Dwight Howard Tackles Expedition Everest
Magic forward invited to grand opening of Walt Disney World's latest attraction
Touted as a perilous journey aboard a runaway train through the Himalayan mountains, Everest is a thrill-seekers paradise - complete with an 80-foot drop, foreword and backward movement and a frightening Yeti that appears to be a bit upset that intruders are disturbing his mountain.
At the age of 18, Howard was selected No. 1 overall by the Magic in the NBA Draft - a position that comes complete with expectations some haven't been able to handle. But after a solid rookie season that saw him start all 82 games, finish with 12.0 ppg and 10.0 rpg and a runner-up spot in the Rookie of the Year voting, Howard's sophomore effort has proven he's one of the game's fast-rising stars.
He's raised his scoring average to 15.5, while chipping in 12.4 rpg - a statistic that trails only Minnesota's Kevin Garnett as the regular season comes to a close. He also ranks No. 3 in double-doubles, No. 7 in field-goal percentage and #17 in blocks.
A meeting with the NBA-leading Detroit Pistons awaits Howard and the Magic one night from now, but for a few hours, Howard can let his focus drift away from the game with a journey to the "Happiest Place on Earth".
This day is an extra special one for Howard as his family has made the journey to Orlando from their home in Atlanta. Howard's 17-year-old brother, Jahaziel and his friend, James, are along for the ride with his father, Dwight Sr. and mother, Sheryl, to join the party later in the day.
Playing such an important role in an American professional sport, it's easy to forget Howard is only 20 years old with his teenage years in the not-so-distant past. But a trip to Disney can make the kid come out in anyone - and such was the case with Howard.
His first task on this day was to put on the traditional Disney mouse ears. Standing on average a foot taller than the thousands of other patrons at Animal Kingdom, Howard and his gold mouse-ears are quite difficult to miss. Howard gives his best Flavor Flav, "Yeah, Boy!" as he dons the ears for the first time.
As Howard and Co. make their way through the park en route to the ride, he talks about other theme parks he's visited and how he's not always able to fit on the rides because of his size. He is assured by the Disney representatives en tow that it won't be a problem today.
Midway through the jaunt to the attraction, Howard gets his first glance at the large mountain that houses Everest.
"I'm a little nervous, but I'll do it," says Howard, shaking away any notions that he'd be the day's biggest visitor to head for the exit. "It looks pretty big, but let's do it."
While there was no holding Howard back from taking on the mountain, Jersey and James needed a bit more convincing. Howard wasn't buying any excuses offered his way, including the notion that the ride might make them get sick.
"No you're not," Howard chimes in. "Cause you haven't ate yet."
Howard helps rebut another excuse of the ride having big drops by telling the duo he doesn't think the ride has any significant stomach-meet-your-throat moments. But that thought was rejected quicker than a blocked shot when the ride screams by and plummets into - you guessed it, a drop.
"I saw it and I don't like drops too much," Howard says.
At the entrance to the ride, Howard notices a sign indicating that passengers on the ride must reach a certain height in order to ride Expedition Everest. Without cue, Howard took the opportunity to poke a little fun at his Magic partner-in-crime, Jameer Nelson.
"Jameer doesn't meet the requirements, so he had to stay home today," Howard jokes. "Sorry Jameer."
As the moments ticked away before Howard's inaugural Expedition Everest ride, the nervousness of the dwindling minutes is relieved as fans approach the popular Magic forward and ask questions about the team, request a photo and chit-chat about the ride.
"You're the one I'd want to sit next to on the ride with that Yeti in there," one fan tells Howard. "I think you could take him."
Howard sheepishly replies, "I hope so."
After waiting for a camera to be adjusted in order to completely capture the ride, Howard climbs into the first row of seats with brother Jersey sitting to his left for the ride.
He glances up at a sign above and finds another chance to take another comedic stab at Nelson. The sign pictures a child that has drifted away from an adult.
"It looks like me and Jameer up there where it says, 'For your safety, supervise the children'," says Howard, laughing with those close enough to hear.
Not more than a second after ribbing Jameer, the ride begins.
"Ahh, man....oh, boy," said Howard as the ride takes off.
A little more than two minutes later, the ride comes to a stop with Howard smiling from ear-to-ear.
"It was good, that was tight," Howard says. "I might have to get one of these at my house."
After riding the attraction one more time, Howard leaves Expedition Everest to complete some media interviews about the ride. The Magic crew that has joined Howard and his family tells him they heard a lot of screaming while he was miced-up for the ride.
"I wasn't screaming, I was just very loud," says Howard. "But no screams."
Howard films a promotion spot for Disney and then chats with several radio stations about the experience, explaining how his favorite part was the life-like Yeti that "almost slapped me in the face for getting on the ride."
He also jokingly makes a second attempt to deny any screaming on the ride, even though he knows the audio and video from the ride will prove otherwise.
"I didn't yell too much," Howard said. "I think I yelled just a tad. I think it was my brother and the rest of the crew that was yelling and screaming."
Matthew Gardner is a writer for orlandomagic.com