CHARLOTTE – For the second time in less than a year, Dwight Howard was staging one of those buoyant, welcome-to-town press conferences Monday. This being his fifth team in seven years, and his third in three, Howard was nothing if not polished.
The Cirque du Dwight comes with a very experienced ringmaster.
In 2016, his welcome was quite the production, held at a south Atlanta rec center in the presence of his family and hundreds of excited schoolchildren. The Atlanta-born center dabbed at tears that day, explaining how blessed he was to be coming back home to play for the Hawks. It was there he announced he would be changing the number on his uniform, too, to No. 8. Because, he said, that number held scriptural symbolism, signifying new beginnings.
Monday, there was no large audience, just a clutch of 30 or so media members gathered in small space inside the Charlotte Hornets arena. No tears. No parents looking on from the front row, crying as well.
And when it came time for the photo op, Howard held up his new Hornets jersey with the old No. 12 upon it. The theme of renewal had been played out.
The emotions were far more subdued this time. But the promise never changes.
“Going home, having the press conference at the gym where I worked out in and practiced in as a child to get ready to try to get ready to play in the NBA, that was very emotional,” Howard remembered, when asked about differences in tone between Monday and his welcome-home press conference last July.
“Seeing all my friends, that was emotional. That opportunity was great. It was a learning lesson, just being at home and playing in front of your friends and family on a daily basis. And I think it got me ready for this moment right here. I think this is going to be great. I have so much faith in coach and my teammates. I think we’re going to have an unbelievable season.”
In a pre-draft trade last Tuesday night, the Hawks swapped Howard and 10 spots in the draft to the Charlotte Hornets for Miles Plumlee and Marco Belinelli. It was essentially an exchange of onerous contracts — Howard had signed a three-year, $70.5 million free agent deal with the Hawks last year — and players who didn’t fit their surroundings.
Howard had returned to Atlanta stating, “My prayers are answered.” But after averaging 13.5 points and 12.7 rebounds a game, and finishing the season on the bench for the entire fourth quarter of his team’s final playoff game, it was clear Howard had not answered the Hawks prayers. He had, in fact, clocked only 16 fourth-quarter minutes throughout the six games of the Washington playoff series.
Moving on, Howard here struck a conciliatory tone toward that city 250 miles to the southwest. No hard feelings nor backward glances, at least for the time being.
His answer, when asked if he had processed why his Atlanta stop was ultimately a failure (with him, the Hawks won five fewer games than in the preceding season): “Timing is everything. Sometimes things don’t work the way we want it to work. You gotta move forward. I don’t think it’s good to keep looking behind, to say why didn’t this work, why didn’t that work.
“If you keep looking back you’ll never reach where you’re trying to get to. I’m not looking back. I love Atlanta. I’ll always love Atlanta. My family’s there. But this is my destination and I’m going to make the best of it.”
In Charlotte, he’ll share the city with another Atlanta-born athlete who has at times likened himself to a superhero. “The fact is that there are two supermen in Charlotte in (Carolina Panthers quarterback) Cam Newton and myself,” Howard said with a smile.
More professionally pertinent, he reunites with a coach who, as an assistant in Orlando and Los Angeles during Howard’s stops there, developed ties to the center. Benched by Mike Budenholzer, Howard looked forward to a new day with the Hornets Steve Clifford.
And Clifford, heaping praise on Howard for his basketball intellect, proclaimed, “Older players who play with intelligence, that’s how you win in this league. Smart always wins in the NBA.”
That was just one approach to selling Howard to his latest constituency. Another was to emphasize the seven feet worth of shot blocking and rebounding that always has served to market him so well.
“Two of the needs we were looking to address this offseason were rim protection and our overall depth. With Dwight we feel we’ve been able to address both those needs,” Rich Cho, the Hornets GM, said. “He’s a proven all-star with a number of good years left in him.”
Howard, 31, did his part to build at least a curiosity in what his latest move might mean. He always has.
On the criticism that has followed him out of his last three postings in Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta, Howard said, “A lot of people have written me off, which is great because it’s going to make me work even harder. I got a lot left in the tank and I’m going to give this city everything that I have, give my teammates everything that I have.”
On earlier, eyebrow-raising comments that the consummate big dunk/small free throw percentage player was working on his three-point shooting: “I have no clue (how many threes he may shoot as a Hornet). That statement, I said it and everybody took it that I was going to come back and try to be Reggie Miller. That’s not what I intended.
“I understand that for me to play as long as I want to play I have to be able to expand my game…But I don’t plan on stepping out and shooting 100 threes this season. But if I do I hope you guys cheer for me.”
For now, that was just one big joke. Check back in February for the volume of cheers, if he indeed does decide to start hoisting.
In summary, Howard was grateful for another place to practice his craft of being very tall.
Along with that gratitude there dangled that idea that surely an eight-time All Star would have to come in and be force for positive change. It’s the same notion that has trailed Howard at other stops, and has often turned out to be unclaimed baggage.
“So, Charlotte, thank you for having me here,” he said, as a message to the latest stop in his career travelogue.
“I’m going to give this city every ounce that I have of blood, sweat and tears. And hopefully something great comes out of it.”
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