When Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard bullies an opposing big man down low for position in the paint or throws down a dunk over two soaring defenders, words such as "intimidating," "powerful," and "dominant" are thrown around by analysts to describe the twenty-two year old All-Star.
Many years ago, however, few would have predicted that these adjectives would someday be associated with the Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy student.
At the start of eighth grade, Howard wasn't the dominant post presence that he is today. Instead, he was a scrawny point guard who stood at just 5'10" and was overlooked by many of his peers. “I was really skinny and went to a smaller Christian school. No one thought I’d ever make it out or do anything with my basketball career," he recalls.
Upon entering high school, however, things started changing.
In two years, Dwight had a freakish growth spurt, growing almost an entire foot. At 6'9", he made the Varsity squad and was immediately switched to power forward. While he was much taller, he was still lanky and possessed the skills of a guard after playing that position for years.
During the following year, Dwight had the opportunity to meet Charles Barkley, who would give him some advice he would never forget. Barkley told the high-school sophomore that he must bulk up because he would never play professional basketball with his small frame. This is when Howard started going to the gym with his father to workout. "I remember in high school my dad [taking] me to the gym and I couldn’t bench press one plate," he recalls.
Years later, Howard would recount this conversation with Barkley during an interview on TNT's NBA Fastbreak drawing laughs from the analyst, who didn't remember the encounter but was glad to have motivated the man that many consider the league's best big man.
Today, Howard is quickly turning into one of the most dominant and marketable players in the league. But how did Howard reach that level of success and recognition? As someone who has covered the Orlando Magic since Dwight entered the league in 2004, I have seen every stage of his evolution, both on and off the court.
From a soft spoken teenager with braces in his mouth to a ripped superstar whose body is so out of this world, he once joked to NBA Commissioner David Stern that he “got big from BALCO," Dwight's transformation has been nothing short of amazing.
Howard's name first started entering NBA circles during his eleventh grade season, when scouts started attending his games. During his senior season, he would prove that he could make a name for himself on the court, averaging 26 points, 18 boards, 8 blocks, and 3.5 assists per game.
Dwight led his team to a state title that year and took home almost every award possible including the Naismith, Morgan Wooten, Gatorade and McDonald’s National Player of the Year—as well as being named Georgia's Mr. Basketball.
Dwight Howard had arrived.
It was then that the young man had to make a decision. Should he attend college and polish his game or jump to the NBA and start living out his dream? He kept hearing that he would be a high lottery pick if he were to make himself eligible for the NBA Draft but he was in serious discussions with Roy Williams and the University of North Carolina—not Georgia Tech, as many believed —to make his is choice even harder.
While he knew the importance of education, Dwight also had the chance to complete one of the goals he had set for himself as a seventh grader—to be the top selection in the NBA Draft.
He knew that it was time to compete with the best players in the world and following in the footsteps of his basketball idol, Kevin Garnett, he officially declared himself eligible for the Draft.
His mother, Sheryl, who worked as a P.E. teacher in the Atlanta school system, was very supportive. She understood that this was her son's dream and just wanted what was best for him. That’s all she has ever wanted for Dwight who she calls her “Miracle Boy,” and not because of his athleticism. This nickname has been with Dwight much longer than basketball and stems from the extraordinary circumstances of his birth.
Prior to having Dwight, Sheryl had seven miscarriages, including two sets of twins. When she became pregnant with Dwight, he was born premature, less than seven months into the pregnancy.
But unlike most babies born prematurely, Howard was normal-sized.
“He was 21 inches long,” says Dwight Howard Sr. “He's always been big, and from that Sunday morning that he was born, we always said, ‘Oh, this boy's going to be an NBA player.’” Howard’s family, who is openly religious, saw his good health and unusual birth as a beautiful gift from God.
Today, God still plays a large part in Howard’s life. He often goes to the chapel, located in the Amway Arena, before Orlando Magic home games to reflect and pray. He also attends the Fellowship of Faith Church when he’s back home in Atlanta and is active in the church’s youth programs.
So when the Magic drafted Dwight first overall in 2004 over University of Connecticut center Emeka Okafor, you can probably guess who Howard thanked first.
That year, the Magic also added Jameer Nelson, Saint Joseph’s star point guard, through the draft, acquiring him from the Denver Nuggets in exchange for a future first round pick. And just like that, the team had young talent at both the point guard and center positions. Being the two rookies, Nelson and Howard quickly developed a friendship, even calling each other "The Little Midget" and "The Fifth Grader".
During that rookie season, Howard was sparsely used offensively as he was sharing the ball with other scorers including Steve Francis, Grant Hill, and Cuttino Mobley. The majority of his points would come off of put backs and after offensive rebounds. Magic head coach Johnny Davis, when asked why Dwight didn't get more opportunities on offense, pointed to the backboard saying Howard knows what he needs to do for shots.
At that point in his career, Howard was big but not the beast he is today. It wasn't until that offseason that he hit the weight room and really made an effort to strengthen his body. It was that offseason that he could finally be satisfied with how much he could bench press. "365 pounds," he would say with a smile. He wasn't the lanky high school kid anymore. Dwight was a man and knew his time for dominance was right around the corner.
After several frustrating years under head coach Brian Hill, who ran a bland offense and never connected with his players, Howard was thrilled when Orlando hired Stan Van Gundy to lead the team.
Dwight started becoming a household name when his highlight dunks and blocks would appear on ESPN, but it wasn't until playing under Van Gundy last year and becoming the focal point of Orlando's offense that he really started to blossom.
Just one year after a dunk contest in which he was eliminated in the first round, Howard had more than a sticker dunk up his sleeve this time around. The moment he pulled off his Magic jersey to unveil a Superman costume, it was clear his life would never be the same. Many endorsement deals and YouTube views later, the nickname has stuck with Howard, who accepts the new persona and even brings it up in a new Adidas commercial in which he informs his childhood hero, Garnett, that everyone calls him Superman now after the Celtics forward refers to him by his real name.
That same year, he led Orlando to 52 wins and the second round of the playoffs, something the club hadn't done in twelve years. His averages during the first round of the playoffs were remarkable—23 PPG, 18.2 RPG, and 3.8 BPG—and showed the league that at twenty one years old, he was already able to single handedly advance his team to through the post season.
After winning a gold medal with Team USA over the summer, Dwight has used the skills he picked up to improve his game even further this season. He is averaging over twenty points per game while leading the league in rebounds and blocks, proving that there are very few players who can impact a game at both ends of the court like he can.
Howard also recorded the first triple double of his career earlier this season with 30 points, 19 rebounds, and 10 blocks against the Oklahoma City Thunder which demonstrates that while he has made great progress in the last several years, he has yet to hit his ceiling and still has much room for improvement.
After all, he's only twenty-two years old and while it may be a scary thought for opposing teams, his best basketball is still years down the road.
So while the transition from lanky high schooler to Superman has been remarkable, the evolution of Dwight Howard is still far from over. In fact, it has just begun.
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