More Than Just ‘The Happy Dunker’

By David Whitley
Updated: April 16, 2009

ORLANDO — If there was any doubt what the Magic’s biggest obstacle is now, the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated ended it.

The worry is not Philadelphia or Boston or Cleveland.

It’s Dwight Howard.

“Too Much Fun?” was the headline. “Can the Magic’s Dunking Machine Get Serious for a Moment?”

It’s a question people around here have been asking off and on for five years. And Howard doesn’t particularly like it.

He said he won’t put the cover in his locker, but it will go on his mirror at home. The thing is, it’s a fair question to ponder.

Does Howard not take his job seriously enough? Or behind that wall of enamel, does he have some real fangs?

Yes.

There’s no doubt Howard hasn’t always been a beacon of intensity. But just because he likes to joke around doesn’t mean he’s a goof-off.

Howard had 63 double-doubles in a season. He also had 12 rebounds in the quasi-exhibition game, meaning Troy Murphy would have needed about 180 boards Wednesday night to snatch the rebounding crown from Howard.

Throw in the fact Howard led the league in blocks, and he’ll probably be named Defensive Player of the Year. If that’s goofing off, Stan Van Gundy should put lazy pills in everyone’s Gatorade.

The counter-argument is what would Dwight do if he smoldered with basketball desire?

It’s the Curse of the Big Man. From Wilt to Kareem to Shaq to Howard, we’ve always demanded more out of the largest of our species.

Chamberlain may have scored 100 points in a game, but what if he hadn’t been distracted by 20,000 women? Shaq has four rings, but what if he hadn’t also tried to win an Oscar and Emmy along the way?

Howard’s image is the Happy Joker, and it’s not unwarranted.

He admits he loses focus on the court, which is a nice way of saying he takes possessions off.

Guess what? So does everybody else in the NBA. If they didn’t, they’d be a wreck by the playoffs.

Howard is just honest enough to admit his tachometer isn’t always red-lining. He makes it worse by looking like he’s enjoying himself all the time. He’d save himself a lot of criticism if he’d scowl like a death row inmate who was served a tofu burger for his last meal.

But that’s just not Dwight, and it never will be. When asked what the highlight of the season was, he’ll always be the guy who says, “When Gortat became the first Polish guy since James Naismith to make a 3-pointer.”

Who knew James Naismith was Polish?

In Dwight’s World, anything goes. But does the fact he doesn’t take life seriously mean he doesn’t take his job seriously?

If Howard wasn’t serious, his offensive repertoire would still consist of dunks and tip-ins. It’s still the proverbial work in progress, but you can see the improvement and figure there’s more on the way.

And I don’t know about you, but I like a guy who seems to love his work. If Magic fans want to worry about Howard, they should concentrate on his free-throw shooting or his lack of a turnaround jumper.

Those are much bigger concerns going into the playoffs than Howard’s attitude going into the playoffs.

“I’m ready,” he said. “This is what we’ve been waiting for.”

He talked about building a legacy. Now that’s some serious business.

Is the Dunking Machine up for it?

If he really wants people to stop asking those questions, the big opportunity starts this weekend.

Win now, and nobody will ask why this man is smiling.