Every star has a moment. A play, a game, just something that we acknowledge as the moment they became a star. For Dwight Howard that moment came against the San Antonio Spurs.
There were 0.8 seconds left on the clock. Just long enough to get off a quick shot or maybe a tip play if that opened up. The Magic opted to go with the latter, but what Brian Hill drew up for Orlando was not just a tip play. It was something that only Howard would be able to do. A play that only someone with his athleticism and coordination would be able to pull it off. It was the moment when Dwight Howard became a star for the Magic.
Howard didn’t just go up and tip the ball in for the win. No, he took the ball and dunked it. Something that big men just didn’t do. Especially back in 2007. The big man was supposed to be a giant ball that powered their way to the rim, or protected the paint with size and strength. Howard, though, was quick, athletic, and leaped around. Incredibly athletic big men dominate the NBA now, but when Howard was doing it he was a specimen, the type of which hadn’t been seen since the last time the Magic selected a center first overall.
He showcased that athleticism in the 2008 NBA Dunk contest. Everyone remembers the Superman dunk — him leaping and throwing the ball into the rim became his image — but that was arguably not even his best dunk of the night. Between the opening windmill and the tap off the glass he just continued to defy expectations over and over again that night for what a big man in the dunk contest was supposed to look like.
There just weren’t guys like Dwight Howard in the NBA and when you’re something fresh and new, you also become immensely popular very quickly. There’s a clip that, in retrospect, is kind of funny now. It’s from the 2009 dunk contest. Jalen Rose is lamenting Howard using too many props, but talking about how much he enjoys Howard’s personality.
If you asked someone what their thoughts on Howard were today you’d get a myriad of answers, and few of them would be kind. From the benign like, “annoying” and “man child,” to far more serious assertions like “locker room cancer.” Howard’s fall from grace is something that, in retrospect, seems insane. This guy wasn’t just someone that people in Orlando liked because he led them to the NBA Finals in 2009. No, he was one of the most popular players on the planet. When McDonald’s decided they were going to re-do the famous Larry Bird vs. Michael Jordan McDonald’s commercial with LeBron James they could have chosen plenty of athletes to do it with. They chose Howard.
Of course, you don’t get that big on personality alone. While Howard was reaping the benefits of stardom off the court, on it he was changing it. From 2008-2012 he belonged among the elite of the elite. Not the elite big men in the league, but as one of the three best players, period. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Dwight Howard. That was the list. Write it in pen. Put it on the wall. They ran the NBA. Howard was a force of nature that, using his athleticism, changed how basketball is played today.