with ESPN's Marc Stein, Dwight Howard explains why he decided to sign with the Atlanta Hawks, how he evaluates his time with the Rockets, and why he doesn't like being labeled a "cancer." (3:08)

ATLANTA -- In his first extended interview since committing to sign with the Atlanta Hawks, Dwight Howard described joining his hometown team as "a new beginning" after his final days with the Houston Rockets admittedly left him with "a chip on my shoulder."

Speaking to ESPN's SportsCenter on Tuesday moments after officially inking his three-year, $70.5 million deal with the Hawks, Howard said the faith Atlanta has shown in him has restored his "belief that I'm still the player" who was selected to eight All-Star Games ‎and won three successive NBA Defensive Player of the Year Awards.

"Grant Hill was a big part of the process," Howard said of the Hawks' minority owner and former fellow Orlando Magic star in an interview that first aired Tuesday night.

"For somebody like [Hill] to believe in me, [Hawks general manager] Wes Wilcox and Bud [Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer] -- for all of these guys to have that belief in me just gave me more confidence.

"After the season, I was a little bit down for a couple days," Howard admitted. He says the Hawks' interest when free agency began July 1 helped him start feeling "really good about myself again."

Howard's third and final season as a Rocket ended with a five-game exit at the hands of the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs amid considerable focus on what has been widely described as a rocky coexistence with Houston's star guard, James Harden.

Regarding his relationship with Harden, Howard said: "Well, I just think that we both wanted to win, and we didn't ever have an opportunity to do it like we needed to together. But I wish him nothing but the best. I hope that he continues to play at a very high level. You will never hear me say anything bad about James Harden, because I know what it feels like, for one. And two: I want nothing but success for him. We may have didn't work in Houston, but I just hope that he succeeds. I can just say that with an honest heart: I just want to see him succeed."

Howard's departure in free agency came as little surprise, given that his offensive role with the Rockets steadily diminished as the season wore on, despite the fact Houston elected to keep Howard at the February trade deadline after initially shopping him. The Rockets then hired Mike D'Antoni -- under whom Howard never clicked when both were with the Los Angeles Lakers -- as their new coach in June.

‎"I thought it started out really good, and it just didn't end the way we all wanted to in Houston," Howard told SportsCenter of his Rockets tenure. "But for me, that situation is over with. I learned a lot from being there, and it just really built a lot of character. I really had to endure a lot of things, a lot of heartaches, a lot of things that were being said about me publicly that I knew [weren't] true. But I really had to learn how to endure those things, and it really just made me stronger."

Howard was asked what troubled him most.

"The one thing that just really I hate to hear with a passion is that I'm a cancer in the locker room and I'm a guy that wants to separate and divide a team," he responded. "I've never been that way my whole life. I've always been somebody who wants to bring people together, whether that's my teammates or that's the community, families, whatever it may be. Just to hear that word -- cancer -- it pisses me off, to be honest with you, because that's not who I am.

"I've never been somebody who didn't care about my teammates, and I've never been that way. And to hear 'cancer,' to hear 'diva,' things like that, that's not me."

Howard, who declined his $23.2 million player option with Houston for next season to instead enter free agency, said he understands that only success with the Hawks will enable him to hush such talk after falling short of championship contention in his stints with the Rockets and Lakers.

"People are always going to talk," Howard said. "I think the biggest thing that I have to do is not allow it to get into my heart.

"There's always going to be negative things being said about us as basketball players," he added, "but [I have to] just not allow it to consume me. I think for the longest [time], I allowed negativity to consume who I was, and I stopped being who I was. I stopped being this happy person, this person that loved to enjoy the game of basketball, have a passion for it. So just not allowing those negative things to hit my ears."

‎Howard acknowledged that playing in the city where he grew up in might have been more challenging earlier in his career, but he insists he can handle the pressures that go with a high-profile homecoming as a 12-year veteran who turns 31 in December.

‎"Young," Howard said with a laugh when asked how he feels. "Thirty is the new 20. That's how I see it. My body feels great, and I'm really looking forward to having a dominant season this year. New mentality, new attitude.

"I thought when I was younger, it would have been very difficult to play at home for myself," he added. "But I think I'm in a different stage in my life and my career to where none of that stuff matters. My focus is on one thing, and that's to contend for a title. ‎"

Howard also was asked about the high bar that comes with succeeding longtime Hawks frontcourt mainstay Al Horford.

"I don't have any problems with whatever anybody said about me replacing Al," he said. "I think Al did great for nine years here, and this is, I think, a new era. This is a new beginning for everybody. They have a new organization, new management, they're taking steps to take this team to a different level, and they put a lot of trust and belief in me to help bring this team a championship."

Budenholzer said the Hawks know Howard isn't a Horford clone and that they don't need him to be.

"He's more of a traditional center," Budenholzer said Wednesday at Howard's introductory news conference. "It's been clear he's been one of the top defenders in our league for a long time. Offensively, he's somebody who's a presence inside, who's putting pressure on the rim whether it be in pick-and-rolls or post-ups. It will probably be something more like what San Antonio had for the majority of time I was there" as an assistant coach.

Howard, who has worn No. 12 for his entire pro career, unveiled a new No. 8 on Wednesday. Howard said the number featured biblical inspiration, as the No. 8 is seen as a symbol of new beginnings.

"One of the things biblically is the purging of the heart, and throughout the years there are things that have happened behind closed doors that it really hardened my heart towards different situations," Howard said Wednesday. "I really have to purge my heart and come at basketball in a different manner. I was very upset with how things turned out and what people were saying. I hardened my heart towards everybody."

‎On Tuesday, Howard told ESPN that the Hawks offer "a new beginning for me."

"I want to change from where I was at in my career and try to make the latter part of my career greater than the first part," he said. ‎‎"I'm just happy. I really just want to leave all that stuff behind me, and I know people want to talk about it and why this and why that, but everybody's had a past. Everybody has had skeletons in their closet, and I have done my best to try and clean out my closet, so now I can start [anew].

"Start fresh and be the Dwight I have longed to be my whole life."

Saad Yousuf of ESPN Radio in Dallas (103.3 FM) contributed to this report.