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Dwight Howard shares his side of the story on Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Orlando and so much more

The NBA star sets the record straight on his faith, his feuds and his future

On the rare occasions that his family was able to get tickets as a child, Dwight Howard watched his beloved Atlanta Hawks from the rafters. Now, in his 13th NBA season, there probably isn’t a Hawks player more proud to wear “Atlanta” on his chest than their native first-year center.

The No. 1 pick in the 2004 NBA draft has had his share of major success and struggles during his career that have included eight NBA All-Star appearances, three NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards and disappointing endings with the Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets. The Atlanta native sat down with The Undefeated on Wednesday to talk about his beloved Hawks, his faith, the Orlando Magic’s broken promise, his relationship with James Harden, Kobe Bryant, the “twisted and turned” Los Angeles Lakers situation and much more.

What does being home in Atlanta mean to you?

I’ve always wanted to play in Atlanta and represent my hometown team. We can do something special here. This team has always been close to my heart even while being in the NBA. It was tough to come play here. It was tough to watch them in the playoffs and see them lose. This place has always been special to me.

Did you grow up a Hawks fan?

I had no choice. I didn’t really have a TV. I couldn’t really watch other teams play. We didn’t have a chance to go to a lot of games because we weren’t fortunate enough. When we did, we used to sit all the way at the top. I was like, ‘Man, I wonder what it would feel like to be on the floor and close to floor.’ I always just imagined just coming out with them saying I’m the hometown kid.

Who were your favorite Hawks players?

Stacey Augmon, which was crazy because I played with him [in Orlando]. I used to watch a lot of Mookie Blaylock. All I used to hear was Mookie Blaylock then. Once I went to high school, they signed Jason Terry and that gave me a real reason to watch the Hawks. We did a couple of things together when I was a senior in high school. He came to our gym with DerMarr Johnson and played basketball with us …

What do you remember about being a superstar high school kid who entered the NBA publicly stating you wanted to spread the word of Christianity?

That never left. Once you put yourself out there of being a Christian, and you make a mistake, it seems like it is the end of the world to everybody else. We as Christians get criticized more than probably any religion. I just learned how to deal with that. As a Christian, we all struggle. Just me having that platform, me representing Christ, anything I did, ‘Is he a Christian? Christians don’t do that.’ That was something I had to deal with it.

When did you first feel that your faith was challenged?

When I had my first child. ‘He’s supposed to be a Christian. He had a child without being married.’ I had to learn that a lot of times that the devil wants to destroy your testimony by trying to embarrass you. No matter what, I’m still a Christian. This is what Jesus died for, for my sins and for everybody else’s. You can’t allow the persecution to make you be afraid to talk about who you believe in.

How would you describe your faith now?

Stronger. Stronger. Stronger than it was back then. I’ve been through so many trials. You have no choice but for it to make you strong. I was just happy I went through it. There were a lot of things that I had to learn because I didn’t have a chance to go to college and have a chance to be that 18-year-old kid who came from high school to having to play with grown men and having grown men issues that I never really had to face growing up. So it was a little tough. But even to this day, I’m growing.

If you could have done it over, would you have gone to college first?

No. Not at all. I think it is the best decision. I don’t have any regrets. There is nothing I have regrets about, because each situation you got to look at as a blessing instead of a failure or a loss. You have to always have that mindset.

Should high school players be allowed to go to the NBA right out of high school now?

It’s tough, because they should be able to pursue their dreams. But at the same time, there are a lot of things you can learn in college even for [one] year that can help you adjust to [the] life of being an NBA player. It’s not as easy as what people think. It’s a little different now because you have social media and all this stuff.

It’s a whole different life. You need a little bit of that being off in college and having to take care of the little money that you get. Just learn how to really take care of yourself away from home.

Could you have played in Atlanta professionally right out of high school?

Probably not. I don’t think I was ready for that. Timing was always everything. After being in the league for a couple of years, now I can say, ‘Hey, this is the right time to come back home.’ I wouldn’t have been able to survive being home a little bit earlier. I had to grow. I had to learn a lot of different things on my own. My family is a big part of me and we had to really learn how to co-exist. There were a lot of different factors being home, being young and just really not knowing certain things that I needed to learn by getting away.

Is there anything challenging about being home in Atlanta now?

Not at all. I didn’t have to deal with too much. I stay in the gym. Stay in the weight room. If I’m not in the gym, I’m at home thinking about what I need to do in the gym. I just try to keep myself away from anything that can harm me and set me back as a basketball player. That’s just always my focus.

Do you have an old church you attend in Atlanta?

Actually, I have a pastor who is with me every day. He talks to me every day. Calvin Simmons. Last year, after we lost in Houston, I decided that I needed to make some personal changes. I don’t want to keep going down the same path or doing the same thing over and over again expecting the same result. So I wanted to try something different. I wanted to rededicate myself to my body, to the game, to God and just go down that path.

In 2013, you could have signed with the Hawks as a free agent, but instead you left the Lakers for the Rockets. Why didn’t you sign with Atlanta then?

I don’t think it was the right time. I always had dreams about coming here. It could have been great, but I looked at the Houston situation as something that could’ve been really special.

L.A. was chaos. Houston at times was chaos. But in Atlanta, you don’t hear anything. Do you feel more mentally relaxed now at home with the Hawks?

After the situation in Orlando, I never really came out and said my side of the story about what was going on there while I was there and the reasons for me wanting to leave. After that, people just decided that, ‘He’s not going to talk about it, so we might as well come up with a narrative and what we think went on in L.A. and what went on with Kobe [Bryant] and what we think happened with James [Harden].’ I never had a personal vendetta with either one of those guys. People took it as me having a problem with them being on a team with another superstar.

I’ve never been the one to say, ‘OK, I want to talk about this because it was an issue with me.’ But everyone else kind of made it a storyline. And here in Atlanta, there is no storyline.

So what is the truth about the past?

I really hate going back with it. There were a lot of different things that happened in Orlando that people never talked about. Before the season even started during the lockout, I asked them privately, I even talked to [teammate] Jameer [Nelson] and [then-general manager] Otis [Smith] and I said, ‘Hey, I just want a change in my life. It has nothing to do with [then-coach] Stan Van Gundy. This has nothing to do with the players here in Orlando. It has nothing to do with Orlando itself.’ I just felt I was too comfortable and I wanted more for myself and more for basketball.

It had nothing to do with the team. They said they were going to try to move me. I thought it was going to happen. They came in and said, ‘We’re going to trade you.’ They shook my hand and said, ‘God bless you. You were here for eight years and you did a great job.’ They asked me to go shake my teammates’ hands. I went and shook their hands and told them that the team was going to trade me. I woke up the next day and they said, ‘We’re not going to trade you.’

This was right after the [2011 NBA] lockout. I was supposed to get traded right before training camp. I had asked them to trade me to Brooklyn and I thought that was going to happen. They decided they weren’t going to trade me and that was when all hell broke loose. People said I was doing this in the locker room, doing that. But I’ve never been that kind of guy. I told my agent, ‘Listen, they want me here, so I will just stay here until the end of the season and I’ll make a decision after that. Let’s not fight it. Let’s not go back and forth. Let’s not talk about it.’

And we did that. But every day in the media it was a different story. I was the type of person where I’m not going to focus on what is being said. I’m going to focus on winning and trying to win for this team while I’m here.

So basically, the Magic didn’t keep their promise of trading you?

There was just a lot of things going on behind closed doors. I just felt bad because I felt like they were trying to pin me against [Orlando]. Don’t put me against these people if I’m out in the community every day fighting for them, trying to build. But that’s what ended up happening. I loved every part of Orlando. I was always out and my goal was to try to reach every kid there.

I got to change that city. Change the way they viewed basketball. Change the way they viewed basketball players. That was my goal. I felt like when I was there I did that. Jameer, Hedo [Turkoglu] and all these guys, we were all a part of that. So when all that stuff went down, it kind of hurt me.

Do you hope to get your jersey retired in Orlando one day?

A lot of great things happened in Orlando while I was there despite them being upset about how the situation ended. Those years before that, the Magic went from the team that everyone laughed about to a team that everyone took seriously. It wasn’t just, ‘We’re going to Orlando to go to Disney World and chill.’ It was, ‘No, we got to stay here because we have a battle coming.’

How would you describe the end with Houston last season?

I don’t think it ended the way it should have. I thought in my time in Houston we did some really good things. For us to go to the Western Conference finals after not being there for 20 years, that’s a great accomplishment because nobody expected us to do that. The issues they say happened between me and James were small communication issues. Instead of us coming together and talking about it, we allowed other people to do talking. The lines of communication were twisted.

But like I’ve always said, I’ve never had a personal issue with James. Why? Everything he is doing now, everything he is coming into, I’ve been that player. The awards, all that, the accolades. I wasn’t there to try to compete against him. I wanted to win with him.

What kind of season do you think Harden is having now?

He’s having an unbelievable season. I’m really proud of his growth. A lot of the areas that people talked about him not doing, he’s doing it now. He’s been a great leader for the team. They switched him to the point guard position. He’s facilitating the ball really well. He’s shooting at a high clip. He’s always going to get to the free throw line. I’ve seen that in James since he played at OKC. I always thought highly of James as a player.

How’s your body now?

My body is great. That is one thing I pride myself on, taking care of my body. People have talked about, ‘He’s getting older. His body is breaking down.’ I do a good job of taking care of my body. The last couple of years my body felt great. In Houston, my body felt great. I had a couple times after getting fouled where it kind of messed up certain things. But other than that, I felt great.

How would you describe the Hawks and your chances of doing something big this season?

We need to become more consistent. We don’t have a lot of time. Consistency will get us through the playoffs if we can be consistent for four quarters. If we move the ball, share the ball, we can beat anybody.

When you run onto the floor at Philips Arena in Atlanta and you have the city name on your chest, what does that mean to you?

It’s just a blessing. I came from College Park, Georgia, where nobody would expect us to make it out. And I made it … Watching all the people I grew up with really not doing what they wanted to do with their lives … I tried to make it out to be an example for a lot of kids inside the community now. It’s just an honor.

I remember watching you play in high school in a game at UCLA. Now, 13 years later at 31 years old, do the young players call you an “old head” now?

A lot of guys that are playing now say, ‘What’s up, OG?’ It’s kind of new for me. They say, ‘What’s up, OG?’ I was looking around. ‘Are they talking to me?’ And then one of my teammates came into the locker room one day and said, ‘What’s up, old head?’ I was like, ‘Oh, man, it’s happening.’ It felt crazy because I remember being in the locker room and looking at Grant [Hill], Stacey Augmon and saying, ‘Hey, old head.’

Now, the roles are reversed. Now, I’m listening to guys saying, ‘I was 10 years old watching you dunk on people.’ ‘I remember you were in the dunk contest and I was in the sixth grade.’ It’s crazy to hear that.

Do you still love the game?

Of course. There were times when I lost some of the passion for it. It was more so because of the situation of how things happened in Orlando and how they portrayed me after I left L.A. I came to L.A. hurt, just had back surgery and I went out there and almost averaged 20 [points] and 14 [rebounds]. People are like, ‘You didn’t do crap for [the Lakers].’ I was like, ‘Man, I laid my body on the line.’ Torn labrum. Just had back surgery. Not supposed to play that hard. I laid my life out because I wanted to win.

The situation got twisted and turned. After that I was like, ‘Basketball is just a business.’ It makes you lose some love for it. This summer I came home and I just went around all the different gyms playing basketball. I just got that love back for it.

Have you spoken to Kobe?

I haven’t … There was never an issue with me and him. The same thing I told him is the same thing I told Steve Nash and every one of those guys. I want to learn from them. I want to take as much knowledge as I can from y’all. One day when y’all out the league and I’m still playing, I can give that knowledge to somebody else and I can keep this thing going. I’ve never had an issue with [Bryant].

How much longer do you want to play?

I want to get to 20 years. Now I’m at 13.

Could you see yourself playing all those years in Atlanta?

I would love to. I just got a nice place out in the country. I don’t want to leave it for eight months out of the year and just see it for three. I would love to.

Do you feel like you’ve built a resume worthy of induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame?

No doubt. It’s kind of got swept under the rug because the perception of all the things that happened in Orlando. All of the media stuff. If you look at basketball itself, and I don’t ever talk about myself, but winning three Defensive Player of the Year trophies has never been done. Leading the league in rebounding six straight years. All that kind of stuff, I think that deserves it.

What would it mean for you to win a title?

I think about it every day. And that’s never going to stop. A couple of years ago I got a lot of heat for saying that I’m a champion. People would say, ‘Well, they just lost, he’s not a champion.’ A champion starts in the mind. If you’re not telling yourself every day that you are a champion and that you’re the best, your body is going to follow your mind.

That’s how I feel and it’s never going to change. To come from where I come from and do the things that I’m doing compared to what I could’ve been doing, I’m a champion.

What motivation do you give that kid from College Park or an underprivileged kid from Atlanta?

Don’t let nobody or nothing steal your joy. Don’t let it happen. People will try to poke, pull, hit, do whatever they can to steal your joy. Don’t let it happen.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.