Bill Laimbeer looked and played like an exceptionally tall, exceptionally sharp-elbowed and defense-minded prep-villain from an '80s-style slobs-against-snobs comedy. Sam Cassell played and acted like a chemically imbalanced and unusually confident alien. Bruce Bowen elevated malicious gamesmanship to a harsh art form and Anthony Mason lowered it to the basest Kimbo Slice-ian elbow-to-throat goonishness. Michael Jordan's peptic-ulcer temperament tempered his greatness and Shaquille O'Neal was a bullying giant with eyes like ball bearings and Karl Malone was so chippy and chirpy and righteous and underhanded that it's tough not to describe him as Gingrich-ish. Kobe always just kind of seemed like a jerk. And so on and so on, more and more subjectively.
We don't make choices about which NBA players to dislike based on the sort of reasoning we'd be proud to claim in most other circumstances. Sports gives us a certain freedom and we're free to exercise it as dimly or furiously or with whatever furious dimness we deem fit. It's your life, and if you want to spend some of your leisure time hating Zach Randolph or Blake Griffin or Carlos Delfino or Kosta Koufos or Pablo Prigioni, you should obviously do that as hard as you want, as long as you're not @-messaging your anti-favorites on Twitter or showing up at their residences, and as long as you're willing to accept that other people might feel otherwise. Be as childish as you want, in other words, but try to be a grown-up about it.
For reasons of partisanship or aesthetics or any number of other inclinations, NBA fans will disagree on which players they dislike. There are people out there who loved Bruce Bowen and can give you good, or at least heartfelt, reasons why. There are, we must assume, basketball fans who don't like Kevin Durant, although those people should probably at least consider seeking counseling. By the same token, there are presumably basketball fans who love Lakers center Dwight Howard, admire his willingness to play through pain and find endearing his frankly tween-y approach to the world -- too-loud laughter at The Cheesecake Factory; shouting out the dialogue at the umpteenth screening of "Finding Nemo" a second before the characters say their lines; a Skittles intake that doesn't so much court Type II Diabetes as taunt it; a personality that oscillates between goofy pouting and goofier preening without any stops in between. There are basketball fans who love watching Dwight Howard play basketball, and love the persona he performs on and off the court. There must be. I just have never met any of them, on Twitter or at games or anywhere else in the world, and actually can't imagine what they might be like.
This seems like a good place to mention that Dwight Howard is a very good basketball player. He certainly entered the NBA as one, the 18-year-old first overall pick of the second-to-last NBA Draft to allow prep-to-pro players. Howard has improved in a variety of ways during his nine seasons in the NBA, as of course he would -- he's a better and smarter shot-blocker, gets better position on rebounds, and has developed an offensive game that has expanded beyond two-handed dunks, if not terribly far beyond those. He has been the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year three times, which says something about how that award is determined but also something about what a shot-altering, game-changing presence Howard is on that end of the floor. In 2008-09, Howard powered a frankly dicey Orlando Magic team to the NBA Finals, where they were the ritual sacrifice made upon the altar of one of the more scowlingly competent Kobe-powered Lakers championship teams.
All of this is a matter of record. Howard has led the NBA in rebounding six times, and finished second twice, including this season. Sure, sure. To get into the subjective, it's worth noting that Howard is one of the more physically daunting humans to play in the NBA pretty much ever, and dunks with a force and vigor that invites both awe at his strength and admiration for the engineers who designed backboards and rims that are somehow not reduced to dust by Howard's viciousness. All true.
If the multitudes of NBA fans who have no patience or taste for Howard are selling him short, it's for some familiar reasons -- Howard looks so outlandishly strong that we miss the subtleties in his game and make some forest-for-the-trees mistake of a basketball player and his craft for muscle definition and mass. That and we take his frankly unbearable public persona -- imagine a very big 14-year-old, not quite a bully but also maybe a little bit of one, who has never been challenged by authority figures or by himself, or told to quiet down or remember that other people are as important as he is, or even once forcefully told "no"; an epic vanity case painfully prone to laughing at his own jokes -- as a representation of what Dwight Howard is actually like, or who he actually is. Dwight Howard entered the NBA and the public eye at an age when other people enter college; if he seems stunted, it probably has something to do with how incredibly stunting such an experience would invariably be. Howard performs himself just as weirdly and surely as most of us do in public, but has the great misfortune of doing so 1) with crude teenagerly goofiness and 2) in front of a great many cameras. We might as well acknowledge this, even if the performance that Howard -- who won't turn 28 for another seven-plus months -- gives is not the most appealing one.
So where does it come from, all this enmity for one of the NBA's biggest and least-loved stars? There are some ungainly and unpleasant aspects to it, some instances of imposing value judgments on things that aren't quite our business. Howard shot 67% from the free throw line as a rookie, and hasn't been nearly as competent in any season since; this was his second straight season making fewer than half of his foul shots. This doesn't look good, and either is or isn't a function of Howard not working on his game -- infer what you want, but we don't know more than what the numbers tell us, which is finally that Dwight Howard has never been much good at making shots taken beyond ten or so feet from the hoop, and isn't getting better at it.
Ditto for Howard's personal peccadilloes. There's his relentlessly clownish, Drake-ishly emo-righteous mishandling of his final days in Orlando, his bellowing childishness in front of any and every open mic. There's his exceptionally fatuous religiosity -- the early-career pledge to "put a cross on the NBA logo," the "personal commandments" which included the doof-prophecy that "It shall (and) will come to pass that Dwight Howard II will surpass LeBron James for the best high school basketball player, college player and NBA player. Amen." He has some kids out of wedlock, if that offends you terribly. There is his enduring Skittles-addled affection for mass-cultural products produced for people half his age. He threw an elbow at Spurs forward Matt Bonner on Wednesday night that could have collapsed Bonner's face, and didn't receive a flagrant foul for it, for the usual superstar reasons. It's all there, if you want it.
And we want it, for better or worse. Howard, diminished as he has been by injury and that stubborn inability to get better at the things he's never been much good at, is still one of the NBA's best players -- he has become implausibly, unfathomably rich by doing what he does, and will get richer again when his offseason begins, a game or two from now. This is just Dwight being Dwight and the NBA market doing what it does.
Still, though, we'll want to rip on Dwight Howard -- his detention-bound middle schooler's body language, his crumbum self-centeredness and yowling cornball jokes and graceless on-court brilliance. Our reasons why are individuated, as they must be: we're all different, and, even when we agree on a snark-object, our approaches and quirks and irks will differ. Some of this is on us. Howard is too big and too strong and always has been --his strength and talent ensure that the game appears entirely too easy for him, and makes his struggles with it seem less poetic than eye-rollingly prosaic. There are a lot of lousy basketball players who could make five out of ten free throws on average, and many who -- despite themselves -- tend to assume that Howard's inability to do so is the result of some soul-deep failing on his part.
And some of this is on Dwight Howard. No great player has grown less, or shrunk more in more ways, than Howard has -- he is no more fun to watch now than he was nearly a decade ago, his game no less dunk-centered and subtlety-free than it ever was, while his relentless on-court carping and whining and derp-o pouting has metastasized at a crazy rate. Obvious physical superhumans like Howard necessarily lack a human element, which is not their fault. But what's human about Howard isn't the sort of thing we look for in heroes, in part because it reminds us too much of the smaller things about ourselves. Even Superman, Howard's superhero of choice, wouldn't have been much fun to hang out around when he was 13. Few 13-year-olds, unfinished and roiling and grandiose as they are, could be. Heroes only become interesting, let alone heroes, when they grow up.