Words by Aggrey Sam (Chicago Bulls beat writer for Comcast SportsNet Chicago) / @csnbullsinsider
Photos by Atiba Jefferson / @atibaphoto
Love him or hate him, but know this: Dwight Howard is the greatest center in this era.
And now, done with the drama of last season, paired with a Hall of Fame backcourt featuring the best playmaker and scorer, respectively, of their generation (not to mention arguably the two smartest players in the League) and another elite big man with skills that perfectly complement his own, Dwight Howard is out of excuses.
Everything he could hope for during the painful—both literally and figuratively—ending to his reign in the Magic Kingdom has come true and nothing less than a Championship will silence his critics.
The star-studded Lakers have all the pieces to be the last team standing at season’s end and fairly or not, if that doesn’t occur, it’s Howard who will shoulder the blame.
When I caught up with him in LA late last month, just before Media Day and the start of training camp, he was a bit guarded, not surprising after the media and fan backlash he’s faced, and unlike the other times I’ve sat down with him (not to mention when I first covered him, back at the ’04 Jordan game, when he was a HS senior), I didn’t see that pure, childlike joy that’s reminiscent of, well, perhaps the best ever to rock the purple and gold.
Call it focus, maturity or simply being weary of the circus that’s surrounded him for the past year and change, but even as he regales the local media with his impressions of teammates and coaches, mega-watt grin and overall fun-loving demeanor, but with no controversy to distract him, Dwight has the look of a man determined to show and prove.
That doesn’t mean he won’t continue to play the game with a smile on his face, a la Magic, but now that the stakes are higher, that killer instinct he called upon to lead a mediocre supporting cast to the Finals appears to be back with a vengeance.
Another thing I took away from the interview: Howard clearly has a need to be appreciated, something he’s admitted to in the past and is obvious by his actions, but I think he understands that he’s become a polarizing figure and even though he’s now in the protective cocoon of Laker Land, where stars are readily embraced, regardless of their flaws, that universal acceptance he once enjoyed because of his game and outsized personality is now dependent on strictly basketball and whether or not he adds to or subtracts from the delicate, newly-created team dynamic in LA.
Only time will tell if last year’s sordid chapter of his career will be forgotten sooner than later—at least outside of Orlando, a place he still claims to have a lot of love for, even when talking about his supposedly rocky relationship with former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy—but barring further complications from his back injury (it should be noted that prior to that setback, he was one of the NBA’s most durable players), if his Lakers debut Sunday night, albeit in a preseason loss to the lowly Kings, Howard’s game-changing defense and criminally-underrated offensive impact will again get people talking about what’s happening on the court instead of the sideshow away from it.
Ed’s Note: Besides Aggrey’s well-done and very revealing cover story (for real, the story reads like him and Dwight had an honest conversation about the great center’s past and future. More than what any other outlet has gotten from him, I’d say.), the first issue of the ’12-13 season features an entertaining and informative Season Preview that our own Lang Whitaker did in conjunction with NBA TV analyst Chris Webber. We’ve also got nice features on Kenneth Faried and Thomas Robinson and the first posters and Slamadamonth from this year (preseason, of course) as well as the usual combination of knowledge and laughs. Start checking for the issue in New York today and in the rest of the country next week.—Ben Osborne