Player Capsules (Plus): Heel Turns with Dwight Howard, the Laker Legend

Hey, all. Aaron McGuire here from Gothic Ginobili. At GG, I’m currently doing a 370 part series profiling almost every player in the NBA. As part of a cross-posting effort, I’ll be posting massively extended capsules once every few weeks — essentially, when a capsule goes extremely long, I’ll post the extended version of the capsule on Hardwood Paroxysm. Sometimes they’ll go long with statistics, sometimes they’ll go long with legacy, and sometimes they’ll go long with philosophy. Today? Dwight Howard, Two-Face, and the heel turn that’s stranger than fiction.

There’s something that bugged me a while back about Christopher Nolan’s much-beloved Batman epic from a few years ago. You know. The Dark Knight. It’s really an excellent film. Ledger does great work, and other than Christian Bale’s over-dramatic Batman voice, there aren’t many flaws to speak of. It isn’t quite as deep as some would have you think, and it isn’t exactly the redefinition of the superhero genre that some thought directly after it was made. But it was — if nothing else — a patently good movie with a fantastic rogues gallery of actors and actresses and a relatively interesting moral dilemma. But there’s this one nagging thing that got under my skin.

While Harvey Dent is consumed with misguided policies and “keeping the streets clean” initiatives that are more harmful than good in the long run (as seen in The Dark Knight Rises), he’s not a bad man. He’s not an insane man. Nothing he demonstrates in the first half of the movie really indicated as such — at worst, he’s a bit overzealous. But he’s not cruel, and his sense of justice isn’t dramatically skewed. Which is where the problem comes in. When Dent turns from Harvey the hero into Two-Face the monster, there’s such an abrupt heel turn it calls into question the entire ensuing arc of the movie. Here’s a man who spent his entire life working to put criminals behind bars and clean up the streets of Gotham. He was in a horrible accident and he’s disturbingly disfigured, yes. He’s lost his spouse to-be. He’s rudderless. But even all that said, and even considering the Joker’s manipulation of his psyche, the audience is just supposed to buy the idea that he can change so quickly, and become a completely different person.

In fact, the change happens so quickly, there’s no real alternative but to accept the idea that throughout Dent’s career he’s had this monstrosity of “justice” lurking beneath his well-groomed exterior. That the Two-Face alter-ego isn’t some sudden manifestation — that it’s a noble man’s darkest core being brought kicking and screaming into the daylight. That the Two-Face persona isn’t some sudden mental break — it’s a realization of all of Dent’s darker natures into a single disgusting distillation. And there’s a darker implication, too — if a man as “good” as Dent has demons like this, what hope do any of us have to live a moral life? Are there any real heroes? The whole thing bugs me not because it’s unrealistic (unfortunately, it’s not), but because the nihilistic abandon with which Nolan approached the whole idea discomforts me. Mainly because I couldn’t really think of any true-to-life examples that really embodied the spirit of Dent’s sudden sea-change. I knew they existed, but I simply could never think of one.

… Well, until the Dwight Howard saga, that is. It bugs me no longer.

• • •

Here’s the thing. I actually thought the movie version of Two-Face was rather disappointing. Batman: The Animated Series did a lot of things better than any of the live action incarnations of the franchise, and one of those things was the way it addressed Harvey Dent’s transformation — in the Animated Series, Dent always had anger issues, and a sub-persona the show addressed as “Big Bad Harv.” Thus, while he was a successful prosecutor, there was a present and evident well for the disfigurement to draw from when it drove him to essentially abandon nobility and become a criminal full-time. The Dark Knight chose to eschew that, which led to a relatively disappointing heel turn. One minute he’s everyone’s favorite upstanding rising star, the next he’s on the street shooting people on a coin flip and acting solely to advance the plot rather than his own character. I get that there were broader implications for Nolan’s sudden heel turn, but that didn’t make it feel any less rushed and inadequate compared to the way the comics and the Animated Series addressed the transformation.

The funny thing is, this disappointment goes double for the subject of this post. Dwight Howard’s transformation from a lovable happy-go-lucky superstar into a capricious jerk came virtually out of nowhere. There were a few indications that Dwight wasn’t exactly as he appeared — the multiple children-out-of-wedlock he refuses to accept are his, the stories of him exposing himself to a porn star while the porn star was on a date, the internal indications that Dwight wanted more power in the Magic organization. But did anyone really see anything like this coming? Who, one year ago, would’ve guessed that Dwight Howard would have effectively alienated every single Magic fan on the face of the earth and turned himself into enemy #1 in the NBA? Dwight Howard, that lovable scamp with the penchant for children’s music and childish jokes? Really? A villain? Scoffs abound.

But, well. He’s re-contextualized his entire career with one unbelievably low year. I don’t need to belabor the point — we all were there, and we all know what he’s done. He pushed out one of the best coaches in the league in a pressure-heavy attempt to force change, he rehabbed and partied in Los Angeles while his team fell meekly in the playoffs (couldn’t have flown out to Orlando to at least attend a game?), he obliterated every vestige of bargaining power the Orlando Magic had, and in the end he was rewarded for all his transgressions with the opportunity of a lifetime. A fulfillment of every dream. He accomplished this all in an unbelievably callous, cruel, and dithering fashion. He lied or misrepresented the truth at every stage. He alienated teammates (including a locker room fight with a player who was — not more than two years ago — one of his best friends), crushed the hearts of Magic fans, and burned every bridge he could find. He utterly bailed on a basketball camp for disadvantaged children, for God’s sake. Even LeBron never brought the children into it.

And where did this come from, exactly? Straight out of nowhere.

• • •

Like Dent’s sudden heel turn, there’s almost no precedent for the sudden transformation. How do you even address a change that comes this quickly? The only real way that I can is to assume that this disturbing capacity for casual untruths and disdain for his fans was always there to begin with. That this recent behavior isn’t some wholescale transformation of Dwight’s previous boyish glee but simply underlining it with a different context. Dwight’s childish humor becomes callous immaturity. Dwight’s disregard for convention become a full-scale philosophy rather than a set of isolated jokes. Dwight’s concern with his own image turns into lack of loyalty for Van Gundy, his teammates, and his fans. This, to me, is what makes the events of the last year so befuddling — they don’t just make me dislike Dwight now, but also make me spend time figuring out what happened elements I previously liked in him. The dark translations of the happy-go-lucky habits and mores of one of the world’s best players.

In all, what really disappointed me about Dent in the Dark Knight wasn’t that he became a villain, but the sudden and seemingly random way it happened. If, as in the Animated Series, there was a stronger set of lead-in conditions that made the whole transformation make some sort of moral sense, I think I’d appreciate The Dark Knight more as a film than I currently do. In the same way, I’m not really sure if what disappoints me about Dwight Howard is the fact that he abandoned the Magic. That’s annoying, and awful, and cruel as all get-out. But it happens. I dislike players for doing it, mind you, but there’s no deficit of prominent NBA players that do it. James, Anthony, Carter, Abdul-Jabbar, O’Neal — the list goes on and on. It’s a bit stupid, and extremely cruel to the fans. But I don’t think that’s really what disappointed me with Dwight. It certainly isn’t what sets him apart.

What disappointed me was the velocity of the shift. The fact that Dwight transitioned seamlessly from the early career ramblings of a goofy manchild to the capricious lunacy he dribbled this past year. The fact that Dwight’s heel turn didn’t come gradually at all. There was no intermediate step. One minute he was singing Kidz Bop tunes and tweeting pictures of him and Gilbert planking, the next minute he was calling Rich DeVos and making insane demands, or ordering the Magic to “roll the dice.” The fact that he was able to be such a feckless twit while pretending to be the person he was before calls into question all the years I enjoyed his antics and thought them a pure representation of his person. How much of Dwight’s likeable exterior was really Dwight? How much of his formerly loveable actions were just misunderstood reflections of a spoiled, immature child with a penchant for cruelty when he doesn’t get exactly what he wants? I don’t really know. Nobody ever will, I suppose.

But all I’ve left now is to agree with Matt — quiet down, Dwight. You’ve said more than enough already.

Seth Carstens