Howard returns to Atlanta to mentor youths

Former Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy star hosts basketball camp

In a dimly lighted gym with no seats on Atlanta’s west side, Dwight Howard is shooting. Hooks, alternating left and right hand. Turn-arounds on either side of the lane. Jumpers from each wing, robotically off the glass. And, of course, free throws.

Thirty-eight days earlier, he snapped mental photographs from courtside in Orlando of the Los Angeles Lakers toasting their NBA Finals victory against his Magic. Those images motivate Howard this offseason, which began with only a three-week swearing off of all things basketball, the briefest period since he entered the NBA straight out of Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy five seasons ago.

“I’m just trying to work hard to get ready for next year,” he said after the workout, overseen by a personal trainer whom Howard pays to travel with him.

A hallway leads to another gym, which has been crammed this week with youngsters enrolled at Howard’s basketball camp. He attends it daily, ducking in and out of player drills, mini-games, medals ceremonies and hero-worship.

Howard was there for the camp’s opening day after a red-eye flight from Los Angeles, where he filmed a shoe commercial, met with connections with the 2010 movie “Valentine’s Day” (Julia Roberts, Jessica Alba, et. al.), in which he might have a cameo. And he pitched to Warner Bros. a reality show called “Dwight Across America,” which would chronicle his experiences while visiting a dozen U.S. cities on a customized tour bus.

It’s little wonder that Howard has yet to take full stock of the whirlwind of changes on the Magic’s roster. Four players — Hedo Turkoglu, Rafer Alston, Courtney Lee and Tony Battie — are gone. (A fifth, Marcin Gortat, had hoped to join them, but the Magic angered Howard’s backup by retaining him.) Newly on board are Vince Carter, Brandon Bass, Ryan Anderson and Matt Barnes.

“We’re trying to do whatever we can to get back to the championships,” said Howard, who did not endorse the trade of Lee, his friend.

“Was I hurt and upset at first? Yes,” he says. “I didn’t want to see Courtney go, but we’ve got to understand this is a business.”

Placating him was the acquisition of Florida resident Carter, a summertime workout partner.

“He’s been telling me for three years he wanted to come to Orlando,” Howard says. With Carter, “We should be better. We’re older, more mature.”

The league’s most seismic move during hibernation has only one degree of separation from Howard. The Cleveland Cavaliers, partly anticipating an Eastern Conference finals sequel with the Magic, signed Shaquille O’Neal — ostensibly to check Howard, who was uncontainable in Orlando’s six-game series win.

“I’m looking forward to playing them again,” said Howard, declining to address the O’Neal deal directly. “I can’t wait.”

Even as Howard has reaped awards, team and individual (notably NBA Defensive Player of the Year), media and fans increasingly nit-picked his game last season, especially on offense.

“Somebody’s going to find fault in everything I do,” he said. “I can’t worry about it. I just laugh. People who say that stuff never played basketball.”

Howard is less defensive about criticism of his free-throw shooting, which was less than 60 percent for four seasons after he made 67 percent as a rookie.

He is able to laugh at his plight. When the host of “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” invited him to launch free throws on the show, Howard said, “Wait, I’ve got to shoot free throws? Have you seen my free throws?”

At his camp, a man button-holed Howard for several minutes, saying he could apply math principles in the shooting form and offered his tutorial services.

“If I had a dollar for every time someone gave me advice, I’d have a million dollars,” said Howard, already a millionaire many times over.

He writes off the free-throw woes to “my body change,” the transformation from high-school skinny to NBA muscle-bound. “My new body has got to get used to it,” he said. “It comes down to confidence. There’s no reason to change my shot. I’ve just got to practice.”

Howard does so, in any gym available to him. Even ones dimly lit and devoid of seats, in the quiet before another NBA storm.