Pro hoops are red-hot in Florida, and it’s not just about Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat. A few hours north in Orlando, the guys in black and blue have a phenom of their own. His name is Dwight Howard, and he led the NBA in rebounds before he was old enough to take a legal drink. In case you’re wondering, the answer is No—that has never happened before. Dwight has a big man’s body, a small forward’s hangtime, the hands of a point guard—and the heart of a champion. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Dwight David Howard was born in Atlanta on December 8, 1985, to Dwight and Sheryl Howard. (Click here for today's sports birthdays.) Sheryl lost seven children to miscarriage before Dwight was born, so he was always called “The Miracle Child.’’ Dwight's dad was—and is—a Georgia State trooper who also serves as Athletic Director of Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. Both parents were very athletic. Sheryl played on the inaugural basketball team at Morris Brown College. Dwight got serious about hoops around the age of nine.

Dwight spent his childhood years in the small town of Swainsboro, then moved to Atlanta with his family. They maintained their small-town values in the big city, which helped keep Dwight grounded when he started flying around the local courts. He was a prodigy almost from the moment he first wrapped his long fingers around a basketball. Dwight was big and fast and strong. He had quick feet, a decent shot, and was as comfortable handling the ball as most guards. In seventh grade, he wrote a paper listing his seven goals for life and listed one of them as being the top pick in the NBA Draft.

Dwight’s early basketball hero was Michael Jordan. He had the shoes, the short, and even some of the hang time. As he grew, he came to appreciate Magic Johnson's combination of size and ballhandling skills.


 

 

Later, Dwight gravitated toward Kevin Garnett, modeling himself after the versatile and athletic big man. The youngster was also drawn to "Da Kid"because he had jumped directly from high school to the pros. Dwight found this idea very intriguing.

Something basketball people found intriguing about Dwight as he began making a name for himself around Atlanta was how much his teammates enjoyed playing with him. He had serious game, but never took the game so seriously that he didn’t have fun. In fact, no one laughed louder on the court—it was Dwight’s trademark. This kept his teammates loose. Basically, he was just a big, goofy kid with an ear-to-ear smile. And playing ball made him smile the most.

Dwight enrolled at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy as a seventh grader in 1998. He was still running the show as a point guard at this point, but that ended as soon as he made the varsity in 2000, when he began working out as a small forward. He had sprouted seven inches to 6-9 the previous off-season, and was penciled in as the team’s power forward.

Prep basketball is big in Atlanta and Dwight played for a small school against some weaker opponents. Consequently, he did not get the notoriety of some stars in other area programs. But by the end of Dwight’s junior year, the SACA gym was full of college and pro scouts. Word of a 6-10 forward with big-man footwork and little-man ballhandling skills tends to get around. He averaged 20 points and 15 rebounds that season, and helped SACA reach the Class A championship game.

As a senior, Dwight led SACA to the 2004 state title. He scored 25 points, grabbed 18 boards, blocked eight shots and and added 3.5 assists per game. Dwight finished his prep career with 2,146 points, 1,728 rebounds, and 811 blocked shots in 129 varsity games. He was given the Naismith and Morgan Wooten High School Player of the Year award, the Gatorade National Player of the Year Award, and the prestigious McDonald’s National Player of the Year Award. Howard was also named Mr. Basketball for the state of Georgia. For good measure, he was voted co-president of the student body and had a strong voice in the school choir.

ON THE RISE


Kevin Garnett, 2000 SI for Kids
 

By this time, Dwight had been told by enough objective observers that he would draw first-round interest from the NBA in the June draft. After much thought, he decided to go from the prom to the pros. Had he settled on school, it would only have been for a year or two of seasoning—the education component was not really an issue.

When the NBA lottery was held, Dwight watched with great interest—still hoping to fulfill his seventh-grade prophecy. When the ping-pong balls delivered the first pick to the Orlando Magic, Dwight knew he had a chance at being number one. The Magic definitely needed help on the front line.

From Orlando’s perspective, the decision on draft day came down to Dwight versus UConn senior Emeka Okafor. Okafor had the polish after four years in the Big East and one national championship, but Orlando saw Dwight’s upside—and were impressed by his maturity. The team went with the gangly prepster with the top pick.

Dwight joined a moribund Magic squad that had finished with only 21 victories the previous season. Over the summer, the club had had lost Tracy McGrady, Drew Gooden and Juwan Howard. In fact, not one of the team’s opening night starters from 2003 was wearing an Orlando uniform anymore. The star veterans on the current squad were meteoric Steve Francis and oft-injured Grant Hill. The Magic’s front line included journeymen Tony Battie, Hedo Turkgolu and Kelvin Cato, while Jameer Nelson and Cuttino Mobley were paired with Francis in the backcourt. Doug Christie, acquired later in the year, ended up as the team’s starting two-guard.

Dwight made an immediate impact. Orlando fans had forgotten what is was to have a multi-skilled, high-energy big man on the floor, having lost Shaquille O’Neal in 1996. He got off the floor so quickly that opponents simply could not keep him off the offensive glass. If the enemy center jogged back on defense, Dwight would sprint right past him to finish the Orlando break. And after just a few weeks, he and Francis had the alley-oop working to perfection.


Dwight Howard, 2005 Bowman
 

With Hill relatively healthy and Dwight enjoying more good nights than bad, the Magic managed to ambush a number of top teams. They finished the year with 36 wins, defeating the New Jersey Nets and Indian Pacers three times each, and posting wins over that year’s playoff finalists, the Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs.

Dwight began the year in the starting lineup and never came out, starting all 82 games forst for coach Johnny Davis and and then Chris Jent, who replaced him on an interim basis in the spring. Dwight led the club in games, starts, rebounds and blocked shots. He averaged 12 points and 10 rebounds, and finished third in voting for NBA Rookie of the Year. The teenager achieved a ranking of eighth in the league in rebounding, 10th in field goal percentage, and 19th in blocked shots.

Dwight was no longer a wiry power forward when he reported to camp for his second NBA campaign. Team physicians expected him to keep growing (up and out), and they were right—he had added 20 pounds of muscle. It was time to start grooming him to be an NBA center. This was one of the prime reasons the Magic selected Brian Hill to be their new coach. He was on the sidelines when Shaq arrived in Orlando, and built a championship-caliber team around the big guy in a hurry. Hill identified two areas where Dwight needed to make immediate improvement—his post-up game, and his defense. He placed extra pressure on his second-year star, announcing that the Magic would need him to emerge as a force in the middle before the team had a chance to make the playoffs. When Orlando started 2005-06 sluggishly, it looked like Hill was right. Dwight may have improved in all areas of his game, but he still played tentatively at times.

MAKING HIS MARK

Finally, in a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, he served notice on the league that his rookie days were over. LeBron James swooped into the lane for one of his signature dunks, which Dwight had no chance to block. But he did have time to send a "Not In My House” message, dropping LeBron to the hardwood with a thud that had NBA execs gasping for air.

The Magic arrived at a major decision in February, dispatching Francis to the New York Knicks and essentially putting the team in the hands of a 20-year-old. The fans were unhappy to see Orlando kiss off its season, but they understood the importance of establishing a new direction.


Grant Hill, 2005 ESPN The Magazine
 

What happened next was nothing short of remarkable. With Dwight leading the charge, the Magic became one of the league’s best teams in the second half. They went on a tear, winning seven straight at one point, and launched an improbable run from the division cellar to the brink of the playoffs. On April 15th, Dwight scored 28 points and grabbed 26 rebounds, coming tantalizingly close to one of the NBA’s rarest achievements, a 30-30 game. He was named the conference’s top player in the season’s final month. Alas, the Magic fell three games short of a post-season berth, losing a couple of heart breakers at the end of the schedule.

Dwight’s year was simply astonishing, regardless of his age. He became the youngest player in history to lead the league in rebounds with 1,020. He finished second to Ben Wallace in offensive rebounds, and second behind Garnett in rebounds per game and double-doubles. Dwight was a model of consistency, averaging 15.8 points and 12.5 boards at home and 15.7 and 12.4 on the road.

With the prospect of their best player building on these numbers—and some room under the cap—the Magic are in position to assert themselves in a division that has practically been conceded to the downstate Heat since Shaq arrived. Well, Dwight has arrived, too. And watch out if he has some friends to bring to the party.

DWIGHT THE PLAYER


Dwight Howard, 2005 Uper Deck
 

When asked to describe his rebounding technique, Dwight can’t. He just feels that he wants the ball more than other players, describing rebounding itself as a “mental game.” That may be so, but in Dwight’s case he gets off the floor incredibly fast, using his long arms and growing upper body to pluck balls out of the air.

On offense, he is murder around the rim, but still must develop post-up moves. Opponents often make an effort to force him to handle the ball outside the lane, hoping he will try a jumper or pass off. A little further out, Dwight can turn and face his defender, and take almost every big man in the NBA off the dribble. On the break, he is a good, athletic finisher.

Dwight’s defense is adequate for his position. With increased size and experience, the Magic expect him to become a defensive force.



Dwight Howard, 2006 SI for Kids

 

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