At the end of last summer, Dwight Howard was staring into a mirror, admiring the view. He had entered that offseason as heavy as a football lineman, hiding 285 pounds beneath his Atlanta Hawks uniform. But he had dropped 23 pounds, was dunking as if it were 2008 again and was expecting a rebirth with a new team, the Charlotte Hornets.
Howard made a bold declaration to his trainer: I want to play in the NBA until I’m 40.
Ed Downs chuckles at the memory. It’s not because he takes Howard lightly — he just seems to find humor in anything that questions his 32-year-old client.
“The look he had on his face,” Downs recalls, “my response was: ‘Let’s make it happen.’ ”
That private goal was made public July 23 inside Capital One Arena when Howard casually shared with a crowded room that he planned “on playing this game for another good eight years” during his introductory news conference with the Washington Wizards.
The eight-time all-star, a chiseled 265 pounds with 3.3 percent body fat, according to Downs, has been focused on extending his career into his 40s, which would follow the path of old-timers such as Dirk Nowitzki (40) and Vince Carter (41), both set for record-tying 21st seasons in the league.
Doing so wouldn’t make Howard an anomaly among big men. Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar started 74 games in his 20th and final season before retiring at 42. Robert Parish and Dikembe Mutombo, also Hall of Famers, went to 43 and 42, respectively. Kevin Willis made it all the way to 44.
Howard’s small entourage of trainers is trying to make his goal attainable by building a more modern, intellectually and structurally sound version of him — Dwight 2.0.
Downs and Justin Zormelo began working with Howard in spring 2017, with Downs, the founder of Miami-based Proterf Training, coming in a little more than a month before the Hawks faced the Wizards in the first round of the playoffs.
“I got a 285-pound, 12½ percent body fat guy,” Down says. “Not good.”
Howard averaged just 8.0 points and 10.7 rebounds during the series, by far his lowest statistical production in 10 postseason appearances. After the six-game exit, in which Howard was thoroughly outmatched by the older, less-athletic Marcin Gortat, Downs and Zormelo dedicated the summer to remolding the self-proclaimed Superman.
“I had to figure out how to change his game into what today’s style of play was,” says Zormelo, an Alexandria native and the founder of Best Ball Analytics. Zormelo has worked with several NBA teams along with stars such as Kevin Durant and John Wall.
“We added ballhandling. We added shooting. Just a completely different mind-set than he’s used to playing [with],” Zormelo says. “I was able to figure out how to add different skills to Dwight, and he adapts pretty quickly.”
Howard had grown up running — his father, Dwight Sr., once coached track and field — but not like Downs had in mind. Downs put that big body on a track, making the 6-foot-11 Howard sprint 100-yard gassers. He introduced core and flexibility training to rid Howard of back issues after previous trainers had concentrated mainly on building strength.
“People wanted him to get big and strong, which if you didn’t notice, he already is,” Downs says. “With the way that the game is changing, it’s a lot more fast-paced. You can’t have a 285-pound body out there on a 6-11 frame. It just slowed him down.”
While Downs pushed Howard’s body, Zormelo worked on his mind. Think more transition, less post-ups, Zormelo advised. Fear not the perimeter; embrace stretching your range closer to the three-point arc. Howard listened.
“When I came into this league, I was playing against the Shaqs, the Alonzo Mournings, the Jermaine O’Neals, and it was more so a physical [test] — I’m going to see who’s the strongest guy in the paint. It’s like an arm wrestling match for the big guys,” Howard says. “And nowadays, it’s not the same game. So it’s either evolve, adapt or get left behind.”
Zormelo viewed last season in Charlotte as a test run for Howard to implement some updated elements to his game. Downs had loftier goals. He wanted Howard to play all 82 games, which would have been the first time he had done so since he was 24 and dominating the paint for the Orlando Magic. Howard just missed the mark, playing 81 games only because he had to serve a one-game suspension for receiving his 16th technical foul. But in the previous game, No. 72 of the season, Howard recorded 32 points and 30 rebounds to become the first player in the NBA to do so since 2010.
“He’s Superman,” Zormelo says. “After the game, we said it could’ve been 40 and 35. Most people are shocked but for him . . .”
Downs finishes the thought: “He’s healthy now.”
Since he started a diet consisting of 60 percent protein, 20 percent carbs and 20 percent fiber, Howard has recaptured the athleticism of old, Downs says. During last summer’s transformation, Downs had Howard replicating his showcase from the 2008 All-Star Weekend dunk contest: a windmill starting from behind the basket, an alley-oop finish from two steps inside the free throw line, then tapping the basketball off the backboard with his left hand and slamming it down with his right. Though Howard didn’t heed his trainer’s advice to enter the 2018 slam dunk contest, Downs won’t stop hinting.
“I think I can talk him into it this year,” Downs says with a laugh.
Ahead of Howard’s introduction to media and fans, Downs and Zormelo spent the morning hours putting their client through a shooting session inside the Wizards’ practice facility. Howard made 81 of 128 shots around the floor and hit 60 percent of spot-up threes (15 of 25).
In Charlotte, Howard didn’t show a greater ability to knock down perimeter shots and connected on only 33.3 percent from the midrange area, according to NBA.com. But compared with his one year in Atlanta, Howard improved in transition and ranked in the 94th percentile, according to Synergy Sports.
This year, the brakes are off. No more trial run. Zormelo wants Howard to raise his IQ on every possession — be the rebounder and screener while also looking for opportunities to dominate.
“He wants to evolve into Anthony Davis, into Kevin Durant,” Zormelo says, “but his own version of that.”
Howard wants to spend almost another decade evolving. Downs vowed to be there until the end of a career that potentially lasts until Year 22. They won’t stop until a 40-year-old NBA player is staring back at Howard in the mirror.
“It builds a confidence in a guy,” Downs says, “looking at himself in the mirror and feeling like he’s 19.”