The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard ready to be recognized among the league’s elite again

Forgot about me? (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

HOUSTON — Before he ripped the bags of ice from his knees, reached for his green, turtle-shell shaped Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle backpack and walked out of a lounge inside the bowels of Toyota Center in his Mickey Mouse T-shirt, Dwight Howard burst into an old Gospel hymn.

“I got joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart,” Howard started to sing with a laugh, responding to a question about his current state of mind as he enters his second season with the Houston Rockets.

Anyone who has ever played with or coached Howard knows that a happy, playful Howard is a dangerous Howard. But for much of the past three seasons, Howard has found little time for fun with the stresses of trying to angle his way out of Orlando, the misery of playing alongside Kobe Bryant and the pain of performing with nagging injuries – especially a back ailment that he now admits nearly ended his basketball career.

Howard could summon the silly from time to time over the past two seasons, but his play was slightly below the standard he set from 2008-12, when he donned a Superman cape while snaring a slam-dunk title, was a perennial first-team all-NBA player, won three defensive player of the year awards and often found his way in the most valuable player conversation. More than three years after finishing a distant second to Derrick Rose for MVP in 2011, Howard is determined to remind everyone what he is capable of accomplishing when healthy and in good spirits.

“I don’t think the players that I play against have forgotten me. I just think it’s everybody else on the outside, because you hear things, and people say, ‘He was this in Orlando.’ Well, I was in Orlando eight years. I can’t forget what I did in Orlando. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away,” Howard said recently, “but the Dwight now, is a smarter, better player than the Dwight in Orlando.”

Summer time is usually the period when Howard likes to go on vacation and promotional tours, but he sought a simpler approach, focusing on healing his back and ankle, so that he could be that entertaining and explosively athletic freak once again. Declining to participate with USA Basketball, Howard spent much of his time in his hometown of Atlanta working out with Rockets teammate Josh Powell. His plan was to build off what quietly was a stellar postseason performance in which he was a dominant presence on both ends during a first-round loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.

“He was able to give everybody a glimpse,” Powell said of Howard, who averaged 26 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in that six-game series. “It was real good to see how hard he was working and how dedicated he was. I just know that he looks forward to getting back to his old self and doing a lot more.”

Howard felt so encouraged by his workouts that he posted a video on his Instagram account last month in which he tossed a basketball off the wall of a gym and unfurled a windmill, tomahawk dunk. “I was doing those dunks and I shocked myself,” Howard said with a smile. “Here I am, 280 pounds and I’m moving, doing all this stuff I was doing when I was 240. So, even the people that I trained with this summer, they were highly impressed. I’m really happy with my progress. I’m in a lot better place mentally, physically and spiritually.”

Part of Howard’s comfort comes from knowing that it is the first time in three seasons he doesn’t have to start over in a new place. His first season playing for the Rockets was a mild success in the regular season, as he and James Harden led the team to 54 wins and the fourth seed in the Western Conference. Had the Rockets been able to get past Portland, it would’ve set up an interesting second-round matchup against the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs, a team Houston swept in all four regular season games. But any chance of that occurring ended when Trail Blazers all-star guard Damian Lillard buried a buzzer-beating, series-clinching three-pointer in Game 6 that had Howard hunching over, squinting angrily as confetti fell to the floor.

“As much life as it sucked out me, when he hit that shot, just stepping away from the game a little bit for a couple of months gave me that passion and everything I needed, that fire, to do what I needed to do to win,” Howard said. “I think it happened for a reason. If we had won that series and moved on, a lot of things that we had problems with would’ve just been swept under the rug.”

That Portland series was a flashback to Howard’s better days, before his desire to quickly put behind an ugly split with the Magic led him to return too quickly from back surgery in his lone season with the Los Angeles Lakers. His reward for being impatient: facing months of ridicule from Bryant and Lakers fans for not being serious enough, for being too soft and for not being committed to what it takes to win. The criticism stung, Howard said, because he worked so hard to play only months after being told that he had to have surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back or risk never playing basketball again.

“It’s something that you never want to hear,” he said. “At the time, I just felt like, I’m not fin’ to make any excuses, I’m going to go out there and playing as hard as I can. That’s what I was always was taught: ‘Never to make any excuses, never to show pain, never to show weakness.’ That’s a big reason why I’m always smiling and enjoying myself on the floor because I don’t want my opponent or anybody to see they got the best of me.”

Looking back, Howard would rather deal with what he’s learned than dwell on the past. But that season in Los Angeles was exactly what Howard needed to understand that he can’t please everyone. It also gave him the confidence to leave for what he desired in Houston.

“It’s hard not to feel like the villain when you see stuff on TV that people talk about and they have no clue what’s going on,” Howard said. “The situation in LA, it hurts to be put in that category, but I’ve come to realize, people hate what they don’t understand. I had to learn to let that go, as tough as it was. Because I’m like, man. I’m a good dude. And to see all this stuff happen, I’m like why did it happen to me?”

Howard continues to smile even after Houston flopped in its attempts to upgrade the roster and find help for him and Harden. The Rockets missed out on Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, lost Chandler Parsons to division rival Dallas and traded away key rotation players Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik for salary cap space. The addition of veteran Trevor Ariza will help on the defensive end but Howard will be looked upon to be a better leader and player to help keep the team competed in the rugged Western Conference.

“In order for this team to be, where we all want to be, I have to step up in a lot of different ways,” Howard said. “Whether that’s how hard I play on the floor, how I am in the locker room, the bus, the plane, wherever it may be, to be that guys that other guys look at as the right example. I think we have a really good opportunity to do something great down here.”

Hall of Fame big man Hakeem Olajuwon, who won two titles with the Rockets in 1994 and 1995, joined the organization as a player development specialist last season and has worked closely with Howard, offering praise and, when warranted, harsh criticism. But this season, Olajuwon has provided Howard with “extra motivation” by stating his desire for the eight-time all-star to finally win the MVP and a championship.

Having already deposited 10 seasons in the NBA, Howard joked that he is “getting old” but that sentiment was hammered home during a recent conversation with Rockets rookie Nick Johnson, who told him that he was in sixth grade when Howard’s career began.

“Time flies. It’s just a blessing to still continue to be able to play this game because I look back and there were a lot of guys who were in my class who I don’t know where they’re at. I think these next 10 years will be better than my first 10,” Howard said. “I’m not satisfied. If I was to never play basketball again in this league, I would be happy with what I’ve done in this league … But it’s just one thing missing. That’s the goal.”