Dwight Howard’s Potential As A Villain

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With the combination of Howard’s disdain for confrontation, desire to be liked and a pragmatic belief that a trade is no longer in his best long-term interests, Howard has created an illusion with the Magic that there are factors that could cause him to sign an extension with the team.

Via Dwight Howard: He’s determined to leave the Magic for the Nets, either now or later | Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo! Sports

Give ‘em a glimmer of hope. Let ‘em down gently. And when all else fails, play the victim card. Right out of the high school breakup handbook. It’s childish, passive-aggressive, and absolutely what Dwight Howard is doing right now. It won’t work; it never does. But for a player who has made a name for himself by being this era’s embodiment of youthful exuberance, was there really any other way to get exactly what he wanted?

Sooner or later (and far sooner than later), he’ll hear the boos and he’ll feel the palpable tension of spurned lovers. He’ll be the villain, and we can have our national souring of a once-beloved superstar all over again. LeBron didn’t handle his induction well, but he survived it. Can Dwight make a good villain? Can he stand it?

I have a few ideas. But first, want to see something bizarre?

World, this is Piglet Howard. Piglet Howard, World.

This is what happens when your friend goes to an All-Star Weekend autograph signing and has no idea what to get autographed.

Last year, Dwight Howard has a signing at a Foot Locker in Los Angeles. A huge crowd lined up, lawn chairs and all, to get a chance to meet with the man. My friend didn’t have anything and panicked. He found a sketch of Piglet’s head (of Winnie the Pooh fame) he’d done a few days earlier at Disneyland. It was the only thing in his backpack.

Sitting in a lawn chair, with an audience peering over his shoulder, the artist haphazardly adds a grossly disproportionate Magic jersey complete with imprecise pinstripes, off-type “MAGIC” lettering, and an incomplete “12” to the Piglet sketch. By all accounts an extremely creepy/crappy excuse for a drawing. Yet, the finished work, with a flowing Superman cape—probably to make clear that it’s a drawing of Howard, seeing as his jersey number is cut off—had a certain charm. Not only was it a complete inverse of Dwight’s actual physique, it was a bizarre caricature of a bizarre caricature; like a clown looking into a funhouse mirror.

Used to the monotony of signing memorabilia, my friend’s random drawing catches Dwight by surprise. He hands it to Dwight. The men and women surrounding him have a nice laugh. He picks it up and examines it. He cracks an awkward smile; an expression left of flattered and just right of horrified.

“Piglet Howard,” Dwight said.

He keeps the drawing and says thank you, probably still unsure of what exactly he’s going to do with it. We don’t know of its whereabouts. For all we know, he crumpled it up into a ball and bricked an imaginary free throw into the ocean from the railings of Santa Monica Pier. For all we know, he has it framed somewhere.

My friend’s sketch might as well have been a professional portrait. Is there a more Disney NBA player?  For the last seven years we’ve seen unbridled joy from Dwight. Big smiles, big goofball dances, big antics. But like other overarching portrayals, it’s hard to inspect the fine points. It’s hard to separate artifice from reality. Which is why Dwight’s latest verbal commitment to the Magic will work; at least in his mind. Unfortunately, feigning devotion is difficult when you’re one of the most recognized athletes in the NBA.

So, what happens if he bolts for Brooklyn, as prophecy has decreed? It’ll galvanize the haters, and he’ll be left in unfamiliar territory as the next saga in his narrative descends into villainy, despite his best efforts to circumvent that step entirely. It’ll be a painful transition, knowing full well how much Dwight just wants to be adored. It’s why Dwight has expressed a desire to become the Magic’s closer. Clutch performers hold an importance to us, a tier of select individuals who bend and break pressure and deliver iconic moments that define games and careers. Howard wants in, because that’s what fans talk about. That’s where the love is.

He’ll be in LeBron’s position last year, learning who he is and how to find joy in inhospitable areas away from his new kingdom. The backlash won’t be as severe, but it’s still being made a spectacle, whether or not his departure has its own one-hour special. He’ll learn that nothing is sacred. Like LeBron, all of his beloved qualities will be stripped and mangled. But the question stands: Knowing what we know about Dwight, can he be a villain?

LeBron has made some truly creepy, sinister faces in his years on the court, which was why I had faith in his ability to turn heel. Dwight’s face is all 1,000-kilowatt light bulbs and feigned melodrama. The commercials he’s been in all have a deliberate, “Gee, look at me, I’m acting!” vibe, as only Dwight can manage. These aren’t traits becoming of a future villain, traits that aren’t normally affiliated with someone we can actively consider part of an axis of evil.

… Which could be precisely why he’d make an excellent villain in the NBA, in theory.

If Dwight treats the criticism and naysaying as one big role-playing spectacular, things could get interesting. Grinning and dancing amid the boos and jeers would subvert the structure and power of perceived villainy, thus making him an even greater bad guy. Last season, it was clear that LeBron wasn’t always comfortable with himself out on the court. If Dwight lands in Brooklyn, he has a chance to become a much more fulfilling villain—so long as he can continue to be who he’s always been and allow his inner-strength and identity to trump the shifting fan dynamic. If this all seems beyond the realm of basketball reality, blame Dwight. His entirely animated career thus far sets all of this into motion.

If prophecy rings true, my friend’s drawing might be an accurate depiction of what we’ll see in Dwight Howard: a player whose head has swollen far past its body’s ability to support it. It could take a day to find out, or a few months. So smile for the camera, Dwight. It’s who you are. Yet somehow, your outward joy will be what transforms you into something you’re not; something you never thought you’d become.

Seth Carstens