2020 AT&T Slam Dunk

Dwight Howard ready to fly again on All-Star Saturday Night

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

CHICAGO — Superman will definitely be in the building on State Farm All-Star Saturday Night at the United Center.

Dwight Howard said as much Saturday morning, announcing that he’s here for more than just a novelty act — for anyone asking what he has left in the tank at age 34.

The eight-time All-Star and three-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year is in the AT&T Slam Dunk contest tonight to win the competition for a second time; he won it in 2008 when he was at what turned out to be the zenith of his career.

Howard was literally the center of attention then, as popular as he ever was and the face of the franchise in Orlando before LeBron James had completely taken over as the face of the league.

So being in this position 12 tumultuous years later has the Los Angeles Lakers’ big man feeling grateful.

“Oh, this is amazing,” Howard said this morning during All-Star Media Day. “I’m just so grateful to be here, just in this moment. Wasn’t expecting all this. So this is an amazing time. It’s such a blessing to be back in All-Star Weekend. I’m looking forward to tonight.”

Howard started this season on a contract with the Lakers that wasn’t even guaranteed. He’s had to rebuild his body and his reputation after years of injuries and ugly break-ups with every franchise he played for, including Orlando, where he served as the most dominant big man in the game.

He wasn’t sure he’d ever see another All-Star Saturday Night as a contestant. But he also said he never stopped believing in himself. And while some of his superstar contemporaries (LeBron comes to mind) have decided to avoid the Slam Dunk contest, Howard couldn’t wait to get back in the competition.

“I think that during All-Star Weekend a lot of guys want to be ready for the second half of the season, so it’s pretty hard to get those guys for the Dunk Contest,” Howard said. “But this is an event I enjoy. I enjoy dunking. I’ve been dunking my whole life basically. Last summer I had a chance to have a Dunk Contest with an actual street dunker on Venice Beach, and after we finished dunking, I was like, Man, that felt really good to really get the crowd into it and just enjoy dunking a basketball again. I was super surprised that I was able to get up and dunk like that.

“So I said, from that moment on, I’m going to try to get myself ready for the Dunk Contest. And here we are today. This is great.”

Howard is clearly the elder statesman in a Slam Dunk field that includes Orlando’s Aaron Gordon, Miami’s Derrick Jones Jr. and Milwaukee’s Pat Connaughton. He’s the only one who knows what it takes, what it feels like to win it all in the league’s showcase event on Saturday nights.

He knows better than to do anything but cherish his current situation. He’s learned a lot about himself, about life and about how the high-stakes world that he’s grown up in turns boys into men, sometimes painstakingly so in some instances.

“Man, you can never stop believing in yourself,” Howard said. “There are a lot of people who are always going to tell you that you can’t do something. You’ve just got to keep believing. It starts with yourself. Coming up into the season I was thinking, I’ve got to continue to believe. I know a lot of people are counting me out, but I can’t allow any outside noise to affect who I am as a person and as a player.

“Even with people, I feel like there were times where, because of everything that was going on, I wanted to shy away from people. I was like, ‘No, I can’t do that.’ That’s not who I am. I’ve never been that way. So let me embrace the moment, embrace people and just enjoy this. This is once in a lifetime.”

And as for what he’ll unveil tonight … Howard spoke like a man with a plan.

“Superman is definitely in the building right now,” Howard said. “We’ll see about later on.”

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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