MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The perception pains Dwight Howard. He doesn't think it's fair or accurate that many consider him a bad teammate and an underachieving goofball who doesn't care enough about his craft to fully take advantage of his immense physical gifts.
Howard, however, knew he needed to make major changes after a third consecutive awkward, disappointing ending to his tenure with a team. Over the course of the last year, he has changed agents, tightened and revamped his inner circle and left the Houston Rockets in his rear-view mirror while joining his hometown Atlanta Hawks.
Howard even switched numbers, ditching the 12 he wore for the first dozen years of his career in favor of symbolic No. 8. "The number means new beginnings, new life," Howard said. "I wanted to get away from my old ways and stuff like that, so I changed my number. It has some significant meanings with my mom, some personal reasons. I just wanted to change it up."
With Howard getting settled in with his fourth franchise, ESPN caught up with the eight-time All-Star after a preseason win Oct. 6 over the Memphis Grizzlies in the FedEx Forum.
Q: When you say new beginnings, what's that mean?
A: I changed up everything around me. I hold myself more accountable in certain situations. I try to be a better man, a better father, a better teammate. I know a lot of the stuff that's been said about me that I can't really control and has been false, but at the same time, I just want to show this city who I really am and show my teammates what kind of teammate I am. They've been great to me, and I think it's a great situation for me to be in.
Q: You've been in the spotlight since you were an 18-year-old kid who was the No. 1 pick, and that spotlight has gotten brighter throughout the course of your career. You mentioned the perception of you. Why does that bother you?
A: It has bothered me because I know who I am and what kind of teammate I've always been. For certain things to be said, it really did bother me, but the only way to shut people up is just by winning and just playing basketball and not allowing that kind of stuff to really affect who I am away from the game.
Q: Who is Dwight Howard?
A: I'm a fun person to be around, laid back, love to have fun. I'll joke all day, but once I get in the gym, I'm going to work hard. That's one thing I pride myself on is working hard in the weight room, working hard in practice, trying to become a better player. I hated that perception that I didn't work hard, that I really don't love the game. This game has brought me a lot of joy, brought me a lot of good things. Just that side of it has really affected me. I know you can't please everybody; you can't make everybody happy, but just getting that perception that I don't care about this game and what it brings is a lie.
Q: Do you feel that you feel that you're not allowed to have fun, not allowed to smile, not allowed to be yourself?
A: Yeah, a lot of times I do feel like that. When I'm smiling, I'm supposedly not taking the game seriously. When I'm not smiling, then it's like, "He don't care. He's just out there." When I was in Orlando and everything was going well and we were winning, even in L.A. when we won those games and stuff like that, me smiling didn't bother people. But like I said, you really can't please people. I know everybody's attention is on what I'm doing on the floor. My job is to be the best teammate I can be, push these guys to the limit every day, make sure that I'm being the right type of leader.
"I want to be held accountable. I want my teammates and my coaches to push me to be the best that I can be. This is a great situation."Dwight Howard
Q: You're a lovable personality when you smile and win, but when you smile and lose, you're a clown.
A: Correct, but it's OK. Stuff will change. I'm on a great team, got a lot of great guys in this locker room, great coaching staff and they're going to hold me accountable for everything. It's something I want to have. I want to be held accountable. I want my teammates and my coaches to push me to be the best that I can be. This is a great situation.
Q: You mentioned changing things this summer. What'd you change?
A: Just things off the court, a lot of the stuff that was happening around me, just personal things. I tried to change that up and just really start over, get a clean slate. No offense to the people that I had around me, but I just wanted to start over, start fresh. Like I said, it's a new beginning, so I wanted everything to be fresh. I didn't want to bring any old baggage or anything from my past to this organization. They believe in me, this city believes in me, so I just wanted to make sure that when I'm out there on the court that I'm free, that I can give this city and this team everything that I've got.
Q: I'm sure you've thought a lot about this. You go to Houston and James [Harden] is entering his prime, you're in your prime, your games seemed to be complementary. Why didn't that work?
A: Well, sometimes things don't work like they should. I've never had an issue with James. I wish him nothing but the best. I just think the timing of everything was a little bit different. That's OK. All that stuff did was just mold me for this moment here, this organization, this team. They've asked me to be a leader. It's my job to come in here every night and provide physicality and the leadership that this team needs.
Q: This is a good situation for you. You're home. You're making money that 99.999999 percent of the world would ...
A: [Interrupting] It's not even just the money part, but the fact that I'm able to play at home, the fact that I'm able to play for Coach [Mike Budenholzer], who has been nothing but unbelievable. The whole staff has been great. Just the team, just the whole atmosphere is something that I've always prayed for and I always wanted, so I'm very grateful.
Q: Were you surprised there weren't max offers on the table?
A: Well, I knew all the situations that was going on. I really only looked into one place and that was the Hawks. I didn't go to other teams. As soon as free agency opened, I met with Coach Bud and [general manager Wes Wilcox]. After the meeting, I went back to my car and I was like, "Man, this is where I want to be." I didn't need to meet with other teams. I didn't care about what offers were on the table. I wanted to be in Atlanta. I wanted to represent for this team.
Q: Physically, how do you feel?
A: My body feels great. I took five days off last summer and have been working out since then. I haven't had any issues. I feel good. Playing 13 years is a long time, but I feel really good. It's not like I'm [old]. I'm just thankful. Before the game when the announcer said, "In his 13th season ..." it was kind of weird. Coming from an 18-year-old [when he was drafted], now I'm 30, it's a great situation.
Q: Do you feel you can still be as dominant as you've been earlier in your career?
A: No doubt, and they're going to push me to be that player that I can be. It's going to happen.