Dwight Howard will never achieve perfection. He won’t get close. Even when he’s behaving himself, you’re worried about the next catastrophically self-thwarting thing he’s going to say. There’s an idiocy like mineral deposits flecked in the shale of his being, too many years of being indulged, jokes that weren’t funny forced through sheer social pressure to land, an impulse to offer what he hasn’t thought through, armed with a lunatic’s common sense and no more than five paragraphs of internet research. Stuff that makes you think only if you’re on the payroll, or trying not to piss off your franchise center.
Dwight’s been put up with, without knowing he was being put up with, and though he’s grown some—has had to, much more dispensable at 34 than 24—there’s cubbishness too in his newfound adulthood. The way an aging Ron Artest with such sweet earnestness wanted to please Kobe, Dwight wants LeBron to respect him. When he tells the press that he and the king are “like brothers from another mother,” it’s more revealing than persuasive. He has spent the bulk of his 16 years in the NBA trying with some success but always ultimate failure to create his own reality. Now somewhat uncomfortably a passenger in somebody else’s, he would at least like to think he’s great friends with the driver.
He’s been ambivalent about participating in the NBA restart, initially standing with Kyrie Irving, which is perilous ground, but Dwight argued his point well, wanting to focus on activism instead of basketball, describing the protests following the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd as “a rare opportunity that, I believe, we as a community should be taking advantage of.” That was his first statement, issued to CNN on June 14th. The second one, which came three days later, was downright impressive. In it, Dwight acknowledged that he and Kyrie’s limited role in the conversation around playing or sitting out—”it would be silly to think we could stop a force as powerful as the NBA, nor would we want to considering the wonderful opportunities they have afforded us”—while also stressing the importance of worker solidarity, hinting at some bullying and coercion within the NBPA and asking only for everyone’s concerns to be heard and for players to be provided with as much information as possible so they could make the right decisions for themselves and their families. “Regardless of what criticism and retribution we face,” he wrote, “we still want to protect the players who are afraid to protect themselves.”
His statements were brave, astute, considered, and honest. (As an added bonus, he seems to have written them himself, complete with weird capitalizations and turns of phrase.) This was much better than anybody expected from Dwight Howard. When he eventually decided that he was going to join the Lakers in Orlando, he emphasized that his social justice efforts would continue: “we will be doing a lot of work here in Atlanta and around the nation as far as making sure people don’t forget about us and what’s going on.” To say that Dwight has been meeting the moment wouldn’t be inaccurate, but you still don’t feel totally comfortable saying it, because each time he steps in front of a recording device is an opportunity for him to undermine—
Well, okay: over the past few days, in an aggravating return to form from our hapless friend, Dwight has been extemporizing on the efficacy of masks and vaccines. He sees no need to wear a face covering despite being warned by the NBA for repeatedly failing to do so. “I personally don’t see a risk of us getting [sick] during the time period we are here,” he said on Friday, operating under the incorrect assumption that he’s living in a closed ecosystem when in fact Disney employees are coming and going on a daily basis. (The NBA and their de facto PR flaks in the media are partially to blame for this. Stop calling it a “bubble,” you brainless parrots.) Dwight then went on to say that he doesn’t “believe in vaccinations.”
“That’s just my personal opinion,” he added. It’s a throwaway sentiment that actually carries quite a bit of weight, because it overlaps with right wing grumbling that frames enforced mask-wearing as tantamount to fascism. It is a distinctly American red-assedness about being told to do anything that has landed us in this predicament, stranded still in the inflamed maw of the COVID pandemic while the rest of the world sees its case numbers and deaths decrease. We’re terrible at acting collectively, for the safety of not just ourselves but the people around us, and while Dwight is not a malignant person, his insistence that your personal opinion should be the only thing that governs your behavior, even when that behavior endangers others, is the hippie-dippie cousin of your Trump-voting dentist refusing to wear a mask because that’s what Thomas Jefferson would do, or whatever. It’s selfish and destructive.
And it takes a sledgehammer to a lot of the positive stuff he advocated for last month. Dwight apparently didn’t want more information about the health risks for players, because he clearly hasn’t availed himself of it, and what he said about wanting to be heard now scans as an invitation to watch him trip over himself. “Breonna Taylor, the people who did the heinous incident against her, they’re still free and out there living their best life,” he said on Sunday. “I think instead of worrying about if I have my mask on or not, I think that’s something we should be discussing.”
He means well, but he unfortunately can’t be relied upon to say the right things for more than a few days—or even a few sentences—in a row. The lesson here is that you don’t want Dwight Howard as a prominent spokesperson for the causes you believe in. We thought we already knew that, but it turns out Dwight is capable of surprising us, in good ways as well as bad ones. That’s an improvement; it represents genuine personal growth. But he’ll never achieve perfection. He’s been Dwight for too long to be anything else.