Dwight Howard had talked for more than an hour, sharing his excitement about joining the Washington Wizards and deflecting the negativity that has surrounded the last few years of his career, when he reached for one of his two cellphones. He was pulled into a notification, clicked the social media app and smiled. A sports website mining for sound bites had already highlighted one of Howard’s favorite lines from his Monday afternoon news conference.
“I learned Magic for eight years. Went to La-La Land. Worked for a while with Rockets,” said Howard, reading aloud his own words, in which he referenced stints in Orlando, Los Angeles and Houston.
The remarks would go on about how Howard had learned to “fly with some Hawks. Got stung by the Hornets. Through all of that, it taught me how to be a Wizard.” Admittedly, Howard said he had pondered the bit for weeks even though his test audience vetoed the idea.
“Everybody was like, ‘That’s so corny!’ But I like it,” Howard said. “I studied magic and now I’m a wizard.”
Howard made the effort Monday to reclaim his narrative — “corny” catchphrase be damned — in billing himself as an eager teammate and humble addition to a team that he says could be the final landing spot in his career.
Howard, 32, joins the Wizards only after being blindsided — or “stung” — by a trade from the Charlotte Hornets to the Brooklyn Nets last month. Over the last two offseasons, Howard has been sent packing by two different teams. Each move raised questions about his reputation in the locker room. He felt the stories were unfair and in the fraternity of the NBA, where everybody talks, he wondered where he could get a clean slate. Again.
That’s when Washington threw out the welcome mat.
Howard, speaking to a room full of reporters, season ticket holders and Monumental Sports & Entertainment employees, opened by expressing gratitude to team President Ernie Grunfeld.
“Thank you to Ernie,” Howard said, “and thanks for believing in me as a player and wanting me here in D.C.”
Howard chose his words carefully. He sounded more like a player fighting for a roster spot rather than the three-time defensive player of the year and eight-time all-star who dominated in his first eight years in the NBA with the Magic.
“Before I got here, everybody was giving out opinions on how I am as a player and as a person,” Howard said, “and for [Grunfeld] not to listen to those opinions and thoughts of others, for him to come up with his own judgment, that’s why I wanted to say that because it means a lot to me. My whole life I’ve had people always doubting me and say bad things, as people say, ‘hate on’ me. But for some people to not allow other people’s opinions and thoughts to affect their decisions, that meant a lot.”
Grunfeld wanted Howard for his rebounding (he has led the league in total rebounds five times), his rim protection (he also blocked more shots than anyone else for two seasons) and his two-way skills (he averaged a double-double last season in his 14th NBA campaign). But nothing resonated with Howard more than knowing that he was wanted by John Wall.
Howard recalled the morning of June 20 when he learned he had been traded by Charlotte.
“It caught me off guard. I literally was about to walk into an event where I was about to speak to about 5,000 people and I looked at my phone and on Instagram, I see a message that says, ‘Welcome to Brooklyn,’ ” Howard said. “And so I’m like, ‘Nah, this can’t be real. Like, not again.’ ”
Shocked by that Instagram message, Howard would soon receive another surprise missive. Wall sent a direct message with a simple question: Do you want to come to D.C.?
“He reached out to me on Instagram first, and no lie when I saw the message on Instagram, I really got so happy,” Howard said. “‘Oh, John just [direct-messaged] me!’ … This is crazy!’”
Howard said he had been contacted by the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, but he wasn’t as moved as hearing directly from a five-time all-star point guard. Earlier this month, Wall revealed that Howard had previously talked about teaming up one day. The idea of the broad-shouldered big man setting screens and rolling to the rim for a delivery from a lightning-quick guard seemed enticing years ago. Wall’s Instagram invitation sealed the deal.
“After he said that, I’m like, ‘Bro, I’m with it,’ ” Howard said. “No disrespect to any of the point guards I played with in my career — John is a different type of animal. The way he passes the ball, the way he draws so much attention with his aggressiveness on the offensive end, it’s going to make things very difficult for teams to really guard the pick and roll. At this point in John’s career it’s about one thing, and that’s winning.”
After negotiating a buyout with the Nets, Howard agreed to a two-year deal with the Wizards. The second year of the contract is a player option, which Howard said was his agent’s idea. Howard simply wanted to get to Washington, a place that he can envision calling home for a long time.
Howard’s circuitous journey, from perennial all-star and potential Hall of Famer with the Magic to a basketball castoff trying to learn new sorcery, continues in the District. Howard said he plans to play another “good eight years” and hopes to write his own ending.
“All of us have something to prove, and we want to do it together,” Howard said of his Wizards teammates. “I feel like this city and this team is a place where I want to end my career.”