These days, they cheer for Dwight Howard in Staples Center. The 34-year-old big man is an integral part of arguably the NBA’s best team. While Howard may only play 20 minutes a night, his presence has been invaluable. He protects the rim, snags rebounds, and capably gets up and down the floor. What’s more, Howard’s teammates feed off of him. He’s at once a canny veteran who helps stabilize the team and an energy guy whose enthusiasm is infectious. In short, Howard does exactly what a veteran big is supposed to do in 2020 and it makes perfect sense that he’s a fan favorite.
At the same time, as Wosny Lambre noted on Twitter, hearing cheers for Dwight Howard in Staples is nothing short of jarring. As recently as last summer, Howard was a pariah, a laughingstock who, if not for the Lakers, would probably have been out of the league. While still an effective player after 15 seasons, Howard had a well-earned reputation as a stubborn prima donna who simply wasn’t worth the trouble (the history of injuries didn’t help his cause, either). Not only did his plodding, post-oriented style make him a dinosaur, but Howard wanted, even expected, to have the ball in his hands even as he staunchly refused to adapt to the contemporary game. He was also deservedly seen as a locker room cancer, a black hole of undeserved ego who either didn’t understand or just didn’t care that his behavior affected others. And the improbability of the Lakers—one of several teams that Howard famously quit on when he was expected to make them a contender—practically defies description.
Granted, it would be strange if the Lakers faithful hadn’t accepted Howard this season. He’s earned it by making himself into a valuable contributor on an elite team. But they haven’t merely accepted Howard. They’ve embraced Howard when they could have conceivably still held a grudge, or at least only grudgingly respected him. And it’s not just Lakers fans. Howard’s renaissance is this season’s chief feel-good story. It’s a redemption narrative so textbook that it doesn’t quite seem real: highly capable athlete sabotages his career, team gives him one last shot, athlete turns his career around and makes penance by doing exactly what the team needs him to do. That Howard is making his comeback as a Laker—returning to the scene of the crime—makes the whole thing almost too perfect. It makes no sense and yet it makes total sense. Because so little was expected of Howard, what he’s doing now packs an extra punch. The unlikeliness of the situation makes it seem a little like it was meant to be, and fate is the ultimate crowd-pleaser.
Howard has been on a downward trajectory for most of the past decade, and there’s an entire generation of fans who only, or mostly, understand Dwight Howard in this light. But what makes his story so dramatic (and compelling) is the dizzying heights he fell from. He wasn’t just a perennial All-Star; at his peak, Howard was considered the league’s premier big man. There had been other athletic centers before, but none could jump out of the gym like Howard, a 6’9” colossus who was as explosive and nimble as a guard. He had preternatural shot-blocking and rebounding instincts and, despite having virtually no moves on offense, never had any problems leading his team in scoring. Much is made of his three Defensive Player of the Year awards but Howard’s signature accomplishment remains the Magic’s trip to the 2009 NBA Finals, beating the Celtics and LeBron’s Cavaliers along the way. That team’s strategy—surround Howard with as many three-point shooters as possible—was both decidedly goofy and oddly prescient. They were never going to beat the mighty Lakers (they managed to steal one game before bowing out in five). But that Howard could get that team that far is the single greatest testament to his dominance.
Howard wasn’t just very, very good. He was supremely entertaining, sometimes even self-consciously so, as in his antic dunk contest appearances (there’s a case to be made that he also killed the dunk contest, but it was already badly ailing). And he was positively magnetic, an imposing figure who doubled as a dignified, disarming goofball. For the past decade, mercilessly ridiculing Dwight Howard has been one of the NBA’s great constants; before that, though, he was virtually impossible to dislike. There’s a reason why Howard at one point had more endorsements than any other player in the league, including LeBron James. He had a natural ease and charm about him that, as much as his leaping ability, kept him from ever coming across as a Goliath-like figure. Shaquille O’Neal compared himself to Superman as a boast. When Howard donned a Superman cape in the dunk contest, it was nearly the opposite. It felt like Howard was himself thrilled and delighted that he could credibly dress up that way.
The public’s complicated relationship stems almost entirely from this early honeymoon phase. While the Dwight Howard phenomenon was not altogether organic—the brands that loved him also succeeded in tarnishing him somewhat via over-exposure and market saturation—there was an inordinate amount of goodwill around him. When Howard bitched and moaned his way out of Orlando in 2012, it was almost a betrayal, a slap in the face of the overwhelmingly high approval numbers he had going for him. When he was traded to the Lakers, there was still the expectation that he would be a transcendent performer, which maybe would make up for this transgression. Because things didn’t work out that way at all, Howard cemented his status as one of the most widely-reviled players in the league. It was a harsh judgment born out of resentment but—as had happened with LeBron James—was an over-correction that, in the face of such adulation, seemed almost inevitable.
Dwight Howard hasn’t truly returned to form on the court. Even if there are flashes that can rekindle our old affinity for him, that simply isn’t going to happen for a player his age with his injury history. But in bringing himself back from the dead, Howard has once again won our hearts, a shift that’s not only welcome because we love a good redemption story. The cloud of resentment that hung over him, that feeling that he lets us all down and made us regret ever giving a damn about him, has finally dissipated. There’s a cosmic confluence to his being on the same team as James, whose return to Cleveland was a relief because it made it okay to once again enjoy and admire him. Because of the homecoming narrative, James was able to win us back over with a vengeance; the low point of The Decision provided the springboard for the near-universal love for James that prevails today. It’s impossible for Howard to get back to where he once was. But it feels pretty good to have him back.
Originally Appeared on GQ