Smiling Howard plans to stay that way

Smiling Howard plans to stay that way
July 13, 2013, 3:30 pm
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Dwight Howard on being fun and playful

Dwight Howard strolled up to the stage on the floor of the Toyota Center just after 12:25 p.m. on Saturday.

He stopped at the podium to shake hands with longtime play-by-play guy Bill Worrell before hugging Leslie Alexander and shaking the hands of the other men on the dais.

Then, the 7-footer sat down with two men flanking each side. He wore a gray suit, plaid dress shirt and a purple tie.

He also wore an enormous, goofy grin that showed off his pearly whites and came out after every joke or funny story he told. Soon enough, he’ll trade in that suit for a basketball jersey.

But that smile? That’s here to stay.

See, Howard, 27, is an outgoing person. He likes to smile. He likes to crack jokes (he called Chandler Parsons “Timberlake” during the presser). He likes to laugh. And, at times during his nine-year NBA career, that has rubbed people the wrong way. It’s been perceived that he doesn’t care. It’s been perceived that winning isn’t his primary concern. It’s been perceived that he’s a clown in a basketball jersey.

But on Saturday, Rockets owner Alexander said to heck with those perceptions.

“You know, people interpret … he likes to smile,” Alexander said. “He’s a warm, engaging guy. People think because he smiles, he doesn’t care as much. That’s just stupid. It’s just stupid.”

Howard’s press conference was held shortly after the center officially signed his four-year max deal to become the latest in the line of Houston Rockets’ big men and just before a large fan rally outside the Toyota Center.

Howard said he’s been having fun on the basketball court since he was a youngster, playing under the instruction of his father. On Saturday, he told a story he remembered from when he was 10. Back then, he explained, his father was his basketball coach and asked him why he was always smiling.

“I said ‘Dad, because I’m having fun. This is basketball. This is what I love to do,’” Howard said on Saturday. “And at first, he didn’t like that and then once he saw me out there playing and having a smile on my face and doing what I do, he came back at the end of that season after we won and said, ‘you know what, smile as much as you want. When you do it, it makes everybody’s life better.’”

But the smiles and laughter haven’t been as prevalent for Howard in recent years. His tumultuous season with the Lakers was preceded by an ugly breakup with the Orlando Magic.

But Howard’s start with the Magic was much different; he used to have fun. After being selected with the first-overall pick in the 2004 draft, Howard averaged 18.4 points, 13.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game in his eight-year stint with the Magic. But his contentious relationship with the Magic ended with a trade to the Lakers and from there, things didn’t get much better.

The Lakers, with an extraordinary payroll, didn’t win nearly enough. They snuck into the playoffs with the seven-seed before being bounced in the first round. People questioned his toughness. They questioned his will to win. And, yes, they questioned why he tried to keep a smile on his face throughout the whole thing.

Now, Howard’s looking to change that part of his basketball life in Houston. He wants to get back to winning. He wants to get back to dominating. He wants to get back to smiling.

“I just want to get back to that guy that’s having fun and enjoying basketball but at the same time, dominate,” Howard said. “And, you know, I did that with a smile on my face. There’s nothing wrong with doing that.”

And head coach Kevin McHale said he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with a player having fun either. He interjected after Howard fielded a question on the subject Saturday.

“The thing about playing in the NBA, it is the best job you can ever have in your life,” McHale said. “If you can’t enjoy it, you’re crazy. We’re going to work hard and when the big fella throws one into the 13th row on a block, he can go ahead and smile.”

Parsons is perhaps the Rocket who knows Howard better than anyone. His recruiting was instrumental in bringing the big man to Houston and the two have developed a friendship. Parsons too addressed that same perception of Howard on Saturday.

“I think it’s completely wrong. He likes to have fun. He smiles,” Parsons said. “The guy’s been one of the most dominating players in the NBA in the last eight years. I think he gets judged off his physical appearance of him smiling. The media kind of crushes him for leaving Orlando and that whole situation, which ended ugly. I obviously don’t know the details but if you actually know Dwight, you know he’s fun-loving, caring, genuine, just sweet guy and he works hard. He’s a great teammate. And I look forward to playing with him.”

And Howard looks forward to playing for the Rockets … and smiling.