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No, Really, Dwight Howard’s not Soft

In case you missed it, Dwight Howard told Mike Meltzer that he was playing on a bum knee during the Western Conference Finals. And by “bum knee” I mean, torn MCL and meniscus.

Twitter, in all its sensational glory, was happy to respond with its insightful medical wisdom:

There’s plenty more of that if you want to look. In fact, it’s the bulk of the replies. Complete strangers—with no personal association to Howard, his knee, or even a brushing association with medical concepts—are resolute in their diagnosis, and assure us that he’s lying. He made it up.

So what it is about Howard that triggers such reaction?

There’s a facsimile of an image that has been built around him that he’s “soft” and “weak-willed.” To an extent, this goes back to his time in Orlando where waffled on whether to stay in Orlando or chase his career elsewhere.

But the “soft” image mostly reared up when he was with the Lakers. Coming off of back surgery too soon, his brief spell in Los Angeles was unspectacular. But ironically that was because he wasn’t “soft” enough then. That’s the opposite of the narrative which has since ensued, as Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports reported last year.

Looking back, Dwight Howard should’ve resisted the natural inclination to rush himself into that Los Angeles Lakers’ season. He wanted to be on the floor so badly that opening night, restore his reputation and validate Hollywood’s vision of a Showtime return. Back surgery had come and gone within four months, and there turned out to be a steep price for embracing such a rapid rehabilitation. There were consequences for sacrificing his body, for trying to honor his commitment.

Due, in part, to a perceived combative relationship with Kobe Bryant, Howard left money on the table to play in Houston. Bryant articulated his side to Sam Amick of USA Today:

I tried teaching Dwight. I tried showing him. But the reality is that when you have a perception of what it is to win a championship – and most perceptions of what it’s like to win are a very outgoing, very gregarious locker room where you pick each other up and you’re friends all the time. That’s the perception. And I think that’s what his perception was of what the idea is. But when he saw the reality of it, it made him uncomfortable. And it’s very tough to be able to fight through that, to deal with that challenge. And I don’t think he was willing to deal with that uncomfortable and combative nature.

Howard’s perception, revealed to Marc Stein of ESPN, was different than Bryant thought it was, though:

Before I got to the Lakers, I would talk to him [and] he would really help me out on the [down] low about how to become everything that I said I wanted to be. And I looked up to him and I looked up to everything he, as a basketball player, stood for. … [By the end of that season] I just felt so hurt and disappointed in the fact that the guy that I was expecting to be somebody who was gonna pass the torch, somebody to say, ‘Dwight, I’ll take you under my wing and I’ll show you how to get it done’ … it was none of that.

And there’s a disconnect there that never breached Lakers folklore. Howard agreed to go the Lakers under the guise of certain promises being made about Bryant passing him the torch, but that never happened. He left because Bryant wouldn’t yield the torch, not because he was afraid of taking it.

What has since transpired is a narrative that is ironic on two counts. Howard was soft, and he couldn’t handle the bright lights of playing for the Lakers. So, he preferred to go somewhere where he could hide from the limelight.

The irony is that both counts are the opposite of the reality. His play was less than it could have been because he played hurt. And he left because he was looking for the bright lights. But it was clear to him that as long as Bryant was there, there would be no “spotlight sharing” going on.

Some may dispute the veracity of those ideas, but Howard is not one of them. And since it was his mentality in question it is his viewpoint that matters. The narrative, again, was set by those who did not know him and did not like him.

What’s more, they were formed by the jaded ex-lovers who were pining for him to stay just hours before he made his decision, their sudden denunciations of his “softness” coming only after he decided he’d rather date Houston.

But the reputation followed—fair or not.  Guys like Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge threw out insults of the sort during games. As if either of them is noted for being a “real” tough guy. But that whole notion is sad. Do we really want players throwing fists in games? Yet, if you don’t do it, you’re “fake tough” even if you’re being called it by other guys who don’t throw fists during games. Makes sense.

And if Howard doesn’t deck someone, then it just backs up that he’s “soft,” “fake tough.” Or whatever. Can we just recognize that “fake tough” is a fake controversy and a fake label? What they really mean is he’s not a jerk.

He’s not a physically combative person. He’s nice. He smiles. He tells jokes. He eats cookies off his face. That doesn’t mean he’s not a leader, though. Nor does it means he’s soft. It just means he’s not a jackass.

He’s not a bleep-hole. He doesn’t take pride in his ability to put down other players, demean them or make them into his whipping boys. In that way, he’s different from Bryant, Kevin Garnett or Michael Jordan.

But LeBron James, Tim Duncan and others dispel the myth that bleep-hole leadership is the only way to rings. They can be won by leading by example, which includes things like playing through injuries—especially if it’s a torn meniscus and MCL.

And regardless of what happens, there will be some who cling to their self-derived narrative, completely uncurious as to whether the claims made by Howard are true. They’ll base their supposition on previous false narratives, and the whole “soft” thing won’t go away.

If people want to criticize Howard’s (or anyone’s) flaws in their game, then that’s fine. But let’s leave the fake narratives alone, and stop evaluating the character of a man and authenticity of his word based on whether or not he’s willing to deck someone in a game or demean them in a practice.

Howard’s not soft. He’s just a decent human being.

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