Wizards center Dwight Howard puts up a shot against Cleveland earlier this season. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

ATLANTA — Dwight Howard braved the 90-minute drive in Atlanta traffic and wore a topaz-colored custom suit for a rare night out. For the first time since having spinal surgery, Howard joined the Washington Wizards, surprising his teammates and the coaching staff with a visit ahead of Tuesday night’s matchup with the Atlanta Hawks.

Although recovery from his Nov. 30 procedure has been limited to walking and not much more, Howard appeared energized by the locker-room visit and boasted of being pain-free after having a lumbar microdiscectomy.

“Oh, I can sit down. I can touch my toes, put my socks on — all the stuff I couldn’t do before the surgery,” Howard said. “It feels good to get that stuff off, because I was in a lot of pain. I don’t know how I actually played the way I was playing with what was going on in my body, and I’m just so happy that it’s gone.”

This season, Howard has appeared in nine games and compiled averages of 12.8 points and 9.2 rebounds, the latter of which still leads the team. But Howard described himself as playing “on one leg” because of pain that lingered from the preseason. Howard said that he had sought advice from “four [to] five” doctors to examine his MRI exams. In that time, Howard thought he had found the source of his injury: a strained piriformis muscle, which is in the buttocks.

But all along, the tenderness actually stemmed from pain in his lower back, the same area where Howard required surgery in 2012. Howard said he has learned from the challenges of six years ago and feels better prepared for the mental grind.

“The symptoms wasn’t as bad as it was in 2012, so that’s a positive sign. And I’m in a different space mentally,” Howard said. “I’ve been through this process before. I know what it’s going to take for me to get where I need to get to. For me, it’s kind of like the fun part. I have to crawl, jump, get myself back to the top. That’s the fun part for me. I like a challenge, and this is something that’s going to challenge me in all aspects of my life — mentally, physically and emotionally. Being 33 and having back surgery, a lot of people say: ‘Well, he’s done. He’s finished.’ So this is a great opportunity for me to — not to prove to other people, but prove to myself that I can overcome any situation.”

Howard’s spirits appeared to be high during Tuesday’s cameo. He beamed as he walked into the locker room, shaking hands with everyone in the room.

“Ohhh!” center Thomas Bryant exclaimed when he looked up from his phone.

Howard veered into the coaches' office and, when the newly acquired Trevor Ariza spotted his former teammate — they played together with the Houston Rockets during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons — he smiled and ducked inside to say hello. Then, Howard joined his teammates to sit near the end of the bench.

Howard will remain in his hometown of Atlanta for rehab. Friday will mark the third week since his surgery. The Wizards originally said they would reevaluate him after two to three months.

“When you have back surgery, the rehab is a little bit different for any other injury. The first couple of weeks and almost like a month and a half, you’re just walking. You got to start with the core program, just level one, which is real slow,” Howard explained. “Then you got to pass level one and get to level two. You got to get all the way to level five to be able to play.

“So, I remember the first time I went through this: The first time I went to the gym, I could only shoot 10 jump shots, and I couldn’t jump. I could only stand in one spot, lift my arms and shoot,” he continued. “And that was, like, the hardest thing to do — just go to the gym and not be able to do what you want to do. So, I understand this process, and I’ve just been mentally preparing myself for what’s ahead, just to make it easier. But also to hopefully make my return faster, because I know what I need to do to get better.”