ATLANTA — Dwight Howard is ready to start over again, something he has had to do repeatedly these past few years while moving from Orlando to Los Angeles to Houston.
But it's different this time around. He's in a new, but familiar space, back in his hometown with the franchise he grew up watching and admiring.
So what if he's here to reclaim his identity, to repair his image and see if he can restore some of the faith that has been lost during his dizzying odyssey of the past four seasons.
The teenager who set the city on fire as a schoolboy star at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy is a mere shadow of the 30-year-old, 12-year NBA veteran who will serve as the face of the franchise for the Atlanta Hawks.
"I'm really looking forward to it," Howard said Monday during the Hawks' media day festivities at an upscale Buckhead hotel. "I think the situations I've had in my past really molded for this moment here. And I'm looking forward to doing whatever I can to lead this team."
It's a role Howard hadn't planned on while he was building his superstar resume with the Orlando Magic through the first eight seasons of his career. When you are an eight-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA First Team selection, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and the unquestioned best big man in basketball for nearly a decade, there's little to no incentive to be as introspective as Howard is these days.
You're not nearly as aware of your surroundings during those good times — winning slam dunk, rebounding and blocks titles, while also serving as everyone's favorite pitch man — as you are when things aren't so good.
That's why Howard says he cleaned things up, cleared out anything or anyone he felt might get in the way of this latest reboot, so he can concentrate his sole focus on getting back to that space he carved out for himself earlier in his career.
"I've taken a lot of steps as far as growing as a person," Howard said, "changing a lot of things around me. And I just want to be the best leader, the best player and the best person I can be for this city."
The Hawks are believers, deciding to make Howard their priority in free agency and allowing longtime franchise stalwart Al Horford to chase his free agent fortunes in Boston. Hawks president and head coach Mike Budenholzer said he's excited about the prospect of having a low-post anchor of Howard's caliber to build around, for at least the foreseeable future.
And after a summer filled with informal workouts and pick up games, Howard's new teammates are equally excited about competing against the player who, for years, stood in the way of the Hawks' playoff ambitions.
"As soon as Dwight signed I texted him and told him I believed in him," saidKent Bazemore said. "With everything he's been though these past few years ... he started opening up to me a little bit and we had numerous conversations about certain things. He's a super passionate player and loves the game and he's back home, and he knows what's at stake for his legacy and he's one of the most dominant [defensive] players to ever play this game. And just having a guy like that behind me allows me to do so much more offensively to have him clean up the glass and [have] that presence rolling down the middle of the paint that opens up the floor for myself, Kyle Korver and all of the other shooters on our team to take our games to another level. He does a lot for us and brings a ton of experience. He took a team to The Finals and there are a lot of things we can learn from him in that aspect."
Even with the wear and tear of the 12 years of paint battles on his body and the hiccups, on and off the court, of the past few seasons, Howard's reputation as one of basketball's best pure physical specimens remains.
"There are only so many centers in the NBA with his type of size and athletic ability and the physicality that he brings," Korver said. "That's just a fact."
But he insists that Howard does not have to play the role of savior on a team that owns the longest playoff streak in the Eastern Conference (nine straight trips) and second longest in the league behind the San Antonio Spurs.
"I think as we start training camp and start practicing together we're very hopeful that he's going to add to our team a lot," Korver said. "But by no means does he have to carry that weight on his shoulders alone. He has to continue to do what he does well. And we still have a lot of really talented players that I think, when you put it all together, we still have a pretty special team. Like I said, I think when we get to training camp and play a few preseason games we'll be able to create the vision of what we think our team can be."
Perhaps even more important is what type of player Howard believes he can be in this new system, one that takes advantage of his abilities in ways that the Lakers and Rockets never did.
"All I got to do is dominate both ends of the floor and do whatever is needed and show my teammates that every single night, every practice, everything we do, that I'm going to give them 110 percent," Howard said. "And the rest will fall in place. And I really believe that. I put in so much work to get to this point today, that I just have to stay confident and stay focused and the sky is the limit for this team and also for myself. And really, I just can't wait to get going."
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