EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- "Anybody seen the movie The Jerk?" asks center Dwight Howard.
Howard is sitting uncoiled on a chair that is far too small for a seven-footer inside the Orlando Magic locker room. He laughs and points at a friend in the back immediately after asking about the film. The resemblance to a Jerk character shows. There are chuckles from several teammates. A few reporters holding cameras and notepads smile as well.
|Howard: 'I'm the kind of person who stays humble.' (Getty Images)|
"Looks just like him," Howard says, still eyeing his friend. The man sheepishly ducks his head like a tortoise that just caught sense of trouble. Then Howard says, "You know I love you, man."
One of the nicer people in all of professional sports can't even playfully insult someone without feeling bad about it.
It was just over an hour before Howard's Magic beat the Nets on a stormy Tuesday night. The entire time in the locker room there was a smile on Howard's face, even when text messaging a friend. He smiles when declining a reporter's request for a brief interview, too. "I don't really do interviews before the game," he responds, "I'm sorry."
It was the nicest blow-off you'll ever see.
When the game begins, the charm is turned off, and the ferocity uncloaks. Howard possesses just the proper doses of on-court meanness and ruthlessness to make him highly intimidating. The first quarter featured a flying dunk and the third saw Howard totally punk Nets big man DeSagana Diop. Center Josh Boone didn't fare much better as Howard dunked on his dreadlocks.
When you think Howard, think Shaquille O'Neal or Patrick Ewing or Tim Duncan, but instead of O'Neal's flab there are finely tuned gams. Instead of Ewing's more plodding game fit for a schoolyard, there is finesse. Howard possesses the power Duncan never had. And Howard isn't injury prone like Yao Ming.
We know this. We've seen this. We've witnessed him go from Clark Kent Howard to Dwight the Superman.
The part of the Howard story that will be interesting to watch is one few people talk about. Can a truly genuine, decent human being survive in the -- let's borrow Howard's movie for a second -- jerk-infested world of professional sports?
Can a nice guy finish first for once?
What will happen to Howard when all of the mega-deals, the movie roles, the guest spots on Leno, the rap album offers, and the pictures of Howard and Giselle Bundchen appear in the tabloids?