Bigger Than Basketball

NBA superstardom has blessed Dwight Howard with wealth and worldwide celebrity. But he hopes the world will also recognize him for being great off the court. Howard knows it’s in his hands to make that dream come true

The dreams started when Dwight Howard was a boy, visiting him with vivid reality. Soon he came to see them as future frames on a filmstrip, a sneak peek at where the linear progression of his life would take him. Basketball would become his fame—he saw that in his childhood dreams—but the sphere he would eventually hold in his hands was not the one stamped with the NBA logo. It was bigger than that, bigger than the impact he would have on basketball. It was the impact he would have on the world.

He saw that in his sleep, the dreams sometimes so real he swore he was awake. Later, when he really was awake, it would all unfold before his eyes just as it did behind them. A world traveler now, Howard long ago saw himself on different continents, spreading both cheer and charity. Basketball was the passport that would take him there, but basketball wasn’t why he was there. In those dreams he saw people rushing to him, following him, knowing he would take them somewhere special.

Yes, Dwight Howard’s life would be special, and it would be bigger than basketball. He knew that early on. At an age when most children are self-absorbed centers of the universe, he already knew that just being alive was something special. It wasn’t an easy birth when Sheryl Howard brought her son into the world prematurely on Dec. 8, 1985. She’d been sick during the pregnancy, so sick that she and Dwight Sr. were told not to have a baby shower or prepare a bedroom. The Howards knew what that meant, and sadly they knew from experience. Sheryl had already suffered five miscarriages, twice with sets of twins, losing seven children in the whole painful process.

In a quiet one-on-one moment with a newspaper reporter three years ago, Howard expressed what this meant to him growing up, saying softly, “My dad

Howard works on the project while visiting Africa last summer.

always told me that I was a blessing, that I was called upon to do something in life.”

But what? Basketball? Just basketball? The sport has brought him legions of fans who watch his every move on the court and monitor his every word off of it through Twitter. He is among the top 10 athletes in Twitter followers—his ticker of tweet enthusiasts is at 2.25 million and rising. Howard knows these are fans, but are they true fans? He knows what draws them—the monster dunks and his All-Star play for the Orlando Magic, how he’s become the most dominant defensive player of his generation en route to a Hall of Fame career. But is that it? Do they love him for the basketball he holds in his hands, or the larger ball he is embracing—the world? Do they even know of his dreams?

“This is bigger than basketball,” he says several times, like a mantra, as he discusses his charitable endeavors while at his performance coach’s gym in Altamonte Springs.

Howard thinks about all this when he thinks about becoming a free agent next summer, and whether he’ll stay in Orlando or leave. Even when he isn’t thinking about it, he’s still reminded. Everywhere he goes, and Howard is a denizen of public places around town, he’s bombarded with constant questions about his future. Or, more specifically, Orlando’s future, because without Howard the Magic would take a hit commensurate to when Shaquille O’Neal bolted via free agency in 1996. In fact, the damage might be even worse, seeing as how Orlando just sank almost a half-billion dollars into the Amway Center that opened last year. And then there is the NBA lockout, which already wiped out the preseason and threatens the 2011-12 regular season as well as the NBA All-Star Game, slated for the Amway Center on Feb. 26. All in all, Orlando could see a lot less of Howard this season, and maybe not at all next, which would be a huge financial blow. After all, it’s not by coincidence that Howard’s picture dominates the side of the Amway Center that faces I-4. He is the face of the franchise that feeds the monolithic structure. No wonder a billboard popped up in Orlando earlier this year, advertising a Website while blaring the words: “Dwight Howard, This Is Your City.”

It has become a bit overwhelming for him, and it has almost caused Howard to throttle back from his public life. Still, though, he constantly seeks ways to meet with fans in everyday places, sometimes spontaneously inviting them to a barbecue or some other informal interaction. Yet, at the same time, he admits that all the questions about his future are wearing on him.

“I don’t like it,” he says. “I have to do what’s best for me, for my career, what’s going to be best for me in the long run. A lot of people want me to do what they want me to do, not what I want to do. But this is my life. Before I came to Orlando, when I was deciding whether to go to college or the NBA Draft, nobody in Orlando helped me make that decision. I had to do what I felt was best for me. So whatever I decide, my real fans will support me. They’ll still be fans. If not, they’re selfish. They’re not real fans.”

The real fans, he reasons, will see the bigger picture, the bigger ball. They’ll see that Howard’s mission isn’t just basketball; it’s to spread goodwill and change lives. It’s what he’s dreamed of doing. Literally.

Like pixie dust, Howard sprinkles tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of dollars around Central Florida. He makes a lot, sure—an estimated $28 million a year in salary and endorsements, according to Forbes magazine. But he also gives a lot. There’s what Howard did for the Florida Hospital for Children, building and equipping a teen playroom replete with videogames and other cool accoutrements. There is how he sent a basketball team to the Special Olympics, both sponsoring them and furnishing them with adidas shoes. There is his affiliation with the local Boys & Girls Clubs, championing partnership and leadership. There is his own basketball camp, which has more than just his name attached to it: He is actively involved, interacting with kids, having them do things like write a book report and then turning it in to him, so he can read them all. There is his showing up at a local hospital dressed like a physician, calling himself Dr. Giggles, delivering smiles and spreading cheer to children.

“He is so genuine in his efforts,” says Brooke Zapata, the executive director of Howard’s D12 Foundation, whose motto is “to plant seeds, cultivate them and watch them grow.”

The Beta Center in Orlando doesn’t have to be convinced of that. Three years ago, the nonprofit organization that mentors and houses single mothers reached out to Howard’s cousin and business manager, Kevin Samples. “Kevin came in and took a tour and fell in love with the program,” says Lisa Blackwelder, the Beta Center’s director of development. Soon, Howard visited, liked what he saw and wanted to get involved. As he noted to the young moms the first time he met them, he too is a single parent; the father of 4-year-old Braylon. In fact, Blackwelder recalls that Howard had to cut that first visit short, telling the girls, “I have to go pick up my son.” She laughs at the memory. “The girls really identified with that.”

Blackwelder doesn’t even want to estimate how much money Howard has brought into the Beta Center through direct contributions and fundraisers, for fear she’ll sell him short.

Into six figures?

“Oh, yeah, well into six figures,” she says.

But she is quick to add, as is everyone else whom Howard helps with his charitable gestures, that he doesn’t just reach out and hand over a check. He reaches out and touches lives.

“I can’t tell you how many times he’s been here,” Blackwelder says. “He comes and hangs out, and when he does you see that caring part, that human aspect. He gets down on people’s levels, you see him on the floor playing with the kids. I call him our gentle, generous giant.”

He is a giant, just an inch under 7 feet tall, chiseled, his athletic frame so taut with muscles you’d need a search warrant to find any body fat. “When you meet him, the tendency is to be intimidated, because he’s so big,” Blackwelder says. “But he puts people at ease right away. He’s always smiling. And you see right away how much he cares. His interest and caring are so real.”

She’s seen Howard’s compassion firsthand, again and again and again. In her early days at the BETA Center, Blackwelder noticed that the young mothers took blankets from the facility during the winter months and wrapped themselves in them throughout the day. She mentioned to Samples last December that she wished she could provide the coats they could not afford. “Within hours, Dwight’s foundation delivered, I want to say, 160 to 200 coats from the Burlington Coat Factory.”

These are the kinds of actions he always dreamed about, things his father always told him he was born to do. But the desire to do them also was born from the motivation a schoolteacher once gave Howard when he was in the eighth grade at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. Even then, Howard was gregarious, a talker, and by his own admission “the class clown.” One day, while talking in class—and talking about basketball, no less—his teacher reprimanded him.

“ ‘You need to be doing your work,’ ” Howard remembers the teacher saying. “ ‘But you probably can’t be doing it anyway, because you’re nothing but a dumb basketball player.’ ”

Howard’s usual upbeat demeanor goes flat as he recalls the moment. He’s talking in a whisper now as he paces back and forth, looking like someone trying to get out of an awkward situation. “He said this in front of all my classmates,” he continues. “It pissed me off. It bothered me. To this day, I’ve never even told my parents. But it did motivate me, too. It helped me to see how people view professional athletes and celebrities in general. So that’s one of my goals, to change the perception of how NBA players, and basketball players in general, are viewed.”

Humiliating as the teacher’s remark was at the time, it came to inspire him to extend his reach beyond a basketball rim. “If you don’t do anything of substance in your life, then when basketball stops you’re forgotten,” he says, the tenor of his voice back to normal. “Either you’re forgotten or you’ve done some great things in your life.”

He wants to do great things.

That is why, in recent years, Howard has taken his goodwill on the road, to the world, fulfilling the dreams he began seeing as a boy. Barely more than a week after the Atlanta Hawks ended the Magic’s season in the first round of the 2011 NBA Playoffs, Zapata, the executive director of Howard’s charitable foundation, received a phone call in the middle of the night:

“Brooke, I want to go to Alabama to help the people there.”

Howard takes a personal interest in children at his basketball camp.

Howard had been watching TV news reports of the devastation left by the more than 170 tornadoes that ripped through the state, claiming more than 300 lives. Soon, he was there with his D12 Foundation, working in concert with organizations like Habitat for Humanity, volunteering at distribution centers and helping to remove the rubble of destroyed homes so new ones could be built. He also donated a chunk of money to the relief effort. Mostly, though, he wanted to connect with people.
“We couldn’t get him to leave,” Zapata says. “We practically had to drag him away. We kept telling him, because there were other towns he was scheduled to be at, ‘Dwight, we have to go. Dwight, we have to go.’ But he just wanted to stay with all those people who were hurting and bring them joy.”

Two years ago, Howard expanded his boundaries by traveling to Africa for the first time. He went as part of Basketball Without Borders, a joint initiative by the NBA and the International Basketball Federation that promotes global peace. Howard has continued to return to the continent. Years ago, he dreamt of seeing African kids dancing. Later, in Soweto, located in Johannesburg, South Africa, “I saw what I had dreamed,’’ Howard says. “I mean, it was exactly the same. I was like, ‘Wow! This is really happening. I dreamed this, and now it’s really happening.’ ” It tells him he’s supposed to be there. What he does there, though, is part of a different dream—“to change people’s lives.”

This past summer, Howard went to the United Republic of Tanzania as part of his D12 Foundation. He’d heard about how young girls were often raped while walking to school, with some becoming pregnant. Many of the girls dropped out of school because of ongoing sexual assaults. So when he went, Howard brought with him a check for $80,000 to build an on-campus dormitory, a safe haven for the girls so they can get an education. Later, back in the States, Howard held a fundraiser at The Mall of Millenia’s Louis Vuitton store. He posed for pictures, signed autographs, engaged himself with people. It was when he held a microphone in his hand, though, that he engaged their emotions. He told of the girls, how they were continually raped while walking to school, and how his goal was to build a dormitory for them.

Sunali Sharma heard the story and was moved. She knew that 10 percent of what she purchased in the store that night would go to the cause, and before she heard Howard’s story of the girls she’d planned on buying a few items to fill out a personal Louis Vuitton travel collection. But there was a travel bag up for auction that Howard had used on his trip to Tanzania, still with his baggage claim ticket affixed to it, and all the proceeds from the winning bid would go to the girls and the dormitory.

“I wasn’t going to be outbid,” Sharma says. “It wasn’t even a decision after I heard him tell that story.’’ She paid $3,800 for a bag that retails for $3,250, and she was thrilled to do it. “I’m a woman,” she says, “and from a woman’s perspective, just to hear those stories, it really affected me. For Dwight Howard to make this his cause made me want to do anything I could to contribute. Knowing that all the money I spent is going to that means a lot to me.”
Howard didn’t just bring back memorabilia to auction off. He also brought memories. And it’s these memories that propel him to travel the world even more, to want to do more. He developed a kindred connection with the Masai tribe in Africa, and he believes it’s more than just a coincidence. He really does believe they are his kin.

“I’m just like them,” he says. “They eat meat. That’s all they eat, just like me. They’re tall, strong, lean, aggressive and they’re not afraid of anything. They can jump, and they’re very athletic. They even have high cheekbones.” As he says this, Howard points to his own high cheekbones, raised higher now with one of his broad, toothy smiles.

There was something else he connected with, something beyond physical attributes or diet, something that reaches into his very core.

“What I really like about them is how grateful they are, and they show it,” he says. “Their living situation is not that great. But they never complain. They’re just so happy to have life. They don’t need money, they don’t need material things to enjoy life. They’re always smiling. And they’re so happy when people just spend time with them. It’s why I love going there.”

It’s why he loves coming home, too—to Orlando. He loves the city, loves the people, loves giving and getting smiles in return. He also knows it’s why the city is wringing its collective hands, worrying that he’ll leave next summer. Howard understands that his play on court overshadows his acts of kindness off it. He recognizes that basketball is his first priority. It is, after all, what gives him entry into the world, and he has had some very vivid dreams about scenarios on the basketball court.

“I’ve dreamt about winning a championship,” he says with excitement saturating his words. “I’ve dreamt about it since I was in high school. In my dream, I hit a fade-away jumper that gives us the lead. I hit the deciding shot. But there’s still a little time left. Then I see Kobe Bryant has the ball, and he shoots … and he misses the shot. In the dream, I start crying because I’m so happy. And then I wake up and I think it was all real, that it really happened.”

He still thinks it will.

Asked if he’s dreamed about whether he’ll be playing for the Magic next year, Howard pauses.

“Yeah, I have. I’ve had a lot of dreams.”

And with that, Howard goes silent and leaves the room the same way he entered it, smiling.

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