Dwight Howard: Breaking Through

by September 21, 2007

words: Lang Whitaker

It was simple, really. Our photographer, Keith Major, asked Dwight Howard II to dunk the basketball. Keith was crouched on a trash can under a basket in the empty Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy gym, which placed Keith nearly eye-to-eye with the bottom of the net. “OK Dwight,” Keith said, “Just run in and dunk it.”

“Forward or backward? One hand or two hands?” Dwight asked. You know someone’s a good basketball player when they follow a request to dunk with a response like that.

“Forward, with two hands. I’m going to snap it just before you dunk it, actually, so kick your legs out, scream, do all that stuff.”

Dwight stepped just outside the three-point line and tucked in his maroon SACA game jersey. He took one dribble, two steps and dunked the ball home with only vague force. He dutifully screamed, exposing the braces gilding his teeth. Keith snapped his flick, hopped down and yanked the Polaroid film out of his camera and found a shadow directly across Dwight’s face. He moved the trash can a few inches to the left and climbed back on. Then Keith said, “Do it again, Dwight.”

So Dwight backed up and ran in again. And then all hell broke loose. He jumped from just outside the lane, about halfway between the free throw line and baseline. Dwight cocked the ball back with two hands, tapping it against the back of his neck. His hands and the ball fired forward in one swift, smooth movement, and with a scream that sounded like he meant it, Dwight dunked.


When a backboard shatters, it sounds sort of similar to a gunshot or a car backfiring. Startled by the noise, Dwight hung onto the rim with both hands, and, as though it too was scared, the rim obediently folded and pointed itself at the ground. Dwight rode it down a few inches before he realized what was happening, and then released his grip so he wouldn’t bring the whole thing down on himself. He crashed to the ground and landed on his back.

As Dwight fell, tiny pieces of glass freed themselves from the backboard. The first wave shot out all the way to the three-point line, eventually losing velocity until the last pieces kind of dripped down, pouring over Dwight’s prone body. For about three long seconds, nobody moved. Nobody said a word.
The first real reaction, which was achieved in unison, was jubilation. Keith and I both kind of screamed. Dwight sprang to his feet and sprinted to the other end of the court and back again, yelling nothing and everything at the top of his lungs, hooting and hollering. He couldn’t keep from grinning.
Our second reaction was to check on Dwight. We found him covered in slivers of glass, which we brushed off. Moments later, he was bleeding all over, tiny, invisible cuts that slowly dripped blood. But he was OK.

Our third reaction was to document the moment. We took pictures of the wreckage, then pictures of Dwight standing in front of the wreckage trying to hide a smile, then pictures of each of us with Dwight in front of the wreckage.

And our final reaction, which was perhaps the most practical, was, Oh, crap. Someone’s gotta pay for that.

Later this month, Dwight Howard will almost certainly be the first or second player selected in the NBA Draft, a 6-11 beast with power who says he plays like Kevin Garnett—and then some. “I think I probably run the floor like Dirk Nowitzki,” Dwight says, “and I think I have mental toughness like Tim Duncan.” But two years ago, Dwight wasn’t even considered the best high school center in his area. And 18 years ago, he almost wasn’t born.

Dwight and Sheryl Howard had wanted two children. They ended up with three, but it wasn’t easy. “We lost five children between my oldest daughter and Dwight,” says Dwight’s father, who is also named Dwight, but who goes by “Big Dwight” around the Howard house (even though he stands a good four or five inches shorter than “Little Dwight”). “We lost our first set of twins before my oldest daughter, then we lost another set of twins and three others between my daughter and Dwight.”

When Sheryl became pregnant with Dwight, the Howards went to the hospital at least once a week, hoping to head off any problems at the pass. They put all of their faith in God. On December 8, 1985, Dwight Howard II was born. “It was trying,” Big Dwight recalls. “I always tell Dwight, ‘Think about this: Ten children, and only three survived. That’s a real blessing for you to be one of the three.’ I often remind Dwight and my daughter and my other son: Set your feet on the ground, and every day be thankful.”

Not long after he was able to stand on those feet, Dwight picked up the game. “I started playing basketball when I was about 3 years old,” he says. “I used to watch Magic Johnson all the time, his little tapes, because we didn’t really have cable or nothing. Basically, I did what he did on the tapes, all his dribbling moves. We lived on a long street, so I put chairs in the street and dribbled around the chairs with my eyes closed, dribbled up and down the street doing moves. I wanted to be a 6-9 point guard. I always wanted to be like Magic.”

Big Dwight figured his son wouldn’t grow to be more than about 6-5, so he tried to teach Dwight the real importance of the point guard position. When Dwight hit eighth grade, his father backed off a bit. “I didn’t stop coaching him, but I stopped being the coach,” he says. Even though Dwight was beginning to sprout inches, he still considered himself a point. “I just never thought I couldn’t be one,” recalls Dwight. “But once I got to my ninth grade year, I knew I wouldn’t play point guard anymore, because I was bigger than everybody else.”

Dwight had attended SACA since kindergarten. At SACA, a small, private school with about 300 students, where every day starts with prayer and praise songs, he dreamed of playing on the varsity basketball team. He sat down one day in ninth grade and drew up a list of goals. Now, with a few timely adjustments, it still hangs over his bed and includes items like:
“And it shall (and) will come to pass that Dwight Howard II will stand head and shoulders over 2004 prospects in the name of Jesus. Will he do it? Amen.”
Also, “And it shall (and) will come to pass that Dwight Howard II will be the Number 1 draft pick in the NBA draft.”
Dwight put himself on the map during his sophomore year, when he averaged 16.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 6 blocks per game. He kept growing, kept working, and finished his junior year averaging 20, 17 and 7 per. Things really exploded for Dwight the summer before his senior season, when he finally hit his current 6-11 and dominated at ABCD camp and on the AAU circuit with his team, the Atlanta Celtics. Going in, he was top 10 in his class. When the dust settled, Dwight Howard was the top-ranked high school player in America. “I felt I should be up there with the best of the best in my class,” he tells. “I said, Man, I could be the best. I’m gonna show everybody I can do it.”

“They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/That means guns, sex, lies, videotape
But if I talk about God my record won’t get played/Well let this take away from my spins
Which will probably take away from my ends/Then I hope it take away from my sins
And bring the day that I dream about/Next time I’m in the club everybody screaming out
Jesus walks…
God show me the way because the devil’s trying to break me down
Jesus walks with me
The only thing that I pray is that my feet don’t fail me now.”

—Kanye West, “Jesus Walks”

Despite having the best combination of size and game of any prep player in the world this year, Dwight Howard II hasn’t been found by the fame that chased LeBron James during his over-publicized run from high school to the pros. It isn’t because Dwight lacks personality, because it seems like he almost has too much; he’s always smiling and laughing, not too embarrassed to bust a few dance moves in front of strangers, not too self-aware to imitate a Finding Nemo character on the McDonald’s All-American Game broadcast. He’s a smart kid who posted a 3.2 GPA as a senior in college-prep classes, and was the co-president of the student body who ran on a populist platform of more field trips and improving the yearbook.

Perhaps his lack of recognition has to do with his background. Many basketball players these days come from broken, urban homes, raised by one parent or less. This is presumed by marketers to give these players credibility in the inner cities, a presumed connection to kids growing up in similar circumstances, which in turn helps companies reach a market that can make or break a product and imbue it with cool. Is this why someone like Sebastian Telfair, despite being ranked behind Dwight in every mock draft, has garnered more attention than Dwight—because the media and marketers don’t find Dwight’s backstory as appealing?

Dwight brushes it off, understanding there’s nothing he can do about it. “People are brought up differently,” he shrugs. “In my situation, I was just blessed to have both parents. I know a lot of people don’t have both parents, but most people make it just with one. A lot of people have two parents but they don’t do nothing with their lives. But like…Sebastian. His goal is to make it to the NBA so he can get [his family] out of the ghetto. That’s a good story right there. He’ll probably get some street credit because he lives in the ghetto. I want to get my parents out of having to sit at home and wondering how they’re going to pay the bills and all that.”

The most glaring difference between Dwight and, well, pretty much any other high schooler to come before him, is that Dwight is not ashamed to talk about how much he loves Jesus Christ. He’s been incubated in it, after all, raised in the Bible belt, in a Christian home, at a Christian school. When you ask Dwight what he is all about, he answers: “God. I’m a Christian so I represent Jesus, and I have to make sure I represent him.”

Being a soldier for Christ is admirable, but it can also be off-putting to people who aren’t as devout. In much of what has been written
or told about Dwight, his Christianity has been the focus. Which in a way makes sense, since Christ is the stated focus of his life. But it’s not like basketball isn’t important to Dwight, too. And for our purposes, we would not be devoting eight pages in this magazine to Dwight Howard if he couldn’t play basketball.

“My goal is to win souls for Christ, in any way possible,” Dwight says. “ESPN did a story on me and they made it seem like I want to go into the NBA and preach from a podium and force everybody to listen to me. But the media, especially ESPN, they just blow it up, making it seem like I just want to go in and preach.

I know it’s going to be tough, because I’m gonna have to prove myself to everybody. I want people to see that Jesus is real.”

The Howard family lives in Southwest Atlanta, a few miles from the Atlanta airport in a sleepy neighborhood filled with cozy homes. On this gray Saturday morning, Big Dwight is tinkering under the dashboard in Dwight’s car, a used 1984 Ford Crown Victoria.

Dwight emerges from his house wearing a tank top and shorts. He stands on the screened-in porch, yawns and stretches. A sign near the door pledges southern hospitality: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for some have entertained angels unaware.” Behind a chain-link fence in the yard, his dog Defense stands on hind legs and begs for attention.

Dwight flips through a copy of SLAM 79 and happens across Slamadamonth, which seems to show him getting dunked on by Marvin Williams in the Roundball Classic. Dwight loudly complains that people are going to give him a hard time about this. Big Dwight, stirred by the fuss, ambles over and grabs the magazine away from his son. “See,” Dwight says. “I slapped the backboard when he dunked the ball.”

“OK,” his father says. “So who was playing defense on him?”
“But I had to jump over him, Daddy.”
“You had to jump over him?” Big Dwight asks.
“So who got dunked on?” Big Dwight presses.
“What about him right here? What’d he do?”
“He’s watching!”
“I’m just trying to figure out what the picture is saying,” Big Dwight says. “The picture’s lying, that’s what the picture’s doing.”
That settled, Dwight’s attention drifts over to the center of the yard, where a green BMW 745i with “Hank Aaron BMW” plates is parked in the grass. It’s a rental, used by Dwight the night before to drive to the prom, but he says he’ll be buying his own soon enough. Dwight slips into the driver’s seat and grips the wheel.
His thoughts turn to the NBA. Recently, Dwight spent 90 minutes on the phone with David Robinson, soaking in advice from one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players and a Christian brother. “He knows what I’m about, so he told me a lot of things are going to be thrown at me because of what I represent.” Dwight says, his voice just above a whisper. “It was a good talk.”
Dwight doesn’t know where he’ll end up playing next season, but he hopes to be drafted by Atlanta. He thinks the Hawks will take him if they get the chance. “Why would you want somebody from Atlanta to go to another state and represent Atlanta, instead of representing Atlanta in Atlanta?” Dwight reasons.
Minutes later, discussing the temptations he’ll face not just in the League but in life in
general, Dwight says: “I don’t have any desire
to get into all that, smoking weed or drinking.
I want to sacrifice my life so that 20 years
from now, people can say, ‘He was the greatest player to play basketball, and he was a hard worker.’ I don’t want them to say, ‘He had some skeletons in the closet, he was drunk all the time, every night he was high.’ I don’t want that.
“I know it’s going to be rough, but I think I’ll be good,” he goes on. “I think the difference in succeeding and failing is work ethic. I think the hardest workers succeed. LeBron, Carmelo, Kevin Garnett, they had the will to just keep playing because people said they couldn’t do it. Especially Kevin Garnett. When he came in the League, his first game Cedric Ceballos said
he wasn’t ready for the League, said he was a
little baby. From then on Kevin Garnett was a beast. That’s what I think will happen with me. People have that drive to want to be the best. I want to be the greatest.”