If you want to make Dwight Howard glow, put him amidst kids - pretty much any kids anywhere.
Howard, the Hornets’ new starting center, has adopted Charlotte’s Starmount Academy, an elementary school on Brookdale Ave. Howard is contributing $100,000 to the operation of a Boys and Girls Club there, and this is about more than writing a check and doing a photo-op.
Weeks after the presentation ceremony, Howard returned to the after-school program to do a basketball clinic. He clowned with the kids, doing the “dab” and making funny faces. The chemistry between this multi-millionaire athlete and a bunch of mostly underprivileged kids looked genuine and valuable.
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“That is part of my calling. I have a real gift with kids,” Howard told the Observer in an exclusive interview before Wednesday’s season opener against the Detroit Pistons. “I probably enjoyed it more than those kids.”
To understand why, travel back to Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy, where Howard attended school before being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 NBA draft to the Orlando Magic. This was when high school seniors could still enter the draft, and that was a given for Howard, who was so big, so athletic, so can’t-miss.
He was LeBron James before LeBron James. Looking back 14 years later, Howard is grateful for all basketball has provided him and his family. He’s currently playing on a three-year contract worth more than $70 million, and made tens of millions before that.
However, there is a tradeoff to all that wealth and fame, and Howard over the years has come to realize what he, and every other world-known prodigy, missed.
“That’s my chance to be a kid, to have fun and enjoy life, without all the responsibilities that go with being an NBA player,” Howard said of that afternoon at Starmount.
“It’s a weird feeling,” said Howard, who turns 32 in December. “A person like (singer) Justin Bieber or those (child actors) from Disney, they’d understand this: The Kevin Durants, the LeBron Jameses, you miss out on those years when you could just go out into the public and just be a kid. Just have fun without somebody snapping a picture or videotaping whatever you’re doing.
“When we have those opportunities, I think, ‘Ah, I can breathe! I can actually be myself.’ ”
Howard has always been a gregarious personality. He’s amused when people stare in shock that he pumps his own gasoline, as if that’s inconceivable. He’s usually the last player to leave the locker room after a game, because he’s being social in that goofy, jovial tone that is his way.
Howard is on his third team in as many seasons, and there wasn’t much interest when the Atlanta Hawks made him available last spring (the Hornets gave up only Miles Plumlee and Marco Belinelli in the trade).
Howard is sometimes viewed as too childish to fully apply himself. If that’s been so, his new teammates and coach Steve Clifford haven’t seen evidence of it this preseason.
“I don’t know what happened to him at other stops, but since he’s been here he’s been aces with us,” said power forward Marvin Williams.
“He likes to have fun, and there’s nothing wrong with having fun. Dwight takes his job just as seriously as the next person. He works out multiple times a day. You would not have produced the career he has produced if you were not a serious player.”
Clifford coached Howard as an assistant with the Magic and the Los Angeles Lakers. Clifford’s opinion was a significant factor in the Hornets trading for Howard, and assuming a contract that pays him about $23 million a season late in his career.
Asked about Howard’s persona, Clifford tells a story from when the Magic was in the 2009 Eastern Conference final against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Magic led 3 games to 2 with a chance to close out the series when they blew a 12-point lead in Cleveland.
The morning of the next game, Howard sent out a team-wide text, promising a victory. “I think he had 40 (points) and 18 (rebounds) that night,” Clifford recalled. “He set a tone in that game that dominated. Everyone has their experiences, and mine obviously were very good.”
Howard isn’t the athlete he was eight years ago, but Clifford sees a hunger about Howard this preseason that he’s counting on.
“He’s very determined (a.) that we win and (b.) that he plays at a high level,” Clifford said. “I think he understands that the correlation between those two things will be strong.”
Michael Jordan left impression
Soon after the trade to the Hornets in June, Howard got a call from team owner Michael Jordan. Hall of Famer Jordan told Howard to relax and be himself as a Hornet, that Jordan had full faith this was a good move for the player and the team.
That endorsement resonated with Howard then, and it’s something he often mentions still. Howard is an eight-time All-Star and a likely Hall of Famer, but he still feels stung by criticism.
“People feel like it’s nothing because I haven’t won a championship, or because I have fun when I play basketball.,” Howard said.
“Obviously with the situations (Lakers, Houston Rockets and Hawks) not turning out so well, a lot of the blame was put on myself. For (Jordan) to just embrace me as though none of that happened meant a lot to me.”
ABC-ESPN NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who hired Clifford into the NBA with the New York Knicks, said this is a time for “self-reflection” for Howard - to appreciate the chance he’s getting with the Hornets to restore his reputation, playing for a coach he knows and trusts.
Howard sounds like that message was received.
“This is a great life. I’m in a beautiful city, I have a wonderful coach, I have a wonderful owner. I have amazing teammates. I’m going to enjoy this.”
Howard recalls when Charlotte was a sleepy place by NBA standards. He says the town has grown up in 14 years - kind of like how Howard feels he’s grown up.
“This city is like a hidden gem,” he concluded. “Once it gets polished, once we rise, it’s going to be amazing.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell