Dwight Howard & The Fear Of A Black Hat

Chamberlain was 37 years old when he did it. Kareem was 38 his first time, did it again at 43, then did it better than perhaps any athlete in history when he was 63. Russell didn’t do it until he was 57, but has done it twice more since. Shaq did it twice to bookend his career – first at 22, again at 39 – and did it another time at the height of his powers, when he was 29 and on top of the world.

And now it’s time for Dwight Howard, 26 years old, to join the club. It’s time for Dwight to write his autobiography.

Too young? Hardly. The Orlando Magic center – the best player of his generation at his position and a future Hall of Fame inductee – lived the life of a child star before transitioning to that of a grown-up celebrity. For at least six months out of each year, since he was first turned loose on the world as a bashful 18-year-old, he’s entertained thousands a night while earning millions, living in one of America’s top tourist destinations when he isn’t traveling the world. He’s been fawned over by men in power suits and women in freak-em dresses. There’s no doubt Howard has some spicy stories to tell.

And now that he’s been chewed up in the social media/professional journalism soul grinder for the past several months – for the apparent crime of trying to conduct his own business at his own pace – then spit out as soon as he outlived his tabloid usefulness, Howard has experienced the conflict necessary for a truly compelling memoir.

He just needs a title. For that, Howard need look no farther than the 1993 indie film classic Fear of a Black Hat (think Spinal Tap for rap), when N.W.H. front man Ice Cold discusses his auto-bio, FYM by Ice:

“Yeah, F___ Y’all Muthaf____s … It was written from a strong mindset. You know how when people mess with you and put you through a lot of s___? You know, and you feel bad. And then they put you through some more s___? And it’s like, you get tired of it. And you feel just like, FYM: F___ Y’all Muthaf____s!”

After what he’s been through, FYM should be Dwight Howard’s credo. It won’t be, because Dwight is too nice for that, but I wouldn’t blame him for becoming colder. Certainly there are a lot of people who have proven they have it coming.

The quick version of the story is this: Howard had an early-termination option in his contract with the Magic that he could have exercised in the 2012 offseason. By using it, he could have become a free agent this summer and shifted the power balance of the NBA at his whim. By not using it, he could commit to Orlando through 2013 and keep them in the championship conversation. Or he could sign another contract extension and stay in Orlando long-term. But at least two years prior to Howard’s ETO deadline, dating back to the league’s monumental free-agent summer of 2010, his intentions and his decision-making process have been scrutinized, analyzed and widely criticized by fans and media across NBA nation.

Because Howard didn’t make up his mind until March 14, the eve of this season’s trade deadline – yet still a few months before he had to make a decision – he was cast as the bad guy. Because we couldn’t help but run Howard’s name through hundreds of trade scenarios sending him to Dallas or New Jersey or L.A. or Chicago or Miami or Oklahoma City, because the Magic weren’t given the luxury of Howard making the jobs of their player-personnel staff easier, Howard was tried and convicted of “holding the franchise hostage.” He was accused of flexing his superstar status to manipulate the poor billionaires who own NBA franchises.

So when Howard ultimately decided to waive his ETO, kill the trade rumors (for now) and stay in Orlando through next season, he apologized in an interview with RealGM.com:

“I have gotten some bad advice,” Howard said. “I apologize for this circus I have caused to the fans of our city. They didn’t deserve none of this. I’m sorry from the bottom of my heart. I will do whatever I can to make this right and do what I was put in Orlando to do.”

He added, “The fans deserve a better hero and I will make that happen.”

The truth is that he didn’t deserve none of this.

Howard has already given Orlando more than what could have been expected from a kid who entered the league straight out of high school. He led the Magic to the NBA Finals in 2009. He’s been named NBA Defensive Player of the Year three times. He won an Olympic gold medal. He has generated millions of dollars for the Magic franchise and the city of Orlando. He is the reason Orlando hosted All-Star Weekend this year in the sparkling new Amway Center.

Howard has done his job. He has been, and still is, the right kind of hero. He has averaged over 18 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks per game over eight pro seasons. Had he put up those numbers for just one season, he would have earned his right to conduct his professional business on his own timeline.

An impatient and hypocritical public let Howard down by refusing to let him do so.

Throughout the Howard story – a media-contrived “drama” if you want to call it that – national writers and TV analysts openly questioned his maturity, his character, his leadership and his intelligence. Some called him “wishy-washy” and a “flip-flopper.” Some called him fake and dishonest. Most of them pretended to be annoyed whenever he publicly changed his mind, as if it didn’t give them another easy bit of column space or airtime to fill. Fans across NBA nation, at least the ones vocal in social media and on Internet comment sections, followed suit.

I appreciate Howard’s concern for the feelings of others – especially when a lot of those people only care about him as a basketball player and a cash cow – and fully understand if an apology was what he needed to cleanse his soul. But I also fully understand if Howard adopts the Ice Cold mindset from here on out. FYM.

Because if Dwight Howard was allegedly behaving like a diva or a dick while his professional future hung in the balance, then we’re all divas and dicks.

Try to put yourself in Howard’s position. Seriously. Get all of the “If I made $20 million I’d let them chop off my foot and call me Toby” nonsense out of your system and act like you deserve your paycheck.

Suppose you are working a contract job and your deal is expiring in six months. And you know that, as soon as that happens, somewhere between 10 and 30 employers will be rolling out a red carpet to hire you at a high pay rate. Would you automatically re-sign with your current employer without at least testing the market to gauge your value? Even worse, would you let a bunch of people that you don’t know pressure you into re-signing because they want something to talk about? Because they might question your loyalty?

Most of us don’t walk into a showroom and buy the first thing we see, especially when it’s something significant like a car or a couch. Most of us don’t re-sign a lease without exploring other options. Heck, most of us don’t accept free stuff without at least checking it out first. So why do we ask others – athletes in particular – to make unnecessarily hasty decisions with their futures?

Emerging from the muck of the subplot that dominated NBA headlines this season and showed more staying power than Linsanity, Lob City, and the Mavericks title defense, someday Dwight Howard might look back on this and wonder: Why did I care what these people think?

He cared because he’s a human being, and human beings care about our legacy. In that way, we’re not much more evolved than animals. It’s a biological thing, as old as the Old Testament and as widespread as water.

Howard doesn’t want his legacy to be that of a bad guy, of the man who holds people hostage. He doesn’t want to wear the black hat. He doesn’t want to be the target of more hate and criticism when love and appreciation are behind door number two. And I don’t blame him. But getting a little more Ice Cold in his blood might save him some of the anxiety.

Dwight Howard had a summer deadline by which he needed to decide his future. He didn’t have to be bullied into a decision while it was still winter. He knew every team in the NBA wished they could sign him, and at least a handful could afford to court him. He deserved the opportunity to take his time right up to that deadline before deciding if he wanted to accept that courtship this summer, or next, or if he wanted to make a long-term commitment to the Magic.

So he changed his mind a few times along the way. Who wouldn’t do the same? All of the big decisions in our lives – college, career, kids, marriage, Friday night’s dinner plans – come with swings of indecision and second-guessing.

Or maybe I’m just in the minority and everybody is full of more conviction than that.

But I think it’s more likely that most of us are more like Dwight Howard than we’d like to admit.

Was Howard wrong by doing it the way he did?

Follow Austin on Twitter at @AustinBurton206.

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