Dwight Howard is more smile than scowl. This must mean he is less of a leader and less of a worker, unless we watch basketball games. (PHOTO: JayneCamin-Oncea, US Presswire)
As Hell continues to freeze over and the Los Angeles Lakers struggle, the perception of Dwight Howard continues to evolve. Jay Ramos will sit down with CBS Fantasy Sports writer Chris Towers to attempt to make sense of this.
Jay: Dwight Howard is a paradox to the sports fan.
He’s a brute, physical force who produces at an elite level on the basketball court. But the perception of his intangibles is where confusion, and disappointment, clouds his outstanding game.
There is so much to gush over with a dominant center who is on a Hall-of-Fame path. But there is also thing about Dwight Howard that doesn’t sit very well with what we consider the average ‘fan.’ Surely not everyone feels this way, but he doesn’t seem to outwardly express the masculine leadership qualities people eat up. The perceived seriousness about work, the barking at teammates, the emotional expressions. This all doesn’t go with what we think Dwight Howard is, or want him to be.
There were reports that Stan Van Gundy wasn’t happy with his leadership in the past, and for a player with what seems like an outgoing, playful personality, there are questions about his ability to lead a team. Ramona Shelburne recently wrote a piece for ESPN Los Angeles in which Dwight spilled his thoughts on the Lakers current situation.
Thoughts that further confuse fans, but give us an opportunity to look at what we want leadership in sports to be, what it should be and how much it matters.
When a season goes like it has, and Howard says things like ‘I think you have to have that relationship and that chemistry off the court for it to really blossom on the court’, people will say things like this, where Dwight’s ‘killer mentality’ is questioned.
In the same story, Kobe Bryant said the word ‘alpha male’ and triggered fans to uncontrollably howl and form a pack to get behind Bryant, the unquestioned face of what leadership is supposed to look like.
I don’t necessarily think anything is wrong with Kobe’s style, because it works, as long as teams he’s on have a lot of talent. Just like Dwight Howard can get to the finals because he’s surrounded by great shooters and a viable coach. I just don’t think Dwight’s personality impacts winning and losing as much as we want to think it does. If he goes out there and gets 20 and 15 on 60 percent shooting while playing otherworldly defense, his teams are going to make deep playoff runs, regardless of whether he smiles on his way there or barks on his way there.
The perception of Dwight has kind of given people a license to criticize him for for being different than we expect, even if he works his butt off away from the court and puts in work on it.
Could it be that Dwight lacks an important trait that we can’t see?
Chris: Different sport, but current Detroit Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland famously said:
“Take all that clubhouse [stuff] and all that, throw it out the window. Every writer in the country has been writing about that [nonsense] for years. Chemistry don’t mean [anything]. He’s up here because he’s good. That don’t mean [a hill of beans]. They got good chemistry because their team is improved, they got a real good team, they got guys knocking in runs, they got a catcher hitting .336, they got a phenom pitcher they just brought up. That’s why they’re happy.”
Dwight Howard did not lose in the Finals because Kobe was meaner to his teammates that year. And he didn’t fail to make the finals the next few years because he was too goofy. The Magic lost to the Lakers because they had a worse team. They failed to make it back to the finals because Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson peaked during their finals run and never got back to that level again.
But it becomes a referendum on Dwight’s perceived moral failings as a leader. Even though he actually became a much better player.
People like to play the result when it comes to the impact of winning on personality. Nobody who saw him play ever writes about anything except Magic Johnson’s smile when he played. Now, it’s a detriment to Dwight’s team?
Kobe is probably a great presence to have on your team (besides the obvious tangible benefits that his play provides), because it is really hard to slack off when someone is killing themselves like he does. I believe there is value to leading by example, even if it only leads to improvement on the margins; talent is still the most important thing.
Now, the issue with saying that is it might imply Dwight does not lead by example.
I think this is not accurate, and I want to make sure I point that out.
The guy has shoulders the size of basketballs and has improved his game in dramatic ways throughout his career. I refuse to accept that somebody who has the physique Dwight does and has shown the basketball intelligence Dwight has in his career is not a hard worker. It just doesn’t work like that.
Having established that he’s a hard worker on and off the court, why does Dwight need to be a vocal leader? I think that is what we come back to here.
What is it about sports that forces us to consider that a necessity? Everyone’s personality is not the same. Switching to a different sport to make an analogy again, the Miami Marlins pressured Hanley Ramirez to be a vocal leader in the clubhouse, and it simply never worked. Some guys aren’t wired that way. Some guys don’t want to punch their teammates in practice when they mess up. Why does that mean that player cannot be a leader?
The thing about the Lakers this season is , since our perception of what their talent level was coming into the season has been so far proven wrong, we have to look for a reason why. We collectively do this every year, when our communal wisdom ends up proven wrong; it is why Derrick Rose won an MVP two years ago, and why Carmelo Anthony will likely win one this season. Rather than admit we were wrong about the talent level of the team, we attribute the difference to the ephemeral qualities surrounding them.
If the Lakers are disappointing, why must it be because they are suffering from a lack of leadership, as well as tumult in the locker room? It makes much more sense to say they have no semblance of perimeter defense and Dwight and Pau Gasol have been three steps slow on defense all season because of injury. But admitting that also means admitting that we aren’t really sure what exactly leads to winning.
People are uncomfortable not having the answers. Admitting, “We were wrong about the Lakers” means “We don’t really know how basketball games are won.” It is a lot easier to fill in the blanks with “leadership” and locker-room turmoil, even if we don’t actually know whether that is the reason.
Jay: To take this one step further, I think this goes deeper into the human psyche. I agree that people don’t want to be wrong, but I think this also has plenty to do with people wanting to create sports figures into mythical greek warriors who embody everything we dream to be.
Dwight Howard needs to be a killer, or look like one, as he cuts down the enemy on his way to glory and we reward his will to win with big shiny rings that we knee at his whim for.
So much of this is about sports fans wanting to see their gladiators become heroes in the bravest way possible, and in this time, it means having our athletes demonstrate visible qualities of leadership people have been conditioned to believe translates to winning.
Michael Jordan cursed everyone. Kobe Bryant is beloved because people believe he is the closest thing to him. Athletes like LeBron James, Dwight Howard, or to cross sports like you did, Hanley Ramirez, don’t follow that blueprint.
And it bothered people.
I just know that a healthy Dwight Howard is one of the three of four best players on earth, and if he gets healthy and his play regresses to the mean, the Lakers are going to be a contender, whether he changes anything about his persona or not.
Chris: I think the average fan wants that out of their athletes because that is what the average fan thinks he would be like. Everyone thinks, ‘If only I had hit the genetic lottery, I wouldn’t waste it like Dwight has’. Which is, obviously, a patently ridiculous thing to think, but I think an element of that exists. If I am cutthroat when it comes to beating my 12-year-old cousin in Monopoly, why can’t Dwight Howard be cutthroat when he matches up against the best basketball players in the world.
Jay: Until Dwight Howard wins a championship, it’s unlikely the noise will shut of though. That crackling of Shaquille O’Neal’s rings and Kobe Bryant’s teeth should continue to put enough pressure on Dwight to make this a conversation. We’ll be here to enjoy it.