Dwight Howard was ready to eat and also ready to preach about championship habits Wednesday as he sat in a restaurant booth, food assembled on the table in front of him, and answered questions as a Sixer for the first time.
On the agenda for the meal, according to Howard was, “Healthy food. Going to have some baked chicken, sweet potato fries and some corn.”
In his playing prime, it likely would’ve been a different spread. Experiencing tingling in his fingers and legs during his first stint as a Laker, Howard had to curb his extreme appetite for sugar.
Now on his seventh NBA team, the eight-time All-Star was happy to share with reporters the knowledge he’s accumulated through such missteps. His relationship with Joel Embiid, a big man with similarities to early-to-mid-career Howard in skill set and disposition, will be fascinating to track. Howard was insistent that Embiid can help lead the Sixers to a championship.
“You have two great young stars in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid — I’m going to start there,” he said. “I watched when Joel lost and how badly it hurt. He just cried. And I know what that feels like. I’ve been in that moment before where it’s like, ‘Man, I gave everything I had. I put it all on the line and I’ve come up short.’ It doesn’t sit well with you. It stays with you for a very long time.
“I know that he has a fire inside of him. We’ve all seen glimpses of it. … I think this is the year where it’s about being focused. And I see focus in him, I see focus in Ben. That’s where it starts, with our two best players.”
Since entering the NBA as an 18-year-old, Howard has achieved plenty while building a reputation that is not spotless. Despite his signature broad smile, he’s grated on teammates, had his work ethic criticized and bounced around the league. His history doesn’t necessarily support the notion of Howard as an ideal mentor for Embiid, but he’s eager to assume that responsibility.
“I know that Joel is the star center and I’m not looking to come in and try to take his job or be Joel,” he said. “But, after playing in this league for so long and being a center, somebody that Joel has probably looked up to as far as being a center in the NBA at some point in his life, I just want to be the best I can for him. Just showing him some of the things that I learned over the years — the pitfalls and the things that can bring you down, but also the things that can lift you up.
“And not just doing that through words, but really just my actions. Showing him that in order to play and have longevity in this league, you have to work hard every day and sacrifice. That’s what it takes to win, and I’m looking forward to helping these young guys see that sacrifice and doing whatever it takes to win can take you a long way.”
Howard, to his credit, was very good as an unselfish, veteran backup center for the NBA champion Lakers last season, averaging 14.3 points, 14.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes. Unlike Al Horford, who made $28 million last year, Horford comes at a low cost — a veteran minimum salary for this year — and shouldn’t be forced to play with Embiid in a large, ill-fitting frontcourt.
It’s tempting to strain for parallels between Howard and Embiid that don’t exist, and yet it’s true that both players were dominant and lighthearted in their early 20s while appearing capable of more. There are hints of Howard in Embiid when he posts 30 points and 13 rebounds against an overwhelmed opponent, soaks up the adulation from the home fans and finds a clever way to brag about his productive evening on social media.
Does the nearly 35-year-old Howard, a player who now says he’s focused on sacrifice, dedication and single-minded pursuit of a championship, think Embiid needs to lose any of that fun-loving side?
“I don’t see what he’s doing as being goofy,” Howard said. “He puts in the work. I think people may twist things around when they see people laughing and joking, having a good time. They say they’re not serious or they’re not focused. There’s just a time and a place for everything. I think that the things that Joel does, it’s great. It makes opponents upset, it keeps him locked in and the team plays better. Now, will there be times where we all have to be a little bit more serious? Yes. And that’s something that we all have to learn together, how to be in certain situations.
“But I don’t think that’s a part of sacrifice. I think that’s a part of just understanding time and place. And I think that’ll be good for me to help show some of the younger guys, because I’ve been in that position before where people thought that I wasn’t focused or that I was playing too much. And maybe, (to) the people on the outside, it did look like I was playing too much. So it’s just finding ways to do things right for the team, and I think we’ll do that this year.”
Though Howard emphasized that he’s all about winning, it seems he still has some inclination to play to the crowd, to hit the notes he figures will resonate. For instance, he made sure to mention that Wilt Chamberlain is his “favorite player ever” and that he was excited to win the Sixers’ first title since 1983.
Media availabilities don’t matter much in the big picture, but one imagines they can feel like performances when you’re a former No. 1 pick hoping to make a good first impression who’s been lauded, disparaged and constantly scrutinized since 2004.
The on-court and off-court dynamics with Howard and Embiid aren’t guaranteed to be a success but, after the loquacious portion of Howard's lunch captured on Zoom, the idea of both players being in the right place at the right time sounds sensible.
“For me in the past, the things that have hindered me were my ego and also injuries,” he said. “Those are two major components of a team and players not being able to reach their full potential. So for us to win, we have to take our egos away. Put our egos aside … and the other part is staying healthy. We’ve gotta do our best job of making sure we eat properly, get the proper amount of rest, and we don’t overdo it.
"And trust each other. And I think by doing that with this team that we have and Joel being one of the best bigs in this league, and Ben Simmons coming back off injury, I think we have the tools and the talent, but we also have the right coaching staff to put this team over the hump. I believe that this is our year.”